The Mill on the Floss: an enduring classic
Casual readers may have preconceived notions or “red flags” when it comes to certain genres of literature. For example, I am sure that the Victorian age scares off quite a few readers because of the daunting length of the era’s novels and the painstaking detail given to ordinary life. While both of these characteristics indeed present, they should not deter readers from enjoying the period’s famed writers and their works. Besides Charles Dickens, arguably the most famous writer of Victorian England was George Eliot. In her lifetime, Eliot, nee Mary Ann Evans, wrote seven novels in the period from the late 1850s to the late 1870s. Her second novel, The Mill on the Floss (1860) is the subject of my review this week.
The Mill on the Floss follows the story of the Tulliver family—especially the siblings Maggie and Tom. The novel is broken up into seven books that each trace key moments in the lives of the siblings and the entire family. The Tulliver family makes their living on Dorlcote Mill on the River Floss in St Ogg’s, England. Mr. Tulliver, a simple and hardworking man, wants nothing but to provide for his family, give his son Tom a good education and provide Maggie with unconditional fatherly love. Mrs. Tulliver is the typical good Victorian housewife.
The novel spans approximately fifteen years, and there are numerous key narrative points that the story revolves around. First, the growing up of Tom and Maggie. Tom is not very academically inclined; however, he is able to piece together the necessary skills to make a living and provide for his mother and father. Second, the financial problems of Mr. Tulliver. A deep-seated rivalry with a Mr. Wakem leads Mr. Tulliver into a legal battle for possession of Dorlcote Mill. Things do not end well for the Tullivers as they are driven into poverty, which is the worst thing possible for a family with connections to upper class Victorian society. The final major piece of the novel is the love life of Maggie Tulliver. As Maggie grows up, she secretly becomes infatuated with Mr. Wakem’s son, Philip. Her feelings are forbidden by the family and her brother Tom threatens to banish her from the family. Her second love is with a prominent St Ogg’s resident, Stephen Guest, who is already promised to Maggie’s cousin Lucy Deane.
Eliot excels in realism and the depiction of English countryside life. The action of the story is by no means grand, but the strength of Victorian realism is in its focus on the details of life and in the potential for readers to connect with the thoughts, minds, and lives of the main characters. Family plays such an important role in The Mill on the Floss—especially how complicated familial relations can become with issues surrounding money and love. Throughout the story many minor characters come and go, and this is true to life for us all. Eliot’s strongest character is Maggie Tulliver. From when she is a little girl who struggles to fit in and ends up running away to live with the gypsies at age nine to her later secret walks by the Floss with Philip Wakem, her character is compelling and invites us to wonder what will happen to her next.
Structurally, the novel does have its flaws. In my copy of the novel there is a particularly helpful afterword by Jane Smiley, who notes that Eliot placed too much effort in developing Tom and Maggie’s childhood compared to their young adulthood. I concur with Smiley’s observation as I found the early parts of the novel to drag on while the concluding books of the novel felt quite rushed. Smiley also notes that Eliot herself was aware of this flaw after the fact and was unable to revise it as the novel was originally published in three separate volumes in Blackwood’s Magazine. Coming in at just under 600 pages, The Mill on the Floss focuses on nine-year-old Maggie for more than 300 pages which leaves little room for a more complex representation of her as a young woman and Tom as a young man. This is not to say that the second half of the novel is devoid of key details as there is a continued emphasis on the developing relationship between Tom and Maggie, which does go through dramatic shifts as the action progresses..
At its core, The Mill on the Floss is a Victorian, rural English coming-of-age novel that we can all relate to. Sure, we aren’t in rural Victorian England, but the experiences of love and family drama are timeless and they speak to us today. The actions of the story can be quite forgettable but Eliot’s strength in character development helps the reader enjoy a seemingly dense novel. I know I felt daunted by all the stereotypes of the Victorian novel; however, once I got into The Mill on the Floss the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver captivated me. At the end of 600 pages, I was craving more of the Tulliver family.
The Mill on the Floss is available through the Lennoxville Library’s interlibrary loan service.
NEWS FROM THE LENNOXVILLE
Tea with Joanne Pocock, author of Geneva’s Scrapbook
Saturday, May 27th at 4pm (Lennoxville United Church Upper Hall)
Free event. All are invited to come hear Joanne Pocock in conversation with Eastern Townships Research Centre Director Jody Robinson.
Geneva’s Scrapbook is a comingof-age story set in the rural Eastern Townships during Quebec’s politically turbulent ’70s and ’80s. This stirring memoir is an artful blending of research, spiritual pilgrimage, and love song.