Monday, October 29, 2012

Down the Floss

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.


  1. First, I am quite jealous to see you are currently reading My Berlin Kitchen. My library hold is placed but they are still processing the copies and don't have any in circulation yet. WHY?!?!

    I have never read any Eliot. Not a word. I have frequently checked Middlemarch out from the library as a sort of "back up in case other books prove insufficient" but have never come to the point where I felt compelled to read it. Sounds like, of the three of her books you've tried, this is the most approachable and might be a good place for me to start!

  2. A lovely review! I'm so glad you liked it.
    I'm planning on reading Middlemarch next year - very slowly!

  3. I read this she I was a teenager - my first Eliot, I think, and was so upset by it that I've never been able to return and re-read it. My own favourite is 'Daniel Deronda'. Do you know it?

  4. I'm so glad to hear that you liked this! It was the first Eliot that I read all the way through (after a couple of false starts with Silas Marner), and it remains my favorite.

    Byatt's point about Tom is interesting. Like most readers, I don't like the way he treats Maggie, but on my second reading of the book, I was able to see more goodness in him and sympathize with him a little more. I think you're right that it shows how brilliant Eliot is at creating fully realized characters.

  5. I have never read this, though it sounds like a great introduction to Eliot. I have read through half of Middlemarch - and then got stuck! I love Dorothea & the story of her marriage to Casaubon, but the political passages put me right to sleep. I do want to try again one day, but in the meantime I will try The Mill on the Floss. I love a good heroine!

  6. I loved Middlemarch, though I have to admit I started and gave up on it three times before I actually managed to read it through to the end. It's not an easy book to get into, but worth the effort, I think. The Mill on the Floss was on my original list for Katherine's Classics Challenge but I haven't really been in the right mood for it. I'm looking forward to reading it eventually, though!

  7. I am so pleased - and relieved - that you liked The Mill on the Floss. I am intrigued by A S Byatt's point, and you night have just pushed me towards a re-read.

  8. This post gives me hope! I struggled through Silas Marner and have had a bookmark on page 490 of Middlemarch for the past four years (of course I'll need to start over). Maybe I have just been reading the wrong Eliot novels?

  9. I really need to figure out how to respond to individual comments, but I can't find that setting on blogger. If there's a secret key, please let me know!

    Claire, at least of the three I've tried, I'd definitely recommend this as an introduction to Eliot. And no one can explain the mystery of library lists - I'm in the same limbo with a couple of other books.

  10. Cat, maybe reading posts about Middlemarch will inspire to actually read it! It worked with MOTF!

    Alex, I can certainly understand that. I feel the ending was wrong - it just doesn't fit, it seems forced. I've read a little about Daniel Deronda but haven't come across a copy yet.

    Teresa, I think a second read would be very interesting - and I have to think more about Tom. I was just expecting a more brotherly type, like Jem Finch.

    Anbolyn, Dorothea was one of the reasons I gave up on Middlemarch. I wanted to shake her & yell "Don't do this!" It was like watching a train wreck happen - just too painful.

    Helen, I was just sure you'd posted photos of a town like St Ogg on your blog, and that you'd read Mill - but then I realized it was photos from North & South.

    Jane, thank you for your encouragement, and for your posts that inspired me. Hopefully I'm past feeling intimidated by her books.

    JoAnn, you got 400 pages further in Middlemarch than I did! Maybe we'll both do better with early Eliot? I'm intrigued by Scenes of Clerical Life, just from the title.

  11. Middlemarch is our summer read for our Feb group mtg. I found the audio download on the net, unabridged and have been listening to it and am right into it. Maybe this is an easier way to hear it? I love the characters and once in it find it very easy to keep them straight. Interesting you mention the references to Pilgrim's Progress. I have that on a TBR shelf and haven't had courage to look into that. Funny how these old books affect us. Pam

  12. Pam, I really struggle with audiobooks. I can't seem to concentrate on listening the way I can on reading, or I get too easily distracted, so I keep losing the thread of the story & having to rewind or play back. I do mean to try Middlemarch again, though, someday.

  13. I never expected to enjoy Middlemarch as much as I am - maybe it's because I'm reading it small doses? It would probably be more of a slog otherwise.:) I haven't read any of her other books, but I think I will now, so it's good to know more about this one and to know that you enjoyed it in the end.
    (p.s. thanks for your good wishes after the storm. It was so mild here (just lots of gusty wind and rain) compared to what happened so close by. We were very lucky!)

  14. Audrey, I've been following your slow read of Middlemarch with great interest. I think for me it really was a case of wrong book, wrong time - especially as an introduction to her work. I was glad to hear the storm passed by relatively lightly!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!