The Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot (1860)
Penguin Classic (2003)
579 pp

This year I joined in an Instagram group that is dedicated to reading all of George Eliot’s novels in publication order. We started with Adam Bede, which was a reread for me, albeit one separated from my other read through by twenty years. And now we just finished her second novel, The Mill on the Floss, a book I’ve long wanted to read “some day.” I’m glad some day finally arrived. I loved this book!

I never know just what to write when I post thoughts on an old classic. I am sure some of you have never read it, so I’m wary of spoilers. And I’m sure some of you have read it several times, so I’m wary of being tedious and, given this was my first experience with it, naive. I had a devil of a time reviewing Middlemarch for example, until I realized that I didn’t need to “review” it. This is meant to memorialize a reading, not advance critical studies of George Eliot!

This is the story of a boy and girl, and indeed “Boy and Girl” is the title of the first section. The boy is Tom Tulliver, who is still a young adolescent when we first meet him. The girl is his little sister, Maggie Tulliver, whom we meet when she is still trying to sort out all of the impressions she’s getting of the world around her. I loved the first few sections when these two were young. Not because I loved their relationship — Eliot is not idealizing anything — but because their relationship was so clearly rendered. We learn that “the strongest need in poor Maggie’s nature” is “the need of being loved.” If she is wounded by her big brother, she will eventually capitulate in order to open up the flow of that love again. Tom, though, is fine withholding. He wants justice: “he would punish everybody who deserved it; why, he wouldn’t have minded being punished himself if he deserved it, but then, he never did deserve it.”

Tom, then, is a source of great pain for Maggie, who is always seeking to fortify their relationship. That relationship will be tested as they continue to grow up. Particularly, there is a bit of a family scandal. Their father falls on very hard times, essentially losing everything, due to his dispute with a man named Wakem. Wakem also has a young son, Philip, about Tom’s age, whom Maggie admires and pities and perhaps even loves. Philip for his part truly loves Maggie. Alas, Tom’s sense of justice and duty cause him to force Maggie to choose between him and Philip. We know what Maggie will do.

But that’s far from the end of the story! Years later, when things might just be getting settled, in walks another potential suitor for Maggie, one much more dashing than Philip, one that actually causes Maggie’s heart to flutter. Alas, this is Stephen Guest, a young man who is tacitly engaged to Maggie’s cousin, Lucy.

At first, even Stephen thinks his attraction to Maggie is just a momentary recognition of someone who is attractive:

Was it possible to quarrel with a creature who had such eyes — defying and deprecating, contradicting and clinging, imperious and beseeching — full of delicious opposites. To see such a creature subdued by love for one would be a lot worth having — to another man.

Before long, though, Stephen is ready to throw away his relationship with Lucy and force Maggie to throw away any potential relationship with Philip — which she isn’t really sure can happen anyway, since always in the background there’s Tom. Maggie’s struggles with what she should do are poignant, and Eliot does a fantastic job showing Maggie try to reason her way through this unreasonable situation:

There were moments in which a cruel selfishness seemed to be getting possession of her: why should not Lucy — why should not Philip suffer? She had had to suffer through many years of her life, and who had renounced anything for her? And when something like that fulness of existence — love, wealth, ease, refinement — all that her nature craved was brought within her reach, why was she to forego it, that another might have it — another, who perhaps needed it less?

I’m still thinking a lot about how the book proceeds and how it ends. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all, but I’m excited by that fact; hopefully that means it will continue to cause me to think and wonder, much as Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! has continued to make me consider the questions its author put forward.

Next we will be reading Eliot’s third novel (and one much shorter than the rest), Silas Marner. I’m so excited!

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