Sophie and the Sibyl

Sophie and the Sibyl : A Victorian Romance

3.38 (200 ratings by Goodreads)
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Berlin, September 1872. The Duncker brothers, Max and Wolfgang, own a thriving publishing business in the city. Clever, irresponsible Max is as fond of gambling and brothels as the older, wiser, Wolfgang is of making a profit. When Max's bad habits get out of hand, Wolfgang sends him to the Spa town of Homburg, to dance attendance upon a celebrity author - the enigmatic Sibyl, also known as George Eliot. Enthralling and intelligent, she soon has Max bewitched.

Yet Wolfgang has an ulterior motive: he wants his brother to consider Sophie von Hahn, daughter of a wealthy family friend, as a potential wife. At first, Max is lured by Sophie's beauty and his affectionate memories of their shared childhood. But Sophie proves to be nothing like the vision of angelic domesticity Max was expecting. Mischievous, wilful and daring, Sophie gambles recklessly and rides horses like a man.

Both women have Max in thrall - one with her youth and passion, the other with her wisdom and fierce intelligence. Out of his depth, Max finds himself precariously balanced between Sophie and the Sibyl. What's more, Sophie worships the great novelist of questionable morals - and is determined to meet her.

Combining a tale of courtship and seduction with a lively imagining of George Eliot at the end of her boldly unconventional life and the height of her fame, Sophie and the Sibyl is both a compelling Victorian novel and a playful meditation on the creation of literature.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 304 pages
  • 153 x 234 x 35mm | 585g
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 140886052X
  • 9781408860526
  • 1,407,016

Review quote

Like Ali Smith in How to be Both, the author has no respect for the novel's traditional boundaries. Seizing the big ideas and tussles of the 19th-century novel by the scruff of the neck, she shakes them up to produce a fizzing `neo-Victorian' novel. Witty and brave, it is one to get the teeth in to -- Elizabeth Buchan * Daily Mail * Gleefully mixing real historical figures with characters both from Eliot's novels and her own imagination, Duncker has produced a narrative that playfully undermines the literary foundations on which classic 19th-century fiction was built -- Nick Rennison * Sunday Times * Told with huge energy and studded with learning asides, the novel bowls along so merrily between salons, Schlosses, casinos and countryside ... It's a book of startling panache, told with deep good humour and an obvious affection for the characters that illuminates the text * Daily Telegraph * Sophie and the Sibyl is wonderful; I was transfixed. It's not just the fiendishly clever blending of real-life and fiction, I was completely gripped all the way through. I love Sophie and Max. They are an Eliot hero and heroine but written for now. But most of all of course I love George Eliot, the Sibyl. I'm not sure now that I'll ever be able to read any novel by her in the same way again * Kathryn Hughes * Patricia Duncker's latest historical novel plays as heady an intellectual game with feminism and creativity as her cult debut Hallucinating Foucault did with sexuality and madness, the witty conceit here being to wrap the whole thing in the story of her namesake's dealings with George Eliot, whom she brings deliciously to life as a sly subversive. Erotic, funny, intensely evocative, Sophie and the Sibyl will prove a richly deserved game-changer for this novelist's novelist * Patrick Gale * Duncker's (female) narrator sits in a position of omniscient authority in the present day, though recounts these Victorian goings-on in a manner and tone echoing that of Eliot's own novels. Further mischief - I can't say "confusion" for her tricks delight rather than bewilder - arises from the potent blend of fact and fiction that Duncker concocts with a glorious abandon as the details of the final decade of Eliot's life - at least that have made it into historical record - are combined with the author's fictional creations ... The plots thickens, the layers of metafiction deepen, but all the while Duncker manages to unfurl a novel the structure of which is never baggy or wanting. It's a feat of design and engineering as much as an exhibition of literary pyrotechnics -- Lucy Scholes * Independent * Charming, surprising and truthful ... this irreverent, witty novel hurtles along. Sophie is a jubilant creation and Eliot is gleefully resurrected, bewitching, maddening and refreshingly frank about sexual desire ... Duncker's deep relish for literature comes through, as does her belief in the power of imagination -- Samantha Ellis * Literary Review * A literary treat, full of sly humour -- Max Davidson * Mail on Sunday * The vogue for biography-as-novel continues and this is one of the cleverest, most enjoyable examples. Duncker injects just enough fantasy to weave a delicious love story around a dusty corner of 19th Century literary history ... You don't need to know about George Eliot to love this novel but those who do will relish the references, quotations and characters taken from Eliot's writing -- Kate Saunders * The Times * Patricia Duncker has been more daring than most, in seeking to capture the woman known as "the Sibyl", and her daring has paid off superbly ... She prevents her own novel becoming simply a tale beloved by literary fans, stops it being too much of an in-joke for those who know Eliot's novels inside and out ... Ultimately, this tale is all about ownership, and what Duncker shows expertly is that nobody owns anything. Readers don't own their favourite writer even if they think they do. Writers don't own their own images of themselves, much as they may try to control them. And perhaps most importantly, stories aren't owned by anyone -- Lesley McDowell * Sunday Herald *
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About Patricia Duncker

Patricia Duncker is the author of five previous novels: Hallucinating Foucault (winner of the Dillons First Fiction Award and the McKitterick Prize in 1996), The Deadly Space Between, James Miranda Barry, Miss Webster and Cherif (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2007) and The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge (shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger award for Best Crime Novel of the Year in 2010). She has written two books of short fiction, Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees (shortlisted for the Macmillan Silver Pen Award in 1997) and Seven Tales of Sex and Death, and a collection of essays, Writing on the Wall. Patricia Duncker is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester.
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Rating details

200 ratings
3.38 out of 5 stars
5 15% (30)
4 32% (65)
3 34% (69)
2 12% (24)
1 6% (12)
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