Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker

sophie and the sybil50 pages into Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance I decided to DNF it. It was way too erudite for me, chock full of references to Greek (or was it Roman?) statesmen and philosophers and people of yore whom I’ve no clue about. (An aside: Greek/Roman mythology and history bores me. . . maybe because there’s only so much headspace that can be devoted to gods and kings and mine is already in the clutches of the Indian pantheon whom I was weaned on) Anyway, deciding that this was more a book for folks with a “classical Western education,” I kept the book aside.

That is till the next day—when I googled the Lucian in the book who held everyone in thrall. And found out that I had been had in a major way. Because, guess what? There exists no Latin Lucian and no Professor Heinrich Klausner and no A Fragment Concerning the Origins of Early Christianity whose lengthy ruminations are read with deep fervor by the characters in the novel!

And so, now properly intrigued, I plunged into the story.

Let’s start with the Sybil of Sophie and the Sybil. She is none other than George Eliot—yes, the one and only, the late great Victorian authoress. Duncker’s Eliot is an interesting creature—charismatic, wise, warm, with just a hint of something about her that puts you on the edge. The thing is Patricia Duncker’s George Eliot is not really that simple. “Nothing could be more morally uplifting and improving than [Eliot’s] books,” to quote the Sophie of the title. “They are proof of her nobility, and the greatness of her soul,” she declares. But are Eliot the author, and Eliot the person, the one and very same asks Sophie’s creator.

On the one hand we experience the full weight of the Sybil’s personality, and are made to see that:

It was not just the generous freedom in her manners, nor her lack of affectation and the clarity of her gestures that formed the basis of her charisma, it was the passion of her attention that made her beautiful still.

On the other hand, Duncker also throws in enough twists in the plots to make the reader question the Sybil’s motives and wonder if she isn’t just an aging, old woman with a “craving for admiration and praise.”

The Sophie of the title is an eighteen-year-old countess born to and brought up in wealth and privilege. She’s boundless with energy, and adores Eliot (at least to begin with). The twists and turns that I mention above have her questioning her idol’s sagacity, and it is through her eyes, that we see the side of Sybil which makes her appear like a “witch” intent on devouring those who step into her circle.

Sandwiched between Sophie and the Sybil is feckless Max Duncker, the younger half of the Sybil’s German publisher (no relation to the actual author of the book!) Though he proposes to one, and marries the other, he understands neither. It is through his eyes that we experience the Sybil’s charm, and Sophie’s untrammeled vigor and thirst for life.

I’ll be honest here and mention that Duncker’s Eliot is not exactly likeable. If anything she comes across as gently menacing. I don’t have the sort of knowledge necessary to gauge the veracity of Duncker’s characterization—but it kind of doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because despite the dichotomy, and despite the clearly ambiguous relationship that she has with George Eliot, Patricia Duncker is unflinching in giving Eliot her due.

And so while the Sybil receives a missive from her “devoted publisher,” Blackwood, saying—

If you have any lighter pieces, written before the sense of what a great author should do for mankind came so strongly upon you, I should like much to look at them.

—the narrator also acknowledges that

Some say the Sibyl was fragile, insecure, lacking in confidence and self-esteem. But do frail and timid women decide to be atheists, challenge their fathers, refuse to go to church, educate themselves to an astonishingly high degree, run off to London, live abroad on their own, fling themselves at married men, beguile women too, and clearly enjoy doing so, edit distinguished literary journals, learn Hebrew, write fiction that will live for ever as long as we remember how to read, become rich and famous, and think for themselves?

Even though Duncker succeeds in making me contemplate Eliot the person with a vague dislike, she has made me really look forward to experiencing Eliot the author.