June, 2015, RRP $29.99
A long time ago I read a historical romance in which the heroine had, unbeknownst to her family, run off to live with an artist—our romantic hero—with no discussion of marriage. At one point in the novel they went to visit the beautiful and spirited lady novelist George Eliot, who, if I remember rightly, bestowed some words of wisdom about living with conviction, or something. It was meant to make the heroine feel better about not following the proper path for a young lady of her time.
Though I knew of Middlemarch, this novel had been the only impression I had of George Eliot as a person prior to Patricia Duncker’s novel Sophie and the Sibyl. The version of George Eliot in the romance novel was younger than Duncker’s character, but also I suspect based on the George Eliot carefully curated and presented to the public by Eliot’s widow, John Cross*. Duncker was clearly hunting for the woman beneath the literary figure when writing her version of George Eliot.
Sophie and the Sibyl is set in 1872, with Max Duncker, the younger (and seemingly unfocused on anything but the pleasures of life) Duncker of Duncker and Duncker publishers, being sent to negotiate with George Eliot, the Sibyl, for the publishing rights to her new novel. At the same time he begins to court—with some manipulation from his brother and her father—Countess Sophie von Hahn, the young daughter of another of his firm’s authors. The course of life, however, has never been known to run smoothly and there is much misunderstanding, and travelling continental Europe, to come before the characters of the novel are brought to the conclusions of their stories.
Though its title names the two main female characters, Sophie and the Sibyl, the novel itself is most concerned with the adventures of Max Duncker. And Max is every part the Victorian gentleman, from his manners and pastimes to his dissolute habits that so vex his elder brother. And it is Max’s sensibilities, the Victorian gentleman with the politics, social behaviour and morals of that era, through which we explore and experience the world of this novel.
The subheading of Sophie and the Sibyl is ‘A Victorian Romance’, with the emphasis on a Victorian experience of romance, rather than a romance novel set in the Victorian era. It is romance, or perhaps more accurately sensuality, through which we are most clearly subjected to the Victorian masculine lens. It is Max, not either of the main female characters, who participates in the on page sexual encounters. Later, Max and Sophie’s first night as a married couple is not a scene the reader is privy to, instead we are told of Max’s disgruntlement that his bride knows about the act, and the various contraceptive practices available. Max is, throughout the novel, frustrating in the different standards he holds for himself, and other men, compared to women—he is free to behave almost as he pleases but not so Sophie or the Sibyl.
I should not perhaps focus so much on my irritation at Max, as none of Duncker’s characters are able to escape without their flaws being laid bare. George Eliot is both brilliant and human, she is peevish and high-handed at times, while at others she is insightful and generous. Sophie is passionate and intelligent but reckless and quick to take offence. And though they meet only briefly within the novel the missteps and misunderstandings of these two women are as central to this novel as Max’s Victorian sensibilities.
Though Duncker’s writing was enjoyable Sophie and the Sibyl was a slow read for me. I just never seemed to get the hang of the pacing. For a time it was all action and violent emotion, then it would slip back into a history lesson or a discussion of philosophy**, and a few pages further the meta-narrator would turn to the audience to discuss events. Then the process would begin again. It meant that I was liable to put the novel down for not insignificant periods. It did in some ways work to the book’s advantage as while set aside I would have time to mull over my thoughts. And when I came to pick it up again I was ready for the next step in the adventure. Being repeatedly pushed out of the story, however, is not my favourite way to read.
Though I clearly missed some of the intent of the author, not knowing George Eliot’s life or works in enough detail, Sophie and the Sibyl was still worth the read. The world created in the novel provided the perfect backdrop against which to meet, and be frustrated by, Duncker’s characters—I’m looking at all three of you Max, Sophie and Eliot. If you are a George Eliot fan or interested in Victorian literature or history you are likely to find enjoyment in this book.
*Thankyou author discussion at the end of the novel.
**Both of which were a bewildering mix of fact and fiction.