Dr Sophie Frazer

Agora Speaker Series 2021 - Dr Sophie Frazer

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“Speaking brokenly”: Reading Romola with Spinoza

George Eliot’s historical romance Romola (1862-3) has long been considered a failure. An ambitious revivification of Renaissance Florence, with an exacting verisimilitude, Romola has often been judged a failure of style and story. In this paper, I argue that Romola is one of the most affectively intelligent of Eliot’s fictional characters. In my reading, I account for the text’s reliance upon visual strategies of representation, or what I describe as an aesthetic of visualised mourning, by drawing out the complexity with which Eliot depicts the instability of the optical in Romola. Building upon the work of Moira Gatens, I draw out the ways Eliot gave vitality to Spinoza’s philosophy of affect, the philosopher with whose work she felt a peculiar resonance, in crafting the novel’s phenomenological contours. Romola allowed Eliot the scope to push to its farthest limit the implications of Spinoza’s corporeal imagination. Through being attentive to the correspondences of psychic pain and decentralized perspectival geographies, I will argue that we take seriously the phenomenally descriptive in its own right as performing a different ontology of radical loss, and a different kind of literary criticism.