Book review: Sophie and the Sibyl - George Eliot in madcap comedy of manners

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 11:10pm


Sophie and the Sibyl
by Patricia Duncker

Patricia Duncker's Sibyl is George Eliot, but this is far from a straightforward trot through the English novelist's golden years as an international literary celebrity.

Curiously enough, Eliot's German publishers were called Duncker Verlag, and from the coincidence of the shared surname, Duncker has concocted a madcap comedy of manners concerning the romance of Max Duncker, junior in the firm, and his headstrong childhood sweetheart, Sophie.

But the official plot is only one strand, and everywhere Duncker draws attention to the fictionality of her book. The postmodern fun begins with the three epigraphs, two genuine (at least I assume so), and the last purporting to be from the narrator, commenting on Duncker herself: "Her vindictive little game is undermined by love."

What is her game, exactly? Partly to bring Eliot down to a manageable size, to poke gentle fun, even to criticise. But Duncker is also wittily critiquing the conventions of the historical novel, and for this she takes as her model John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, which she calls a "powerfully awful tale" narrated by "a pompous sexual know-all" who is "a thinly veiled version of Fowles himself".

Duncker is not going to fall into that trap: even her narrator is fictional, "a sceptical young woman of Sophie's age" (from the afterword).

Readers tackling this novel may find themselves wildly googling as they make their way through its hall of mirrors. For example, emphasis is placed on the figure of the classical poet and philosopher Lucian, enthusiastically discussed by both Eliot and Max. Yet he seems to be fictional - "the Latin Lucian, not the Greek one" - though by page 222 he is Greek after all. A classicist ascribes De Natura Deorum to him, though that appears to be by Cicero in our world. Whether this is a slip or not, who knows? It all adds to the postmodern fun - or as Duncker maintains: "Truth and imagination are not at odds with each other."

The action moves from Berlin to the spa town of Bad Homburg, to London, Venice, Turkey and Rome. Eliot, the Sibyl, desperately plain but dazzlingly charismatic, is surrounded by ardent fans, and her charm is enough to knock Max sideways (though he can't be bothered to read her books). The main characters are rich, cultured, leisured; they go to Wagner's operas, examine statuary, theorise about art and visit archaeological digs. And Eliot is always on hand to deliver nuggets of moral seriousness.

This sprightly, intellectually teasing novel is hugely enjoyable - and who knows? It may even lead you back to John Fowles.

The Guardian