Eternal city or the stuff of nightmares? The characterisation of Rome in Portrait of a Lady and Middlemarch

Hannah Hunt

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    1 Citation (Scopus)


    Both Henry James and George Eliot make graphic use of realistic locations within their novels. This practice provides a plausible socio-historical context for their characters and contributes to the development of the genre of "realisms" in the nineteenth century novel. The use of specific identifiable locations also indicates, through their character's engagement with their geographical setting, how place and time help construct the identity of the characters themselves. My paper addresses this aspect of the realist novel of the nineteenth century, through the pens of two diverse authors. It explores how the differing narrative strategies of Eliot and James, broadly delineated as a blend of overt and covert narrative voice, are expressed through the response of two young brides to Rome. It notes the recurring use in both novels of a metaphor of marriage as constituting a confining cul de sac, in which the idealism of both Dorothea and Isabel is crushed and their autonomy suppressed. This is contextualised by the physical labyrinths, antique artefacts and material culture of the classical city which both young women visit and come to know while they come to know their husbands. Their disillusionment and increasing insight about the nature of their marriages is ironically juxtaposed to their sightseeing of a classical civilisation which teaches them how their predecessors in the city lived, through their own eyes and those of various guides. It notes how within Rome, Casaubon and Osborne view their wives as extensions to their collections of classical urban artefacts/provider of secretarial skills rather than as women in their own right. The paper suggests that the physical and emotional journeys of these two young women are experienced in tandem, and that their response to the foreign material world to which their husbands transplant them echoes their own sense of alienation from their husbands. Their temporal distance from the ancient Roman culture mimics their sense of emotional dislocation.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)187-198
    Number of pages12
    JournalCahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens
    Issue number75
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012


    • Casaubon
    • Dorothea Brooke
    • Eliot (George)
    • husbands and wives
    • Isabel Archer
    • James (Henry)
    • marriage
    • Osborne
    • realism
    • Rome


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