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George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire in 1819, travelled extensively in Europe with George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived from 1854 until his death in 1878. Lewes was married (although separated from his wife) and the liaison caused a huge scandal. However, it was during their relationship that Eliot wrote her best-known works, including 'Middlemarch', a complex novel which traces the dreams and disillusions of the idealistic Dorothea Brooke and the zealous young doctor, Tertius Lydgate. Eliot and Lewes toured Italy in 1860, visiting Milan, Pisa, Naples, Florence and Siena as well as Rome, where Eliot gathered background material for Dorothea's honeymoon with the crepuscular Casaubon. George Eliot died in 1880 and is buried beside Lewes in Highgate Cemetery.

Dorothea was seated in an inner room or boudoir of a handsome apartment in the Via Sistina. I am sorry to add that she was sobbing bitterly, with such abandonment to this relief of an oppressed heart as a woman habitually controlled by pride on her own account and thoughtfulness for others will sometimes allow herself when she feels securely alone. And Mr Casaubon was certain to remain away for some time at the Vatican.

Yet Dorothea had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself; and in the midst of her confused thought and passion, the mental act that was struggling forth into clearness was a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty. She had married the man of her choice, and with the advantage over most girls that she had contemplated her marriage chiefly as the beginning of new duties: from the very first she had thought of Mr Casaubon as having a mind so much above her own, that he must often be claimed by studies which she could not entirely share; moreover, after the brief narrow experience of her girlhood she was beholding Rome, the city of visible history, where the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from afar.

But this stupendous fragmentariness heightened the dreamlike strangeness of her bridal life. Dorothea had now been five weeks in Rome. She had driven about at first with Mr Casaubon, but of late chiefly with Tantripp and their experienced courier. She had been led through the best galleries, had been taken to the chief points of view, had been shown the greatest ruins and the most glorious churches, and she had ended by oftenest choosing to drive out to the Campagna where she could feel alone with the earth and sky, away from the oppressive masquerade of ages, in which her own life too, seemed to become a masque with enigmatical costumes.

To those who have looked at Rome with the quickening power of a knowledge which breathes a growing soul into all historic shapes, and traces out the suppressed transitions which unite all contrasts, Rome may still be the spiritual centre and interpreter of the world. But let them conceive one more historical contrast: the gigantic broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English and Swiss Puritanism, fed on meagre Protestant histories and on art chiefly of the hand-screen sort; a girl whose ardent nature turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or a pain; a girl who had lately become a wife, and from the enthusiastic acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in tumultuous preoccupation with her personal lot.

The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions. Ruins and basilicas, palaces and colossi, set in the midst of a sordid present, where all that was living and warm-blooded seemed sunk in the deep degeneracy of a superstition divorced from reverence; the long vistas of white forms whose marble eyes seemed to hold the monotonous light of an alien world: all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion.

Follow in the footsteps of George Eliot

Where to stay

For a less melancholic visit to the Via Sistina area, indulge yourself at the Hassler-Villa Medici (00 39 06 699 340; www.hotelhasslerroma.com).Situated at the top of the Spanish Steps, it looks out over the domes of Rome and is near some exclusive shops. Idyllic rooms start from £285.

Dorothea's outings

The Capitol is a compulsory stop for tourists, offering views over the ruins of the Roman Forum and Coliseum. Approached by a dramatic staircase designed by Michelangelo, it is dominated by a statue of Marcus Aurelius.

The Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa in 27BC, but rebuilt and completed by Hadrian in AD128. Its domed temple is the gravity-defying, architectural masterpiece which inspired Brunelleschi's dome in Florence.

The Trevi Fountain, immortalised by Anita Ekberg in "La Dolce Vita", marks the restoration of aqueducts built by Marcus Agrippa.

The National Museum of Rome at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme and Palazzo Altemps has the best collection of classical art outside Naples.

Papal palaces and paintings

The sovereign state of the Vatican was founded on the site where St Peter was martyred and buried. Artistic treasures include Michelangelo's ceiling and "Last Judgement" in the Sistine Chapel and his "Pietà" in St Peter's Basilica. The Pio Clementino Museum also has an outstanding collection of sculpture, including the "Laocoön". The Pinocoteca has works by Giotto, Gentile da Fabriano and Filippo Lippi.

Run for the hills

Escape to the surrounding countryside in summer, when the city boils. Tivoli is a popular destination, where the poet Catullus and Emperor Trajan used to take their holidays. Hadrian's Villa, vast and tranquil, is near.

Getting there

Alitalia (0870 5448259; www.alitalia.co.uk) offers return flights to Rome in July from £118. Bridgewater's (0161-703 3000; www. bridgewater-travel.co.uk) rents out apartments in Rome from £490 a week. For tours of Rome contact the Italian State Tourist Board (09065 508925; www.enit.it/uk).

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