The Mill on the Floss is described as Eliot’s most autobiographical novel for its portrayal of a complex relationship between a brother and sister. It is the story of a young woman’s struggle for growth and independence against the restraints of small country life, domineering family and unsuitable suitors.
Mr and Mrs Tulliver enjoy a somewhat prosperous life in rural 1820’s England. Mr Tulliver operates a water mill on the river Floss that has been in his family for generations. A generous and loving man, Mr Tulliver is also quick tempered and unforgiving when he feels wronged. His wife is one of four sisters of the highly respected, but somewhat arrogant and imposing, Dodson family. One of those sisters-in-law, Mrs Glegg, is very stern and opinionated, especially when it comes to her sister Mrs Tulliver who she feels is weak-willed and may have married below her in Mr Tulliver.
The Tulliver’s have two children; Tom and Maggie. Tom seems to have inherited the personal characteristics of the Dodson’s; he is somewhat hard and unaffectionate; ‘rhadamathine’. Maggie, the novel’s central character, is, in contrast, loving but flighty and struggles to be taken seriously by her family. Whereas Tom acts a little vindictively with a strong internal sense of justice that leaves no room for doubt, Maggie acts with instinctual feeling but often wishes she had behaved otherwise. Even when Tom finds himself in the wrong, he assumes he could not have acted otherwise.
Mr Tulliver indulges Maggie’s affection unconditionally, calling her his ‘little wench’, but not her ambition.
‘She understands what one’s talking about so as never was. And you should hear her read – straight off, as if she knowed it all beforehand. An’ allays at her book! But it’s bad – it’s bad,’ Mr Tulliver added, sadly, checking this blamable exultation, ‘a woman’s no business wi’ being so clever; it’ll turn to trouble, I doubt. But, bless you!’ – here the exultation was clearly recovering the mastery – ‘she’ll read the books and understand ‘em, better nor half the folks as are growed up.’
Maggie’s mother wishes she was more feminine and her brother sees her as silly; something that needs to be subdued and controlled. Her natural curiosity and intelligence can find no expression as a country girl of that time.
Prospering beyond his family’s needs, Mr Tulliver sees the opportunity of giving Tom a life beyond the mill as a professional gentleman and puts Tom in the care of the Rev. Stelling for his education. But Tom does not have the intellect or patience for learning Euclid and Latin. Nor does he care for his fellow pupil; Philip Wakem, the son of a prominent lawyer. Though born into wealth, Philip is physically deformed (a ‘hunchback’). He therefore is neither expected nor required to find a profession and can indulge his artistic and literary interests. Philip and Maggie form a strong bond on her visits through mutual intellectual pursuits; a bond that will only strengthen as she becomes a woman.
But when Mr Tulliver learns of plans for irrigation upstream that may affect his mill, he launches into litigation and feels betrayed that Wakem is representing the defence. His case, though, is weak and the legal costs threaten to bankrupt him. As his health deteriorates under the stress, Mr Tulliver asks Tom to swear an oath to hope evil befalls the Wakem’s which Tom is happy to oblige but which Maggie finds extremely disturbing.
I am telling the history of very simple people, who had never had any illuminating doubts as to personal integrity and honour.
As the years pass, Tom takes the lead as head of the family. He works tirelessly at restoring the family’s finances and honour but has a righteous authoritarian will and wishes to control his sister and have her live in dependence to him.
‘Because you are a man, Tom, and have power, and can do something in the world.’
‘Then, if you can do nothing, submit to those that can.’
‘So, I will submit to what I acknowledge and feel to be right. I will submit even to what is unreasonable from my father, but I will not submit to it from you.’
Maggie cannot abide and takes steps to secure her own financial independence and finds comfort for her disappointments in ascetic ideals. But her love for Philip, who she meets in secret, keeps alive the hope for a better life.
‘But I can’t give up wishing,’ said Philip, impatiently. ‘It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. How can we ever be satisfied without them until our feelings are deadened?
‘Then, there are many other things I long for’ – here Philip hesitated a little, and then said – ‘things that other men have, and that will always be denied me.’
Spending more time with her beautiful cousin, Lucy, brings more conflict into Maggie’s life. Lucy is determined to soften her cousin Tom’s resolve and bring about a happy union between Maggie and Philip. Lucy works on her plan completely unaware that the man who is expected to propose to her soon, the wealthy gentleman Stephen Guest, has fallen for Maggie who reciprocates his feelings. Though they both know it would mean the betrayal of those they care most for and there would be a horrible social price to pay, Stephen pours his heart out to Maggie to try and tempt her to run away with him.
‘We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us towards each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts ever other, – we can’t help what it clashes with.’
The Mill on the Floss represents my second foray into Victorian Realism after reading Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd earlier this year. What both novels have in common is that they follow a young woman striving for independence in a male dominated world and tormented by their relationships with three very different men. But while Far From the Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba enjoys the good fortune of a sizeable inheritance, The Mill on the Floss’ Maggie has to find her own way to independence after her father’s failure while not wanting to be in debt to her hard brother either. Also, since both are ‘Realist’, the inadequacies of each of the characters means that the fairy tale happy ending of Romanticism is a deliberate impossibility.
The Mill on the Floss can also be called ‘Realist’ for the considerable investment Eliot has made to make each of her characters realistic. She makes it clear that she understands them better that they understand themselves. She provides the reader with the minutiae of their motivations and inclinations and does a great deal of introspection on their behalf. It is probably the greatest strength of the novel, that when the characters conflict with each other, when events bring their best and worst qualities to the surface, it feels true because Eliot has made us feel assured in their characters.
That being said, it is probably the novel’s greatest weakness as well. I found The Mill on the Floss a laborious read, especially compared to a novel like Far From the Madding Crowd, which has greater pace but less depth. The Mill on the Floss took longer than I expected to read. There were many occasions where I found my mind wandering, would start daydreaming, only to return and find I am three pages along and none of it had sunk in. Where Eliot’s efforts at characterisation come together, for instance, when characters are drawn into conflict, it can be quite engrossing. But such events are too rare. The stubborn reader that I am means I do not give up on books but by the end I was quite glad to put this one behind me. I had to dig deep to summon the effort to read the Introduction to this edition provided by novelist AS Byatt.
Byatt’s introduction focuses on a few key points. The first is that The Mill on the Floss is Eliot’s most autobiographical novel and the last of the early period of her writing that drew mainly from personal experience. She argues that a major theme of the novel is that a person’s sense of morality is rooted in their early experiences of family and local community. Maggie therefore is conflicted since her quest for independence means severing the ties to her roots. Byatt mentions the influence on Eliot of authors who were actively trying to preserve the local culture of ordinary people, particularly Walter Scott. It is probably something you see most in Bob Jakin, Tom’s friend and business partner, who speaks very colloquially. Bob’s idioms and tradesman bartering with the normally immovable Mrs Glegg was one of the more amusing parts of the novel.
Byatt also describes the influence of various new theories of science, psychology, philosophy and sexuality that were influential in the Mill on the Floss. Stephen Guest, for example, is a very sexually honest person for his time.
My interest in reading The Mill on the Floss, apart from being it a major novel by a well-regarded writer, was to serve as a warm up before I tackle Middlemarch next year. In this respect, I guess I take some comfort in learning that Middlemarch is a different style of novel from a different era of Eliot’s writing life. Because, for all of Eliot’s considerable skill that is on show in The Mill on the Floss, it was too long and too laborious a read. I hope that Middlemarch will be more enjoyable but that may be unrealistic. I think the main things The Mill on the Floss has to offer modern readers is its portrait of rural 1820’s England and its story of a complex sibling relationship. That relationship, between two very different siblings and, importantly, of two different genders at a time when that meant very different treatment of each; is the novel’s most enduring and, for Eliot, most autobiographical element.