Read Sophie and the Sibyl Online

Authors: Patricia Duncker

Sophie and the Sibyl



















For S.J.D.



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve



Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen









A Note on the Author


She is an object of great interest and great curiosity to society here. She is not received in general society, and the women who visit her are either so émancipée as not to mind what the world says about them, or have no social position to maintain. Lewes dines out a good deal, and some of the men with whom he dines go without their wives to his house on Sundays. No one whom I have heard speak, speaks in other than terms of respect of Mrs. Lewes, but the common feeling is that it will not do for society to condone so flagrant a breach as hers of a convention and a sentiment (to use no stronger terms) on which morality greatly relies for support. I suspect that society is right in this . . . I do not believe that many people think that Mrs. Lewes violated her own moral sense, or is other than a good woman in her present life, but they think her example pernicious, and that she cut herself off by her own act from the society of the women who feel themselves responsible for the tone of social morals in England.

Charles Eliot Norton to G.W. Curtis, 29th January 1869. Cited in Gordon S. Haight,
George Eliot: A Biography
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 409.



It often astonished us what trash he would tolerate in the way of novels. The chief requisites were a pretty girl and a good ending.

George Darwin comments on his father’s reading. Cited in Janet Browne,
Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
, Vol. 2 of a biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 68.



What is the function of the epigraph? I always read them carefully. The writing which surrounds writing may well be written in code, but will also offer a key, a clue if you like, to the author’s intentions. And in this case the two quotations above are particularly revealing. Our author is one of those sentimental people who need to admire their chosen heroes and heroines. She cannot bear it if her appointed gods turn out to be made of flesh and blood – with personal vanities and frailties as disappointingly tedious as our own. I think she has scores to settle with Mr. Darwin and Mrs. Lewes, but she adores them both. And that is her weakness. Her vindictive little game is undermined by love.

The narrator of
Sophie and the Sibyl
comments on her author’s intentions.




in which the Reader is introduced to two of the principal Characters in this History.

‘Gnädige Frau Lewes, may I introduce my younger brother Max? He is writing a great work on the monuments of antiquity. I trust that his efforts will eventually see the light of day, but I think you’re still stuck in the first volume, aren’t you, Max?’

The publisher bowed to his distinguished visitor with a merry smile, revealing an unexpected bald spot that gleamed with all the neatness of a recent tonsure. His smile included the somewhat embarrassed Max, who resorted to effortless good manners. He raised her hand to his lips and murmured, ‘
Enchanté, Madame
,’ in obsequious tones. Then he stood back to look at her. So this was the author of
Adam Bede
the fame of whose
was even then resounding through Europe like a triumphant drum. This was the woman considered too scandalous ever to be invited to dinner by respectable English families, all of whose members nevertheless read every word she wrote.

His first reaction was disappointment. She was old. Her liver-spotted hand and wrinkled skin smelt slightly of cinnamon mixed with an odd whiff of alcohol, that powerful preserving fluid sometimes used for scientific specimens. He raised his eyes to her face. A fragile veil was lifted away from her forehead, magnifying the long, thin countenance, the massive jaw and the vast, expressive eyes. The lady is old. The lady is ugly. The lady has wonderful eyes. Max met her unyielding gaze with a curious enquiry of his own. She represented a lucrative income for the family firm. Other writers chose their house and solicited their support because she was one of their authors. He glanced at his brother. Be polite, be charming. Impress this hideous, splendid dame. But he could think of nothing to say. The lady galloped unexpectedly to his rescue, giving him both the language in which the conversation was to be conducted (German), and the subject (his unfinished, indeed hardly begun,
Geschichte des Altertums

‘Your brother tells me that you have been reading Lucian. I was a great admirer both of his philosophy and his poetry when I was a very young woman. My family, I am afraid, concluded that his influence was pernicious.’

She smiled slightly. The row of revealed teeth gleamed like tusks, yellowing, gigantic and uneven. Max inclined towards her, amazed by the scale of her remaining fangs. One or two gaps appeared, giving the untoppled columns the tragic aspect of a ruined temple.

‘Yet I still regard his late lyrics and the famous
as works that shaped my early thinking. The
is really extraordinary. It has the power of a prophecy. We cannot read it now in any other light. How could he have known, in those early years of the first century, that this new religion, which he remained, nevertheless, pledged to exterminate, would rise and swell like a great wave, and that the destruction on its crest would sweep away all the gods he had so faithfully served? Lucian saw the terrible contours of the future; he grasped both the beauty of this new faith and the calamitous horrors trawling in its wake. Tell me, sir, what is your opinion of the

Max tortured his brains, still a little befuddled from a late night in Hettie’s Keller, where he had enjoyed himself immensely, but run up some quite serious gambling debts. As he strolled into his brother’s office, seeking immediate financial succour, his face carefully arranged in a smile of rueful penitence, he had not at first noticed the Sibyl, who was quietly seated by the fire, her ankle boots crossed, her umbrella neatly furled. Wolfgang’s immediate introduction had taken him by surprise. The history of the early Christian Church in Asia Minor refused to break the surface of memory. He could not conjure up any recollection of the famous
. Either this great lady, who was waiting, all patience and benevolent interest, for his considered opinion, had no trivial conversation at all, or she never deigned to discuss matters less consequential than the decline and fall of world religions. How on earth did she buy clothes? He examined the sober burgundy brocade and black lace, very little jewellery, and that awful veil, perched in raised folds upon the colossal forehead. She looked like a decorated statue.

‘Ah yes, the
 . . .’

Had he ever read it? Max struck a thoughtful pose and stared at his brother’s shelves of classics. They had been his father’s books and he had known them all since boyhood, but now here they were, unhelpful, immobile, golden and embossed – Herodotus, Thucydides, Pliny, Livy, Tacitus – shouldn’t Lucian, the Latin Lucian, not the Greek one – be in there somewhere? Or was he classed among the poets? Had Wolfgang separated out the Romans and the Greeks? But the lady, clearly amused by his hesitation, bought him a little more time.

‘We cannot of course know what the
would have been called, or how it would have developed. Perhaps it was originally conceived as a comparative study of religions in the ancient world? We know that Lucian was interested in the cults surrounding Mithras, and even in his own local water nymphs, for he compiled a list of sacred wells. But the usual title,
A Fragment Concerning the Origins of Early Christianity
, was bestowed upon the work by its first editor, Professor Heinrich Klausner, in 1782.’

Oh God save us all, that thing! Max gave an involuntary shudder of horror and relief. Lucian’s rudimentary treatise, which he had immediately made every effort to forget, had given him a sleepless night. The Latin was elegant, indeed translucent, but the unfortunate encounter between history and what he had always enjoyed in church as a row of charming fairy tales had shaken him to the core. He looked straight at the great lady, ignored his hovering brother, and spoke from the heart.

‘I must be frank, Madame, I cannot comment upon the
as a scholar. I was disturbed, profoundly disturbed, when I first read it, both as a man and as a Christian. I realise that it is the great claim of our faith that God intervenes in history, that He made that final noble gesture, the sacrifice of his Son, an act that stands for all time, and yet – and yet – when I read those words, those cold observations made by Lucian, that the Christians were a set of artisans, tradesmen and merchants, that their faith originated in a Jewish sectarian heresy, that their young Prophet was executed under Pontius Pilate, and his reflections on the future of that fledgling faith, destined only for the eyes of the Emperor, I realised that I was more comfortable with myths than history. Myths are eternal, everlasting, and history is finite, indeed contingent upon particular, temporary forces. I wanted to cherish my beliefs in safety, without consequences. For if Lucian is right, and Christianity evolved out of a peculiar set of historical circumstances, then it will find its end in history, as he hoped it would.’

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