Oct/Nov 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

Sophie and the Sibyl

Review by Ann Skea

Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance
Patricia Duncker.
Bloomsbury. 2015. 292 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 6053 3.

Sophie and the Sibyl is advertised on its cover as "A Victorian Romance." The Sibyl is George Eliot, and this "Romance" embroiders on the facts of her life. Sophie is purely fictional and is the heroine of the book's love story. Certainly the book itself has some of the trappings of a Victorian novel. There are headings, complete with capitals, to summarize each chapter: "CHAPTER FIVE in which Our Hero strives to redeem himself ," for example, and strident "END OF CHAPTER..." notices.

These chapter headings, however, are more Georgian than Victorian, more in the style of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, than of George Eliot's elegant and often poetic chapter headings. Max, Our Hero, also has Tom Jones-like erotic moments, some with the feisty, headstrong, and virginal Sophie, and some with his favorite prostitute at Hetty Keller's bordello, and the description of these is thoroughly modern and unlike anything in George Eliot's books.

Sophie and the Sibyl also plays with fact and fiction in a very modern way, and the narrator's intrusions into the story are offered in thoroughly modern language. "What is the role of the Sibyl?" she asks us in one such intervention. A sibyl is "the prophetess of catastrophe and change. And so this particular Sibyl proved to be." And referring to George Eliot's own "manifesto" for literature in Adam Bede, she tells us it is "to equate realism not only with accuracy, but honesty." "Realism," says our skeptical young narrator, "has degenerated into tired commercial cliché, produced by lazy writers out to make a fast buck," and the "high moral purpose, championed by the Sibyl in 1859, does not cut much ice now." She goes on to claim that "we are swamped by what [Eliot] so memorable described as 'silly novels by lady novelists.'"

So is Sophie and the Sibyl one such novel? Perhaps. In it, George Eliot comes across as an ugly old woman (although she has "beautiful eyes"), and her frequent lectures on arcane subjects became so boring I eventually skipped them. The core of the book, and the excitement and suspense, are provided by the often tempestuous romance between Our Hero, Max, and Our Heroine, Sophie, both of whom are interesting characters. Sophie, in particular, is a very modern young lady, fiercely independent, rebellious, passionate, beautiful, and spoiled. Her addiction to the novels of George Eliot links her to the Sibyl. And Max's role as his brother's emissary brings him under the Sibyl's spell. Max's fictional brother, Wolfgang Duncker, is the Sibyl's publisher—and Duncker Verlag of Berlin were in fact George Eliot's German publishers.

So, connections are made and lives intermingle. Many of the facts of Eliot's life and of her "marriage" to George Lewis are accurately reported, but like the Ancient Greek (possibly Roman) philosopher Lucan, about whom Duncker has Eliot speak often and at length, most of this book is the invention of the author.

Much of Sophie and the Sibyl is an interesting and idiosyncratic romp, but I found I was more interested in Sophie and Max than in the Sibyl.


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