(Psst, hey, you. Yeah, you, reading this review. I re-read this in January 2018. The below review still stands, but you might want to check out my new thoughts too! OK, that’s it. Back to reading this review.)
It has been over two years since I read Middlemarch, a novel that propelled George Eliot to near the top of my list of favourite authors. With a keen wit and a deft pen, Eliot manages to lie bare the substance of rural English life in a way that allows her to comment on issues that matter to all of us. She captures those intimate but often uncomfortable truths about family ties; about love and courtship and marriage; and, as always in nineteenth-century England, about class and status and money.
Money plays a hugely important role in a lot of Victorian fiction, and The Mill on the Floss is no exception. That awful reversal of fortune that drives the plot comes in the form of a literal reversal of fortune: the family patriarch, old Mr. Tulliver, loses it all when he loses a lawsuit of his own devising. The Tullivers were, up until this point, a fairly respectable family: Mr. Tulliver was a miller, and his wife a member of the prosperous and highly proper Dodson clan. Now Mrs. Tulliver must suffer the shame of being “fallen” and bankrupt, her prize possessions sold and her husband struck down after a fall from his horse. The Tullivers enter dark days indeed, as we see from how these times affect their children, Tom and Maggie. Although money forms the backdrop for the conflict of this novel, The Mill on the Floss is really about childhood and the bonds between siblings.
Tom could be described as a typical thirteen-year-old: brash and impressionable and somewhat sceptical of his father’s intentions regarding his education. Eliot also paints Tom as a very serious boy, one who has a deeply-ingrained and perhaps unyielding sense of justice—or at least, a desire to see others punished for unrighteous deeds. Of course, as Eliot wryly remarks, Tom seldom if ever finds himself in a position where he must be punished! After the Tullivers lose their mill, Tom casts off the shackles of the premium education his father paid for and turns to learning business and bookkeeping, actually making some wise investment decisions that gets the family back on its feet. He really steps up, and watching him grow from a callow lad to a young man already displaying wisdom and restraint is a fascinating experience.
And it’s nothing compared to what we get in Maggie Tulliver. Where Tom is practical and, perhaps even more so than his father, traditional, Maggie is imaginative and unpredictable. She is almost a feral child, down to her impulsive acts that render her wardrobe and herself unfit for polite company. In one episode Maggie decides to rid herself of her bothersome hair. She is untroubled by what sort of ramifications her action has until Tom pans her new look:
Maggie felt an unexpected pang. She had thought beforehand chiefly of her own deliverance from her teasing hair and her teasing remarks about it, and something also of the triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this very decided course of action: she didn’t want her hair to look pretty—that was out of the question—she only wanted people to think her a clever little girl and not to find fault with her. But now when Tom began to laugh at her and say she was like the idiot, the affair had quite a new aspect. She looked in the glass, and still Tom laughed and clapped his hands, and Maggie’s flushed cheeks began to pale, and her lips to tremble a little.
Damn, but does George Eliot know how to describe the progression of a thought and a feeling so eloquently. Haven’t we all had such moments? Some of us might even have taken the scissors to our hair in an impulsive urge that resembles Maggie’s. Even if we haven’t, I’m sure we’ve all done something similarly ill-conceived, something that seems so appropriate one moment and then a horrible mistake immediately thereafter. Eliot captures not only those two moments but the transition between them.
This intense psychological portrayal of her characters is the hallmark, at least for me, of Eliot’s style. In Middlemarch she shows us how people’s misperceptions of marriage and other family matters lead them to folly. In The Mill on the Floss, she provides an impeccable perspective on the mind of a child:
These bitter sorrows of childhood! when sorrow is all new and strange, when hope has not yet got wings to fly beyond the days and weeks, and the space from summer to summer seems measureless.
Maggie soon thought she had been hours in the attic, and it must be tea-time, and they were all having their tea, and not thinking of her. Well, then, she would stay up there and starve herself,–hide herself behind the tub, and stay there all night,–and then they would all be frightened, and Tom would be sorry. Thus Maggie thought in the pride of her heart, as she crept behind the tub; but presently she began to cry again at the idea that they didn't mind her being there. If she went down again to Tom now–would he forgive her? Perhaps her father would be there, and he would take her part. But then she wanted Tom to forgive her because he loved her, not because his father told him. No, she would never go down if Tom didn't come to fetch her. This resolution lasted in great intensity for five dark minutes behind the tub; but then the need of being loved–the strongest need in poor Maggie's nature–began to wrestle with her pride, and soon threw it. She crept from behind her tub into the twilight of the long attic, but just then she heard a quick foot-step on the stairs.
I love how Eliot presents Maggie’s emotional state. So many authors write child characters who act and present themselves like miniature or merely unfinished adults. Sometimes this is excusable. Eliot is very deliberate in the way she portrays her children as child-like and undeveloped. She is conscious of how children differ from adults:
We learn to restrain ourselves as we get older. We keep apart when we have quarrelled, express ourselves in well-bred phrases, and in this way preserve a dignified alienation, showing much firmness on one side, and swallowing much grief on the other. We no longer approximate in our behavior to the mere impulsiveness of the lower animals, but conduct ourselves in every respect like members of a highly civilized society. Maggie and Tom were still very much like young animals, and so she could rub her cheek against his, and kiss his ear in a random sobbing way; and there were tender fibres in the lad that had been used to answer to Maggie's fondling, so that he behaved with a weakness quite inconsistent with his resolution to punish her as much as she deserved.
I promise that’s my last extensive quotation. I just want to give enough context and sufficient examples to accompany my praise of Eliot’s style, because that is truly what makes The Mill on the Floss so enjoyable. To be honest, even with her voice, this novel is still longer than I would have liked. There are moments when I was tempted to ask her to get on with it. But those moments were minor compared to my reaction to the book overall, not to mention the mounting sense of empathy I felt for Maggie as the book progressed.
I hesitate to juxtapose “George Eliot” with “feminism” because I’m sure that there has been plenty of feminist criticism of Eliot and her works, and I don’t want to juggle with loaded terminology. Suffice it to say that Eliot is sensitive to the status of women in Victorian England, and that sensitivity comes through clearly in The Mill on the Floss—along with what I like to think of as Eliot’s dry sense of humour. Tom is genuinely a good person, and loves his sister, but that doesn’t stop him from being a product of his time: he calls Maggie a “silly girl” (or “just a girl”) on several occasions. Eliot’s male characters often undervalue their female companions even as they praise them for their appearance and accomplishments. I can’t properly envision the reaction that her contemporary readers had, but as a twenty-first century reader I was constantly bemused by Eliot’s descriptions. She’s smiling behind her mouth as she writes about the weaknesses of her sex.
Nowhere does the gender inequity of the nineteenth century become more apparent than when Maggie returns from her outing with Stephen Guest. The Mill on the Floss has a love triangle too. Maggie and Philip Wakem have feelings for each other; unfortunately, Philip is the son of the lawyer who ruined the Tullivers, and he also has a humpback. (If I really wanted to go literary critic, I could talk about Eliot’s portrayal of disabled persons and reactions to disabled persons in the nineteenth century!) Meanwhile, Stephen Guest is the son of Tom’s employer, but for all his advantageous upbringing he is a shallow youth. He abandons his attraction to Maggie’s cousin Lucy and begins courting Maggie, who resists his advances. But Stephen persists, culminating with an unplanned boating expedition that results in their absence from St Ogg’s for several days. When Maggie returns to St Ogg’s, having left Stephen behind, she is censured. Everyone assumes she and Stephen had sex, but because they did not marry, she is now a fallen woman.
It’s a dilemma somewhat endemic to the Victorian romance. The mores of the time meant that it was inappropriate for an unmarried woman to be alone with a man for any length of time. Worse still, even after Maggie is “cleared of all charges” by the ignominious Stephen himself, she isn’t off the hook. Her reputation remains sullied by even a whiff of scandal. Though Stephen didn’t quite go as far as to assault her, Maggie is still a victim of his unwanted amorous advances, and the attitude of St Ogg’s people—women included—is nothing short of victim-blaming. It’s eerie how similar it is to the way some women get treated today, as rumours of their promiscuity turn into judgements of their conduct. It’s unfortunate how little has really changed in 150 years….
Anyway, Maggie emerges as the heroine of The Mill on the Floss—delightful herself even as she backs her way into what turns out to be a tragedy. The ending of the novel is as bittersweet as Eliot could possibly make it: I actually didn’t see it coming, but having read it now, I can’t see it ending any other way and still having the same impact. Eliot can change the tone of the narrative at the drop of a hat, and she never pulls her punches. The result is a novel that embraces the epitome of life itself, the highs and the lows and all the flat spots in between.
If Eliot were alive today, we’d be calling this literary fiction and showering her with all sorts of pretentious accolades. With the hindsight of 150 years we can instead be more sensible and merely call her one of the Greatest Writers of All Time. The Mill on the Floss is pretty much the literary fiction of the Victorian era. It’s a story of childhood, and of the bond between a brother and a sister. It’s a love story but not, perhaps, really a romance. It has tragic parts but is not, perhaps, a tragedy. Like all great fiction—all true fiction—it defies simplistic labels.