The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
I received this book last year from an anniversary giveaway at Shelf Love, which was such a thrill. I was fairly new to blogging then, still a little hesitant about commenting, let alone registering for a free book. At the time, I had not read any George Eliot, though I had read about her in Anthony Trollope's Autobiography, where he rated her very highly among his contemporaries. Then I came across an article in The New Yorker that judged her a greater writer than Jane Austen, which raised all my Janeite defenses. Determined to read Eliot, I started with Middlemarch, long on the TBR piles, but I gave up after three chapters. I turned instead to Silas Marner, which I found a challenging but rewarding book.
Lately The Mill on the Floss seems to be turning up everywhere. Cat at Tell Me a Story, Jane at Fleur Fisher, and Katherine at November's Autumn are among those who have posted on it recently. I was also intrigued by a comment I read on William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, to the effect that Thackeray (an only child) couldn't write convincing brothers and sisters, especially compared with the warm and complex sibling relationship that Eliot created in Tom and Maggie Tulliver.
I had only skimmed the reviews that I came across, not wanting to know too much about the plot. And I'm not going to say much about the plot here, either because it is already familiar to most people, or to avoid spoilers for those who have yet to discover it. So just some general thoughts on the book:
Having struggled with Middlemarch and Silas Marner, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I fell into reading this. Perhaps because it is one of her earlier books, what the editor A.S. Byatt calls "the first stage of [her] work as an artist," the language felt much less baroque. And then that opening chapter just flows, with the description first of St Ogg to the Floss and the Ripple, leading up to Dorlcote Mill, and that small figure in the beaver bonnet mesmerized by "the unresting wheel sending out its diamond jets of water." By the end of that chapter, I wanted to know more about the place and the people, particularly the little girl.
Maggie Tulliver is such a fascinating character, one that apparently draws heavily on Eliot's own life. I haven't discovered yet if Louisa May Alcott read Eliot's books, but surely Jo March owes something to Maggie, in her struggle for independence, for self-control, in the hunger of her mind and heart, in her attempts to be faithful to her duty and in her self-sacrifice, though the arc and ending of their stories could not be more different. More than once Eliot describes Maggie in terms of "opposing elements, of which a fierce collision is immanent." My own heart went out to Maggie, so hungry for love, so misunderstood, drawing only criticism and blame, compared so unfavorably with her angelic blonde cousin Lucy. How could she not react with mischief and outbursts? At least Jo had her parents' guidance and her sisters' love. Poor Maggie has only her father, with his care for "the little wench." Against that, she has the range of her mother's sisters, the Dodson side of the family - great chacters so wonderfully drawn. I particularly enjoyed Aunt Pullet, that watering-pot and hypochondriac, a spiritual twin of Aunt Myra in Alcott's Eight Cousins.
And then there is Tom. I found him sadly lacking as a brother, though in her introduction Byatt argues that many readers are too attached to Maggie and don't judge Tom fairly. Naturally as a youngster he lords over his little sister. And as unsatisfactory as his education is, it confirms his expectations of rising above the mill, of taking a place in St Ogg society. But when trouble comes, and he is forced to give up on those dreams for the harsh reality of debt and dishonor, and hard work, he shuts himself off emotionally, with all his energy and attention focused on his work. I can understand all of that, and certainly his parents can't offer support or companionship in what he is going through. It is only natural that an anger he can barely acknowledge would find its target in Philip Wakem, especially given their conflicts at school. His anger, his need to control Maggie and to assert his authority, are natural reactions to what he has lost and the stress he is under. Later, when he has paid the family's debts and regained their place in St Ogg, there is perhaps less excuse for his reaction to Maggie's situation with her second suitor. But by then Eliot has shown us how his boyish certainties of right and wrong, his strong moral compass, have hardened into an inflexibility of mind and heart. Here her characters, especially Maggie and Tom, certainly illustrate how "her psychological insights radically changed the nature of fictional characterization." At the same time, they are fully realized people that engage us and draw us into their lives.
A final note: I had no idea when I started this book that it, like Vanity Fair and Little Women, would draw heavily on The Pilgrim's Progress. Clearly I read Bunyan's masterpiece at just the right time (I was recently reminded that Vera Brittain wrote about researching Bunyan in Testament of Experience). The other book that plays a major part in Maggie's life is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I used to have a copy of that, and now I'm curious to read it again.
I'm very glad to have read The Mill on the Floss (and thank you again to Jenny & Teresa). I have two more of George Eliot's early works, Adam Bede and Scenes of Clerical Life, and I think I'll try one of them next, before trying Middlemarch again.