The Mill on the Floss

I like it as much as I like Middlemarch. Which of course is a lot. 

There seems to be a critical consensus that Middlemarch is George Eliot's great achievement, and a great achievement by any standard. And I wouldn't argue with that as a matter of cool-headed judgment. The introduction (excellent, by the way) to the edition of The Mill on the Floss that I have, one of the Houghton-Mifflin Riverside editions that were common in the '60s, claims that "dissatisfaction with the...ending is almost universal." And I don't dissent. But by the straightforward criterion of enjoyment, I can't much prefer either novel over the other.

In both cases the fundamental pleasure is Eliot's prose, either in narration or in the voices of her characters. The drama in both is foremost in the nature of the characters and in their relationships rather than in external events, and those are communicated with a grace, intelligence, and wit that in my somewhat limited reading experience have no superior and few (if any) equals. As with Middlemarch, I closed the book thinking "I want to meet Mary Anne Evans." Not that I would have anything to say to her, but I think I would love to hear her talk. 

On the basis of these two novels it's impossible for me to believe that their heroines did not have something in common with Evans/Eliot herself. The central character in both is a dark-haired, brilliant, and passionate girl or woman who finds herself in--or gets herself into--various difficulties. Dorothea (Middlemarch) and Maggie Tulliver (The Mill) are not the same person, but they are certainly similar: middle-class girls in provincial towns among a fairly narrow bourgeoisie, intelligent and ambitious of noble thoughts and deeds, but with little opportunity of pursuing them. And they might be more similar if we saw them at similar periods of their lives. We meet Dorothea when she is nineteen, whereas at the end of The Mill Maggie is barely that old. 

Maggie is only nine at the opening of her story (and by the way both she and her creator were born in November 1819). She's the daughter of a miller who dotes on but is puzzled by her, a mother who despairs of her none-too-orderly appearance and behavior, and an older brother who cares for her but likes to lord it over her. The father is good-hearted, but impetuous, hot-tempered, and none too wise in the ways of the world. These traits bring him and the family to disaster. and a great deal of the story, the second half at least, is the account of their several struggles to cope with the situation.

I'm always at a bit of a loss when I discuss a great work in these short notes: what, of the many many things worth mentioning, shall I mention? A full appreciation would be the labor of many weeks and thousands of words. Yet to pick out one or two seems to slight others of equal significance. But since I don't want to put in those weeks of work, I'll have to do it.

One thing that presents itself most strongly to me in these characters, not only Maggie and Dorothea but several others, is a sense of their own personal honor and integrity that is quite foreign to our culture. (You could make that part of an argument for the benefit of reading the classics.) Their moral standards are very high, and not only is it extremely important to them that they not fall below those standards, but also that they not be seen as falling below them. I don't mean to be suggesting hypocrisy or the empty moral posturing of "whited sepulchres." There is certainly plenty of those in some of the other characters; Eliot is very much a realist. And I don't mean for "moral" to conjure up the usual picture of prudish Victorians, although sexual morality is is certainly included (and is more closely connected to integrity than our culture understands).

It's a scorn of base motives, an intention to act only from principle unaffected by self-interest. I'll try to keep this example a bit vague, so as not to give away too much. (That may seem silly with respect to a book published 150 years ago which many people reading this will have read. But when a work is new to me I can't help assuming that it will be new to at least some others.)

Maggie, towards the end of the story, finds herself in a romantic situation in which she cannot "follow her heart," as people today might urge her to, without being disloyal to others. And not only does she not even seriously consider doing so, but she regards it as imperative that she not show any sign whatsoever that the emotions which are tormenting her exist. This is not only a soft concern for the others, but a hardness toward herself, toward any least hint of self-seeking and self-indulgence. It is not only what she does not do, not only that her feelings must remain hidden from others, but that even inwardly she must not give in to them--must not wallow in them, not cherish and nurture them even in the privacy of her heart. And it is certainly not that she is cold; on the contrary, her overflowing generous love, and corresponding desire to be loved, are manifest. Her sense of duty to others is not separable from her love for them. 

I see that that brief description doesn't really convey the intensity of her determination, so here's an incident. Maggie and the young man with whom she has fallen in love, and who has fallen in love with her, have found themselves alone. The young man, seized by an impulse, takes her bare arm and "showers it with kisses." Maggie recoils as if his kiss had been a snakebite: 

All the pride of her nature was stung into activity: the hateful weakness which had dragged her within reach of this wound to her self-respect, had at least wrought its own cure. The thoughts and temptations of the last month should all be flung away into an unvisited chamber of memory: there was nothing to allure her now; duty would be easy, and all the old calm purposes would reign peacefully once more.

What I'm getting at is not just that she can and will violently suppress an illicit emotion, but that her reaction is an equally powerful, for the moment a more powerful, emotion. She is not only acting objectively, so to speak, in obedience to an external rule, but subjectively, experiencing genuine horror at her lapse, at the possibility that she could give in to the temptation. Moreover--and I'm not sure I'm correctly understanding this, but if I am: the immediate cause of the horror, the thing which makes her see her danger, is that she regards the kiss as a lack of respect for her. And this is not because, or at least not only because, it suggests that she is susceptible to sexual misconduct, but because it implies acknowledgement of the feeling between them, which honor absolutely forbids that they do, and the suggestion that she would participate even that far is an insult to her.

Perhaps a better example, a simpler one anyway, but not easily illustrated with an excerpt, is the instance in Middlemarch where a man regards the fact that the woman he loves has money, and he does not, as a prohibition of his marrying her. Even though there is no question on either's part that he would be marrying her for her money, the mere fact that it would look that way would be enough of a stain on his honor that he quite firmly refuses to consider it. 

This determined integrity is part of what is encompassed in the ideal of nobility, an ideal on which our culture no longer puts much value--or perhaps I should say no longer even recognizes.


Photo By Evelyn Simak, CC BY-SA 2.0,
This is not a mill on the Floss, which by the way is the name of the river on which the Tullivers' mill is located. But it was used in a 1997 BBC adaptation of the novel, and I suspect it's a more realistic image than most of those I see on covers of the novel, which are of the Ye Picturesque Olde Mill school and don't look like working commercial concerns at all.