Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker - review by Samatha Ellis

Samatha Ellis

Entertaining Eliot

Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance


Bloomsbury 292pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

‘The lady is old. The lady is ugly. The lady has wonderful eyes.’ So Max, junior partner in his brother’s publishing house in Berlin, sums up George Eliot on the first page of this exuberant novel. Eliot is liver-spotted, wrinkled (it is 1872 and she is racing to finish Middlemarch), smells of cinnamon and alcohol, and has a long thin face, a massive jaw and vast eyes. Max shares a surname with Patricia Duncker; the seed of this novel was a reference Duncker found to Eliot’s German publishers, which sparked the question, ‘If someone who bore my name had been so closely connected to the writer I loved, why should I not take his place?’

Max is a shiftless hero and a bit of a waster who approaches a literary salon with the resolution to ‘do a bunk as rapidly as decently possible. Don’t, don’t, don’t get drawn into political discussions or religious debates. Avoid bluestockings.’ Duncker has a lot of fun with Max getting

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