Several years ago, I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch and thought it was one of the best 19th-century novels I’d ever read. I loved it, and immediately put The Mill on the Floss onto my TBR list as the next Eliot I wanted to try. But you know how that goes: it never seemed to be the right time, and time got away from me. So when Teresa put this novel on our book swap list this year, I was delighted to have the push I needed to get it read at last. When Teresa re-read it last year, she wrote a lovely and insightful review, so I won’t do much in the way of plot summary; I’ll let you read her review and then I’ll give some of my thoughts on what stood out to me about this astonishing, beautiful, heartbreaking book.
The Mill on the Floss has a narrower scope than Middlemarch does. Instead of going back and forth between four or five interlocking narratives at different levels of provincial society, The Mill on the Floss is really the story of one family — the Tullivers — and within that family, the story of a tumultuous brother-sister dynamic, and within that relationship, really, just the story of the heart and spirit of Maggie Tulliver. It is intensive rather than extensive, and, like a stream of water directed into a narrow channel (the book is crammed with water imagery), it is all the more powerful. Yet this narrowness, as Eliot points out herself, is not the narrowness that comes when there is nothing to be understood. Just because the Tullivers are not in high society does not mean they have nothing to offer the careful reader:
But good society, floated on gossamer wings of light irony, is of very expensive production; requiring nothing less than a wide and arduous national life condensed in unfragrant, deafening factories, cramping itself in mines, sweating at furnaces, grinding, hammering, weaving under more or less oppression of carbonic acid — or else, spread over sheepwalks, and scattered in lonely houses and huts on the clayey or chalky corn-lands, where the rainy days look dreary. This wide national life is based entirely on emphasis — the emphasis of want, which urges it into all the activities necessary for the maintenance of good society and light irony…
This “emphasis,” this power that comes in the feelings and way of life of people whose ordinary work can be tedious, suffuses the book. Maggie Tulliver is high-strung in temperament, very unlike her stolid, stoical brother, and she trembles eagerly with the need for love, or droops with the slightest reproach. Others, too, shake with the winds of passion: Mr. Tulliver and his rage against the “raskills” in his life; Mrs. Tulliver’s blind bewilderment at the way she’s come down in the world; Philip Wakem’s bitterness and jealousy. These people may not be good society, but they are all in the grip of painful ambiguities, strong emotion, and desperate need.
I don’t want to give the impression that the book is all raw heartstrings, though. Eliot has a wonderful dry humor. There are lovely comedic scenes with the character of Bob Jakin, and, of course, the narrative voice has to have its say:
“Character,” says Novalis in one of his questionable aphorisms, “character is destiny.” But not the whole of our destiny. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was speculative and irresolute, and we have a great tragedy in consequence. But if his father had lived to a good old age, and his uncle had died an early death, we can conceive Hamlet’s having married Ophelia, and got through life with a reputation of sanity notwithstanding many soliloquies, and some moody sarcasms toward the fair daughter of Polonius, to say nothing of the frankest incivility to his father-in-law.
As Teresa points out in her review, the characters are wonderfully shaded. None of them is completely sympathetic (not even Maggie!) or completely wicked. Just as you’re getting ready to hate someone, he’ll turn out to love his son, or she’ll come through to support her family in some surprising way. This, I think, besides her ravishing prose, is Eliot’s great talent: she paints human beings as they really are.
One of the themes that stood out for me in this novel was the grave consequences for women when they behave in ways that are even slightly outside social norms. Teresa talked about this in her review in terms of natural and unnatural behavior (“things out o’natur’ niver thrive”) but I noticed it again and again. From her childhood, Maggie can’t seem to bend herself to accepted standards of behavior — even her appearance is “wrong,” with her brown skin and dark eyes and hair — and she bears the consequences. At first, this is almost all inward, as it comes mostly in the form of her beloved brother Tom’s disapproval and dislike. But later, when her choices are more and more difficult, and more and more visible, even when she makes the choice that is morally right but socially unacceptable, Maggie must bear a fate that is like death to a soul that longs for love and approval for others.
As I read, I wondered how much this novel reflected Eliot’s own life. She lived with a married man for over 20 years, and it can’t have been simple or easy. So many novels of the period deal with this kind of thing — not just the “fallen woman” narrative, but novels like Jane Eyre, in which an independent young woman betrays accepted social norms and bears the consequences, at least temporarily. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is even more so. The daily grind and wear of those consequences, that might take the joy out of life, seem inevitable for Maggie. Little wonder that the ending to The Mill on the Floss, which comes in a wild, tragic, and heartbreaking rush, ends those consequences as well as the choices that brought them about.
I can’t say enough about Eliot’s stunning prose. She weaves in themes and motifs throughout the novel, seemingly effortlessly. I’ve already mentioned the theme of water (reflection, streams, currents) that goes back to the idea of fate, and being drawn along in a current you’re unable to resist. But here’s another I noticed, just for fun: hair. As a child, Maggie is constantly being criticized for her hair (and her behavior.) She cuts it herself, in a fit of pique, just so she won’t have to deal with it any longer. Later, she ties it back closely, to reflect her spiritual self-abnegation. As a confident young woman falling in love, her hair is described as “massy” and “a shining coronet,” a beautiful addition to her striking looks. And then in the final scenes, it’s out of control once again, “streaming” around her shoulders. You tell me if that’s not a thesis waiting to happen!
I loved this book. It is a masterpiece, and I think it will always rank high among my favorite 19th-century novels.