I can’t remember exactly when I first read The Mill on the Floss – it was certainly a very long time ago, and unusually for me I had actually remembered a little of the ending of the novel. I am usually rather bad at remembering plot details of books I read a very long time ago. So although virtually nothing of the story that precedes the dramatic ending had remained with me I had I think retained a vague sense of the novel. That is probably why I chose it over other George Eliot novels to add to my classic club list.
First published in 1860 – its themes are those of all human beings, marriage, love, society and of people struggling against the circumstances in which they find themselves. In the character of Maggie Tulliver, it is tempting to see something of the young Marian Evans herself. Maggie struggles against the confines of others expectations always looking for acceptance, she’s clever and imaginative.
The Mill on the Floss is the story of the Tulliver family of Dorlcote Mill, and particularly of siblings Maggie and Tom Tulliver, the only children of the owner of Dorlcote Mill. The nearby village of St Oggs and the River Floss in Lincolnshire are fictional, but for me are very reminiscent of those small rural communities of Hardy’s pastoral novels. When we first meet them; Tom is about twelve and Maggie nine. Mr Tulliver is an uneducated man who has by hard work made a success of the mill which his father and grandfather had before him. The Tullivers are a family, who now have some money, a nice home, and are respected members of their community. As the novel opens Mr Tulliver is declaring how he wants his son to succeed to more than mill owning, and expresses a desire for Tom to have an education. His plan is to send his son to live with and be educated by a young clergyman at King’s Lorton.
Even as a child Maggie is spirited little thing, very bright, she feels things very deeply. From early childhood her world has had at its centre her adored big brother and her affectionate father. Maggie can’t help but exasperate her mother, whose rather more genteel, better married sisters are quick to criticise and raise eyebrows at what they consider bad behaviour.
“In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt: it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love and that did not belong to them. And if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie? Nothing but poverty and the companionship of her mother’s narrow griefs—perhaps of her father’s heart-cutting childish dependence. There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants, and has no long memories, no super-added life in the life of others; though we who look on think lightly of such premature despair, as if our vision of the future lightened the blind sufferer’s present.”
The Mill on the Floss is also a wonderful evocation of childhood in the early nineteenth century (taking place across a ten year period starting approximately in the 1820’s). George Eliot understood beautifully the trials, tribulations and tiny tragedies of childhood; there are some wonderfully tender scenes between Maggie and her older brother, her loyalty to him something that will drive many of her future decisions.
Maggie is desolate when Tom leaves to begin his education under the tutelage of the reverend Mr Stelling. Here Tom meets Philip Wakem, the son of Mr Tulliver’s great rival. An uneasy friendship develops between Philip and Tom, who although not always comfortable with one another for a time learn to get along. Maggie, on a visit to her brother, finds in Philip someone who likes, respects and values her. Maggie and Philip pledge themselves the very best of friends, although it is afterwards, several years before the two meet again.
Mr Tulliver’s fortunes at Dorlcote Mill change rapidly when the poor man loses a lawsuit, for which Mr Tulliver holds Mr Wakem, Philips father, entirely responsible. Both Maggie and Tom must leave school, return home and help their distraught mother deal with, what is for her, the terrible, shaming consequences of her husband’s bankruptcy. Tom vows to work for one purpose, to pay off all his father’s creditors, get back the respect the Tulliver name once enjoyed and take ownership once more of Dorlcote Mill.
“We don’t ask what a woman does; we ask whom she belongs to.”
As women so often are in these nineteenth century works – Maggie is judged harshly and found wanting by the society in which she lives. While men are able to set their shoulder to the wheel of hard work and redress the wrongs of the past, a woman is allowed no mistake, not even one that really was not of her making. When Maggie finds herself loved by two men, she struggles both with her own feelings and her loyalty to those she loves. The river, the course of life is a fractious beast, and it is the Floss that takes Maggie in a direction deemed too far to come back from, and it is the river ultimately that determines everything.
“Let a prejudice be bequeathed, carried in the air, adopted by hearsay, caught in through the eye,–however it may come, these minds will give it a habitation; it is something to assert strongly and bravely, something to fill up the void of spontaneous ideas, something to impose on others with the authority of conscious right; it is at once a staff and a baton.”
The Mill on the Floss is quite simply a brilliant story, sometimes that is enough, but of course there is a richness to the character, setting, themes and language of the novel that makes this a classic.