Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker

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Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In Duncker's sixth novel, a playful Victorian pastiche, George Eliot's interactions with her German publisher and his feisty young wife provide fodder for Daniel Deronda.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781408860526

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Sophie and the Sibyl, consciously modelled on John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, is a postmodern blending of history, fiction, and metafictional commentary. Brothers Max and Wolfgang Duncker really were George Eliot's German publishers, but the accident of their surname matching the author's makes them her clever stand-in. As the novel opens in 1872, the venerable English author is exploring Homburg and Berlin in the company of her 'husband' while ushering her latest novel, Middlemarch, into German translation. Max, a young cad fond of casinos and brothels, has two tasks: ensuring Eliot's loyalty to their publishing house, and securing Countess Sophie von Hahn's hand in marriage.

Duncker consistently refers to Eliot as 'the Sibyl' – which, as well as creating an air of mystery around her, sidesteps the difficulty of what to call her. In addition to her nom de plume, at various points she was known as Marian Evans, Mrs Lewes (despite the fact that she and G.H. Lewes never married) and Mrs Cross. 'The Sibyl' is now an old woman suffering aches and ailments, but still 'sharp as an owl on the hunt'. Max finds her intelligence rather intimidating, as when they are touring a gallery and she recounts the story of Stoic philosopher Lucian and his Palestinian slave. (Curiously, Lucian will reappear throughout the novel.) It seems there is no topic on which she is not knowledgeable or opinionated.

Max and Sophie were childhood friends, but now her father is keen to see the feisty seventeen-year-old countess settled into a respectable match. Sophie is an ardent fan of Eliot, 'bewitched by the author's omniscient authority, lost in adulation and illusions', but coincidence turns her against her literary heroine. To Max's surprise, Sophie is also a gambler. Unlike Max, she always wins, and the proceeds go toward buying more of her beloved horses. He watches her pawn a family necklace at a Jew's shop, and later he and the Sibyl see her stake the earnings at a gaming table. When Max explains the situation, Eliot buys back the necklace and has it delivered to Sophie with an anonymous note.

Those familiar with Eliot's work will recognise the early scenes of Daniel Deronda (and that novel's opening line, 'Was she beautiful or not beautiful?', recurs several times here). Indeed, years later Sophie herself was outraged to discover how her idol had fictionalised her youthful foolishness. Moreover, she has never forgiven Eliot for ignoring a fan letter she sent her, in which she also confessed doubts about her engagement to Max. Eliot tactfully gave the letter to Max, but Sophie resented the condescension and meddling, and also – with some justification, it appears – suspected that Eliot harboured feelings for her husband. All her former adoration turns to rage, culminating in a confrontation at Eliot's London home.

Sophie is a spirited Victorian heroine worthy of comparison with Eliot's Gwendolen Harleth, but she also bears the marks of modern feminism: she dismays her mother with her frankness about sex, and surprises her husband with her knowledge of contraceptive devices. What is more, she also vows to learn the classical languages so she can assist Max in his gentleman dabbling with an archaeological excavation in Greece. She and the Sibyl are two poles of femininity, but Eliot is now so old and hideous that she is more of a sexless prophet than a woman. (Not that this stopped her from throwing her from every man who showed any interest in her – perhaps women too, given Edith Simcox's role as Eliot's stalker.) In the novel's later chapters, society is shocked at Eliot's marriage to John Walter Cross, two decades her junior. On holiday in Venice, Max witnesses a famous incident from the couple's honeymoon: Cross threw himself into the Grand Canal from their hotel window.

If you're a fan of Victorian fiction and have enjoyed nonfiction works such as My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead and 142 Strand by Rosemary Ashton, you will love seeing how historical events are woven into this novel. Duncker also mimics Victorian dialogue and narration, including moralising speeches from Eliot and melodramatic titles, such as 'Chapter Sixteen – recounts a Terrible Succession of Melancholy Events.' However, her narrator is a time-travelling observer, a modern woman like herself who admires Eliot but remains ambivalent about her nonetheless. The narrator invites one in with her confiding tone: 'we, her readers, encased in future times, become the secret voyeurs.'

This would make a good companion volume to Gwendolen, Diana Souhami's retelling of Daniel Deronda from the perspective of Eliot's heroine. It is an atmospheric historical novel in its own right – I loved the details: gas lighting becoming standard, Sophie learning to ride a penny-farthing bicycle, and debates about Darwinism and historical Christianity – but the tie-ins with Eliot's work give it a certain extra something.

Further reading suggestion: The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher is another recommended Victorian pastiche. We also have a review of The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge by Patricia Duncker.

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