The Mill on the Floss

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.

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23 Responses to The Mill on the Floss

  1. litlove says:

    What a beautiful review. I’ve been meaning to read this for a while – you may have bumped it up the list now!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, it’s a delight. I was meaning to read it for ages, and whenever that happens, I’m always sorry I didn’t read it sooner.

  2. Oh, I haven’t been reading enough George Eliot lately! Your post brings the richness of her prose so nicely into focus. And the sense of humor–Middlemarch too is intermittently hilarious. I think it’s sort of funny that Henry James complained the ending of the novel was totally unprepared for by the earlier parts: didn’t he notice all that water imagery? And the little parable of the witch, right at the start?

    • Jenny says:

      No, quite right — though if what HJ was saying is that the ending is a bit abrupt, I might agree. It’s almost as if Eliot is trying to avoid some rather well-trodden ground and get around doing the fallen-woman thing. But the seeds are certainly there from the beginning.

  3. Sarah S. says:

    I couldn’t agree more about this stunning book… it’s really a wonder and Maggie is unforgettable.

  4. Steph says:

    Wonderful review, Jenny. George Eliot scares me, but you make her books seem infinitely approachable and incredibly vital. I need to get over my fear and give her a go – I’m sure I’d like her!

    • Jenny says:

      They are so vital, Steph! Eliot’s greatness, for me, lies in looking at what happens after: after the marriage, after the job loss, after what usually comes at the ending of a book. Her characters must go on living, as we all do, and they are so real.

  5. Simon T says:

    Even though I remember little about this book, I do remember that I adored reading it. It helped that I was reading a really beautiful edition, sitting beside the Thames in the sunshine, in Oxford’s Botanic Garden. Bliss!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, what a picture! I read mine at home on the couch, but was — pardon the allusion — swept away by it, so my surroundings didn’t matter much.

  6. christopher lord says:

    Now you must tackle Eliot’s final novel, the brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda. Less perfectly plotted and thematically more diffuse than Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda nevertheless shows Eliot at the height of her philosophical and moral powers, as she reveals two deeply troubled characters–the brilliantly imagined Gwendolen Harleth and the brooding Daniel Deronda, both deluded by circumstances, both feeling trapped in the identities they imagine for themselves.

    • Teresa says:

      Daniel Deronda is next on my Eliot list. I don’t know when I’ll get to it, but I’m glad to hear such good things about it.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendation! I read Adam Bede long ago (gee, I think almost 25 years ago) and remember it so little that I might try that one, as well; it’s a favorite of my mother’s.

  7. Emily says:

    I love Mill on the Floss too! Definitely my favorite Eliot thus far (not that I’ve read them all by any stretch). Maggie is such a wonderful character and the brother/sister dynamic so believably heartbreaking.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought so, too — Eliot leans hard on temperament, which I think we still do today, in other language, and the way Maggie and Tom can’t see their way clear to loving each other in a way that the other can understand is reflected in a lot of troubled relationships.

  8. Teresa says:

    I’m so pleased that you loved this. I felt sure you would! As wonderful as Middlemarch is, I must admit the general adulation for it always makes me a little sad because I love Mill so much more, and it doesn’t seem to get nearly as much attention. Maggie Tulliver is one of my favorite fictional heroines—almost up there with Jane Eyre.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Teresa, it was a great recommendation. My mother hates this one (finds it depressing, I think) but I wonder how long it’s been since she read it. It was glorious! I can’t say I loved it *more* than Middlemarch, because it is so different in scope and tenor, but there was so much to adore about it. And Maggie was just splendid. This is one to cherish and re-read. Thank you so much! Not that I doubted you for a second. :)

  9. Deb says:

    Although MIDDLEMARCH is one of my favorite novels ever, I have trouble with TMOTF–although, admittedly, I read it 25 years ago. I remember being very angry at Tom, finding him both controlling and (frankly) a bit too involved in his sister’s romantic life. Your review is so lovely, I may have to give this book another go.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, no, Tom is certainly controlling. The problem is that you can’t hate him, or at least I couldn’t. He is a very young man, who has a strong moral sense and has seen his father disgraced (and been brought low himself), and that family and moral sense combine to make him more rigid than he otherwise would have been. It’s very hard on his sensitive sister, but Tom isn’t a bad person. Again, Eliot’s talent lies in showing us that, in my view. Try it again and see what you think.

  10. Karen K. says:

    I read TMOTF years ago, in high school, and I ended up hating it so much I avoided Eliot for years. Finally, I picked up Middlemarch, which I loved. It made me realize I was probably too young to appreciate it — the fact that I read it for a school project may have had something to do with it. I suspect I need to give it another try.

    • Jenny says:

      You know, I have frequently found that books I hated in high school were truly worth re-reading. I’m sure there were some books I was ready for in high school (Tolkien comes to mind, and The Catcher in the Rye), but I think that almost 25 years later, I am a far, far better reader. One standout example — I hated The Great Gatsby in high school, and when I finally re-read it (on the assumption that if EVERYONE thought it was a masterpiece, there must be something to it), I was blown away.

  11. rebeccareid says:

    I LOVED Middlemarch last summer and I went ahead and ordered this — only to be dismayed by the huge size. For some reason I though it was shorter…. It has been sitting on my shelf but you’ve given me ample reason to add it to the list. Sounds so wonderful, beautiful, intense, perfect. I think George Eliot is becoming one of my favorite writers….

    • Jenny says:

      It did stop me reading anything else for about a week and a half, but I didn’t mind! It was a tremendous book, and I think you’d love it. I’ve only read two (well, three, but the other one was so long ago that it hardly counts) books by Eliot, but she is so splendid that I think she rates as one of my very favorites as well, along with Tolstoy and some of Dickens.

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