Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)

Our latest DAFFODILS selection is the uncharacteristically classic novel The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860), and I'm not sad about that at all since I really liked Adam Bede and Silas Marner and I wrote a paper on George Eliot's life when I was in college.

The Mill on the Floss follows the tragic saga of the Tulliver family, with a focus on the daughter, Maggie. Mr. Tulliver owns a mill that has been in his family for generations. He married well to the mildest of the regionally respected Dodson sisters, and they have two children, Tom and Maggie. He is reasonably successful, but for a unclear reason that seems to be a mixture of pride and foolishness, he recklessly pursues legal action against his neighbors and a combination of his recklessness and the determination of a local lawyer, Mr. Wakem, he ends up losing the mill, his health, and nearly all his pride. Maggie and Tom had, up to this point, had a pretty idyllic childhood. Maggie is curious and clever (really too clever for a girl) and adores her older brother, who is more practical and less imaginative than his sister. They spat and make up and get in various kinds of trouble, generally stemming from Maggie's wild emotions and creative ideas. There is more than a little Anne of Green Gables going on with young Maggie. Prior to losing the mill, Mr. Tulliver pays to send Tom to study with a nearby churchman, at whose house Mr. Wakem's hunchbacked and sensitive son, Philip, also studies. The two very different boys fight a bit, but Maggie is fascinated by the gentle and bookish Philip. All that ends when the mill is lost and Tom must seek his fortune to pay his father's debts and save the family name.

Maggie devotes herself to a life of isolation and denial, but her passionate and headstrong nature doesn't keep her there for very long. Ultimately she finds herself grown up and very beautiful, though inexperienced. Her lovely and wealthy cousin Lucy invites her to stay with her for a summer and there she meets Lucy's suitor Stephen, and they unexpectedly fall in love. The last third of the book hinges on Maggie's tug of war between the head and the heart, although her ultimate decision after an ill-fated boat ride with Stephen turns the respectable people of the town, as well as her brother, staunchly against her. The ending of the book is shocking and pretty brutal. At first I felt cheated and didn't like it at all, but the more I think about it, the more perfect it becomes.

This isn't necessarily an easy read, like much Victorian literature the plot turns on an unfamiliar moral code and the level of description (particularly of natural features and houses) is a little off-putting. Still, the lovingly drawn (and sometimes hilarious characters) and the rush of the plot in the last third make up for any difficulty in getting into the book. Maggie's aunts, in particular, are a perfect balance of hilariously provincial and sometimes unexpectedly sweet. Much has been written about how this novel in particular draws from Eliot's life, as a dark haired, isolated, too smart for her own good woman in Victorian England who carried on a long relationship with a married man. There is a lot going on in this book and I find myself teasing back through it even now, weeks after I finished it. That sounds like a perfect recipe for a meaty book club discussion...

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