Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

It is 1872 and Max Duncker, handsome, young and irresponsible, is blessed with a not-too-onerous role in the publishing company he shares with his elder brother Wolfgang, and dabbles in archaeology. Unfortunately, Wolfgang has tired of Max’s endless debts, run up in the gambling houses and brothels of Berlin. Deciding it is time for Max to grow up, he despatches him to Homburg to arrange a marriage with Sophie von Hahn, daughter of a family friend, and to charm the publishing firm’s star author, an Englishwoman who has shocked her countrymen by Living in Sin with a married man. Mrs Lewes, otherwise known as George Eliot, has nearly completed Middlemarch and Wolfgang is eager to secure translation rights for the German edition of it.

In Homburg, Max soon finds that not everything is as he anticipated. His fiancée Sophie is beautiful and affectionate, but strong-minded, clever and bold, not at all the angel in the house he envisaged. He discovers her pawning her mother’s necklace so that she can play roulette at the very tables forbidden him by his brother. How dare she! He longs to drag the ‘feckless wench’ back to her hotel by her hair! Mrs Lewes, meanwhile, proves increasingly spell-binding. But how can that be? She’s old! She’s not pretty! She likes listening to music! She talks about things Max doesn’t understand! She is with Max when he surprises Sophie at roulette, and intervenes, with consequences not even she, the Sibyl, could have predicted. (Or could she?)

As an unmarried girl, Sophie is not permitted to meet scandalous Mrs Lewes, but she is an enthusiastic if not uncritical fan of her work:

‘I think she is not on the women’s side. Her blonde women are vapid, egotistical and silly. They are never as clever as the dark ones.’

Sophie shook her blonde plaits […] ‘But I weep over her books,’ [she] continued, almost talking to herself, ‘and so does Maman. No one ever makes us cry as much as Mrs. Lewes does. Not even Mr. Dickens.’

‘For which I am very grateful, my dear,’ cried the Count. ‘Imagine if you did. Masterly and eloquent as our author is, the floodgates are opened indeed whenever we reach an affecting climax. I can hear you in my study. You’d think we had suffered a bereavement, or that one of the horses had colic.’

‘Oh, there are some beautiful passages that I have by heart,’ sighed Sophie, ‘they are so beautiful. And it is dreadful to wait for the next book. I wonder how Middlemarch will end. Or how she will contrive the marriage between Lydgate and Dorothea. Perhaps the fair Rosamond will have an apoplectic seizure brought on by her own selfishness or by seeing her aristocratic cousin riding away, then turn purple and die upon the sofa. Or maybe she’ll be carried off in childbirth and Dorothea will comfort him.’

Which reader of Middlemarch hasn’t wished something similar? Max, however, prefers Romola, George Eliot’s historical novel, because history is True and therefore matters as mere fiction never can. He also enjoys the work of Sir Walter Scott, again because it is historical. But when he reads the writings of Lucian, a Roman governor who observed the early Christians, Max realises that he is ‘more comfortable with myths than with history. Myths are eternal, everlasting, and history is finite, indeed contingent upon particular, temporary forces.’ This is perhaps an odd position for an aspiring archaeologist. In fact, Max is, as in so much else, deluding himself: he responds to fiction as happily as Sophie, he just cannot admit it.

This is an enormously entertaining novel, which plays with the response to historical fiction that Max has. It presents us with an invented character, Mrs Lewes, who is also a real person, and mixes her up with people who never existed. It shows us Mrs Lewes taking from ‘real’ life – situations, such as Sophie gambling, and characters, such as Julius Klesmer or Hans Meyrick – and reworking them into fiction. The difficulty is that if the fictive versions are too readily identifiable – as they prove to be to one of the Sibyl’s readers – then they are reinterpreted not as fiction but as distorted truth. The novelist’s transformative powers can be ignored. And the boundaries between reality and art are further blurred. Duncker places her ‘real’ Mrs Lewes at concerts which never happened, before paintings which were never painted, and even as being profoundly influenced by a Roman author and governor who never existed. This is all done so convincingly that very soon any distinction between history, or reality, and fiction is lost. Art, however, in all its forms, remains central.

The novel into which the Sibyl pours this fictive raw material is Daniel Deronda, in which she explores Jewish aspirations to a cultural and national identity. In Sophie and the Sibyl anti-Semitism is a constant yet subtle note, whether in Max’s behaviour to a Jewish pawnbroker, the opposition of the Arrowpoint family to Catherine’s marriage to Klesmer or the Countess von Hahn’s attitude to him, so perfectly delineated: ‘The Countess had never knowingly thought of Herr Klesmer as a Jew and did not intend to do so now.’

We all know where the narrative of so many European Jews was to end, so horrifically, and it is at that point that Duncker finally leaves her characters, acknowledging the Sibyl’s perspicacity.

Beware the imagination which seizes on the roots of our times, reads the underground seams, clutches at the pulse of our common blood, then stares, unflinching, into the darkness ahead.

The press release declares that Duncker is a ‘writer’s writer’, but she is also a reader’s writer and wants us to have fun with her book; she infuses it with energy and wit. Such is Duncker’s skill that even if you don’t care for postmodernism and haven’t read Daniel Deronda you can hardly fail to be charmed by Max, Sophie and the Sibyl and drawn into their stories. Duncker’s characters are depicted with real warmth – even Max, who is a frightful hypocrite, and Mrs Lewes, who has rather fallen into the error of believing her own myth. In a curious epigraph, the narrator (who is not Duncker) claims that Duncker is ‘one of those sentimental people who needs to admire their chosen heroes and heroines’, and that she has scores to settle with George Eliot in a ‘vindictive little game’ even though she ‘adores’ her. I found this rather odd: the portrayal of the Sibyl struck me as generous and rounded rather than vindictive. This is essentially a comedy and, despite its dark edge, a happy book, a joyful read.

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Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry

Patricia Duncker, Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance (Bloomsbury: London, 2015). 978-1408860526, 292 pp., hardback.

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