Scandalous novelist George Eliot throws 1870s Berlin society into a tizzy in Duncker’s (The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge, 2010, etc.) Victorian roman à clef.
Feckless Max Duncker (not a coincidental surname) is assigned by his older brother and publishing partner to get the pseudonymous Middlemarch author (referred to by the authorial Duncker only as “Mrs. Lewes” or “the Sybil”) to sign their contract. Simultaneously, the elder Duncker is arranging a marriage between rakish Max and the young countess Sophie von Hahn, who is rich, spirited, and a die-hard Eliot fangirl. During negotiations, the Sybil accidentally seduces Max through her relentless pedantry about the Roman writer Lucian. Between visits to her parlor, he slouches through the pleasure city of Homburg, Berlin salons, and the German forests in set pieces that put the author’s deep knowledge of 19th-century society to good use. Sophie resents the restrictions of her class and gender, but when her beloved, bejowled author meddles in her engagement, she becomes enraged by the Sibyl’s influence on Max. This love triangle relies on the reader being convinced of two things: Max and Sophie’s love for each other and men's magnetic attraction to the Sibyl. Unfortunately, Duncker tends to declare emotional truths without shoring them up, such as the very pinnacle of Max and the Sibyl’s intimacy: “Something intangible in her company lifted him up from the swamps of his own selfishness. He vowed he would never visit a prostitute or gamble at the tables again.” Additionally, if the reader does not share Duncker’s fascination with the moralizing writer, the narrator’s frequent interruptions of the period piece with commentary and scholarly analysis become tedious.
Duncker gets the high melodrama and pedagogy of a Victorian novel right but does not achieve the contemporary distance that has made other neo-Victorian tales so delectable.