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The Mill on the Floss
Wow. For awhile there I was afraid I wasn’t going to finish a single Victorian novel before the end of A Victorian Celebration. Saturday I buckled down and knocked out the last 100 pages of The Mill on the Floss.
The Tulliver family owns the titular mill on the Floss, a river running along the fictional town of St. Ogg’s, England. Mr. Tulliver is prone to either bad luck or poor decision making, depending on who one would ask. Of course, this leads to the downfall of his family and the loss of the mill. It is up to his son Tom to restore the family honor and position.
Did this live up to the perfection of Middlemarch? Not quite. I found the beginning difficult to trudge through. As children, Maggie and Tom Tulliver were quite unbearable. It was only after they grew into adolescents that I could read about them for more than twenty pages at a time. Even then, Tom was such a bore. I did feel badly for him, as he was under tremendous pressure, but still – what a jerk!
My heart broke for Maggie. Not the child Maggie, but the young woman. While her brother could work hard and bring honor to the family, the most she could hope for was to not be a burden. This exchange, during an argument between the siblings, laid out the central conflict so directly:
“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 who can.”*
Maggie’s choices, and those of any young woman of that time, were severely limited. She tries to do what is right, but she cannot help choosing what she feels is right in her heart instead of what Society would insist upon. There is a brilliant chapter quite late in the book where Eliot has Society weigh in on Maggie’s options.
As I read, I wondered how much of this book was autobiographical. I have read that it was based in part on George Eliot’s childhood, but how much was adult Maggie like George (or Mary Anne)? Eliot had a rather unusual relationship status of a woman of her time and status. I always thought of her as a trailblazer, but reading Maggie’s struggles and heartbreak made me wonder how Eliot really felt about her love life. I usually hesitate to find too many parallels between an author’s life and their work, but it’s difficult to refrain from doing so in this case. Sorry if this is a bit obscure – I just don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t read this yet!
I’m glad that I still have more of Eliot’s work to read (and probably reread). The next one I tackle will probably be Daniel Deronda.
Do you have a favorite Eliot novel? Which one?
*Of course, we see that even Tom’s power has its limits in the end.