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Sophie and the Sibyl

By Patricia Duncker

Bloomsbury, 2015

It is a bit daunting to start a novel about a famous novelist by an academic who specializes in teaching the Great Works of the famous novelist to generations of undergraduates.

Will it be tendentious, pedantic, or insist on a post-modern reading of a world view shared by the famous novelist and her readers a hundred and fifty years ago? These were my thoughts as I began Sophie and the Sibyl. The Sibyl is George Eliot. Sophie is a fictional countess, young, beautiful, energetic, the eldest daughter of loving, lenient and wealthy parents.

Well aware of her potential reader’s apprehension, Duncker addresses them in her book, taking little omniscient pauses throughout the narrative to explain, like a Greek chorus. The tone is playful, amused, learned. Despite this, her flawed characters are fully realized and original.

Like the Bronte sisters, George Eliot took a male pen-name in order to get published. She also “lived in sin” with a married man, G.H Lewes, and took his name. Yet her identity was well known to the English intelligentsia, which nevertheless snubbed the great author and her lover for this sexual crime. The Lewes found a better reception in Germany, where her German publisher, Duncker und Duncker (no relation of the author) was reaping handsome profits from her work.

In the story, Wolfgang Duncker, heir and now manager of the publishing house, has been asked by his father’s oldest friend, Count von Hahn, to persuade Wolfgang’s younger brother, Max, to seek the hand of the count’s rambunctious daughter, Sophie. Max and Sophie had been childhood friends, but Max’s army training has kept them apart for a couple of years. In the meantime, Sophie has blossomed from child to spirited and beautiful young woman. Meeting her again, Max is captivated and a little afraid.

Max is also captivated and a little afraid of the Sibyl. Her astonishing intellect, coupled with her “wonderful” eyes, pair with a remarkably unattractive face, her jaw “massive”, her teeth like “tusks. Sophie, too, is a huge fan of George Eliot, desperate to meet “Mrs. Lewes” and forbidden to do so for the conventional reasons.

So begins a strange menage a trois, with the Sibyl at the center. Duncker, who knows Eliot’s novels inside out, is at pains to point out that Lewes was a hypocrite. Her novels punish wayward women who want their own way. As a counterpoint Duncker has created Sophie, who not only gets what she wants, but berates Lewes for never letting women win in her books.

But we can only write what we know, and we cannot anticipate the world-view of future generations. Eliot was ostracized for her unconventional love life. She made a fortune, yet was not able to parlay that into anything other than being able to afford a nice house and to travel with Lewes when things got too difficult for them in England. She could not vote, she could even use her real name to make her voice heard on the social issues she appeared to care about.

For all that, in this novel, the character of Lewes/Eliot is the least understandable. Perhaps that is because she was a real person, and real people behave inconsistently at times. The others characters, the befuddled and adorable Max and the extraordinary and delightful Sophie are wonderful fictional creations.

Interestingly, I read a review of this book which stated that it was hard to empathize with Sophie, an “immensely privileged heroine.”

Really? Perhaps this remark proves Duncker’s not-so-subtle point. In our own day, as in Eliot’s, women are still punished for acting as freely, and with entitlement, as men do.

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