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George Eliot Martyrologist: The case of Savonarola

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Abstract

Romola is George Eliot's radical attempt to redefine for her Victorian readers the idea of martyrdom, through the life and death of Savonarola. This was to prove difficult terrain for the novelist as she explored the complex and contradictory motives of the Dominican priest expressed in the contemporaneous records and their multiple interpretations. It is a difficulty re-created in the novel as Romola agonizes over Savonarola's confessions and retractions. As J. B. Bullen indicates, 'In Comte's chronology, Savonarola comes at perhaps the most crucial moment in the moral history of the West. The life and death of Savonarola provided the novelist with an opportunity to re-examine not simply the conventions of the Victorian historical novel but, more especially, those of its once popular sub-genre: the novel of martyrdom. Savonarola's martyrdom has removed any belief or faith in a spiritual power to which the martyred self might make its final witness.