Review of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot
This is my second reading of The Mill on the Floss. You might want to read my original review of 6 years ago. I stand by it; however, I have additional thoughts to augment what I said previously.
George Eliot is one of my favourite Victorian novelists (one of my favourite novelists, indeed), and The Mill on the Floss is my favourite of her works and one of my favourite books—so much so that I actually own 5 copies. I have two different editions of the Penguin Classics, then a few antique editions I found in England. The edition I chose to read this time is relatively recent—1981—published by the Franklin Library with illustrations by Herbert Tauss. To be honest, the illustrations are extremely lacklustre. They lack much in the way of detail, and there aren’t even captions below them. Not appoint. However, the rest of this edition is quite beautiful and high quality, from the texture and weight of the paper to the cover to the print. It was nice to read.
Re-reading my old review, I’m mostly struck by how verbose and descriptive I am, and how much plot summary I give. How things have changed in 6 years! Back then, I was deep into academia and writing essays. Nowadays sometimes I can barely be bothered to record my thoughts—but I do, because I love looking back and remembering what my past self thought about a book.
In this case, my feelings remain the same, but my appreciation is rekindled. I’d remembered that The Mill on the Floss has some very feminist messages in it, but I’d forgotten how overt and continuous those messages are! From the very beginning of the novel, Eliot’s narrator points out that Maggie is going to suffer because she is far too clever for “a gell”. Her mother laments her intractable hair and “dark” colouring; her father laments that she wasn’t born a boy. We see Maggie wrestle with the conflict between what’s expected of her as the daughter of a fairly well-off, and then bankrupted, miller and what she desires as a curious, intellectually-driven individual. And we see the gatekeeping, the way that even people who recognize Maggie’s precocity attempt to channel it into socially-acceptable avenues, or suppress it simply because that’s what’s done.
I didn’t forget the importance of the sibling relationship to this novel, but I had forgotten how much of it takes place while Tom and Maggie are children. This time around, too, I was more sensitive to the way people treat Tom and force various expectations upon him. The difference, of course, between Tom and Maggie is that Tom has the privilege of proposing and, ultimately, taking courses of action. Even if his relatives disagree with him or think that he’s wrong, they will allow him to act as he sees fit. Maggie, on the other hand, isn’t even responsible for her unplanned excursion with Stephen, yet she is held responsible and judged anyway.
So much more appreciation this time around too for Mr. Tulliver’s legal battles and bankruptcy. Now that I’m older and I’ve bought property myself and hold a mortgage, maybe I’m just more sensitive to these issues! Eliot seems to want us to both sympathize with Tulliver and shake our heads at him, which I’m happy to do, on both counts. In general, though, I just love the development of this plot. I love the way that Tulliver is so confident he can always produce the money, that he can outsmart the “raskill” Wakem, and the way that Mrs. Tulliver inadvertently provokes Wakem. There’s a delightful combination here of tragic flaws and terrible happenstance.
One new criticism: the ending kind of feels hokey and contrived now that I read it. Actually, it reminds me a lot of some of Hardy’s endings, the way he conjures up nature as an avenging force. Compared to everything else that has happened in the book, the sudden flood and Maggie’s subsequent attempt to find and save Tom happens very quickly. It’s all over far too fast. But, like Tulliver’s ill-timed fall from his horse just as he’s having a go at Wakem, this all seems par for the course in novels from this era—a certain amount of convention, in the twists and turns of the story. In this case, Eliot gives us the best ending for this drama—she can’t very well have Maggie and Tom grow into old age as if nothing else interesting happens in their lives, can she?
One of my friends asked me what I was reading for my first book of the year while she was over, and I showed her The Mill on the Floss and explained my feelings for it. We chatted about nineteenth-century novels; she asked about the language in this, confessed she hadn’t made it through Pride & Prejudice as a result of the novel’s style. Here’s the thing: I love this book, love Eliot’s writing, and view both as sublime examples of human storytelling. Her grasp of the human condition, of the way families interact like constructive and destructive waveforms, of the tension between desire and duty, is second to none. I would love for nothing better than to see more people reading this book—but I’d also like them to enjoy it. And I also know that I just happen to be privileged to have the patience, tolerance, and background that lets me get through a book so far removed from our current literary styles and cultural touchstones.
That is the thing about classics. Sometimes we forget that we don’t have to enjoy a classic, even if others do, because it might not speak to us. There are certainly classics I’ve put aside or given low ratings to because I couldn’t identify with it. And I think that if you do want to start reading older classics like this, you have to start from this position of understanding why they are more difficult to read. They aren’t “harder” in the sense that you need to be more intelligent; they’re just different. They may or may not be for you. But if you want to read them, and if you work at them, and you get help when you need it, then you just might find something spectacular.
The Mill on the Floss remains, hands down, one of my favourite books of all time. This is how I chose to start my 2018 reading year. I hope this puts me on the right foot: now I move forward, seeking fresh books, new experiences, and more challenges.