The Mill on the Floss was one of my favorite books ever when I read it a decade or so back. I recently had a break in my reading, and decided to download it to my kindle (free, since it’s an older book) and read it again, to see how it seemed to me now.
This review will contain some spoilers, since it’s hard to review without any. So, if you haven’t read the book yet and would like to, be aware.
My thought through the first half or so of the book was that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had years ago. There was a whole (whole, whole, whole) lot of talk amongst Tom and Maggie Tulliver’s older aunts and extended family. Tons of talk about the family losing various things (china, linens, etc) when their fortunes took a downturn. Also tons of time devoted to Tom’s schooling. All of this, in great detail, is typical for writing of the time (1800s), but to us spoiled 21st century readers, it becomes tedious after a while.
The author, George Eliot (actual name Mary Anne Evans,) also is famous for writing Middlemarch. I have read both, but much prefer The Mill on the Floss. TMOTF has a much higher drama factor, which I’m always a sucker for. Middlemarch reads more like a 19th century soap opera — all kinds of things going on in town, but none with life-or-death consequences that TMOTF offers.
The Mill on the Floss
The story centers on siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. When the novel begins, they are children. They are very different in nature, with Tom being stubborn/rules-oriented, (basically a big jerk). “Tom 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.” Maggie, on the other hand, is totally ruled by her heart. “The need of being loved was the strongest need in poor Maggie’s nature.”
The Tullivers are pretty poor, and all they have is Dorlcote Mill. But their dad has a bunch of bad luck, and ends up losing the mill to the evil lawyer in town. To add a twist to things, mean ol’ lawyer’s son Philip has taken a shine to Maggie. Tom gets his pants in a wad over this and vows to never speak to Maggie again should she decide to keep up a friendship (or, heaven forbid, more) with Philip.
Maggie bears this as best she can, confiding in her cousin Lucy. I kept getting a mental picture of Nellie Olson for Lucy — she is blonde, pretty, and rich, although unlike Nellie she really did come across as sweet. She is engaged to town rich boy and heartthrob Stephen.
But — get this — over time, Maggie and Stephen realize that they are in love! Oh, what to do? Stephen feels terrible about leaving his fiancee Lucy out to dry, while Mattie feels like she can’t hurt either her cousin Lucy, or her first love Philip, OR her brother Tom by getting together with Stephen.
In novels like this, I’m always so impressed by characters like Maggie who have so much regard for morals. Even when they are madly in love, they are prepared to give it all up for the sake of others (Maggie reminds me of Jane Eyre giving up Mr. Rochester in this regard). Maggie’s “own life was still a drama for her, in which she demanded of herself that her part should be played with intensity.”
There are some great conversations in the book. I think I was born in the wrong century, because to have the conversations Maggie had with Stephen or with Philip would be bliss. Philip writes to Maggie,
I never expected happiness; and in knowing you, in loving you, I have had, and still have, what reconciles me to life. You have been to my affections what light, what color is to my eyes, what music is to the inward ear, you have raised a dim unrest into a vivid consciousness. The new life I have found in caring for your joy and sorrow more than for what is directly my own, has transformed the spirit of rebellious murmuring into that willing endurance which is the birth of strong sympathy.
The Floss River, where the Mill is located, plays a huge role in the novel. As the action builds, the river swells, and the book ends with a huge flood, which ends in tragedy for two of the main characters. Maggie tells Tom in a final confrontation, “I know I’ve been wrong, often, continually. But yet, sometimes when I have done wrong, it has been because I have feelings that you would be the better for, if you had them.”
Eliot is an excellent writer (this book isn’t a classic for nothing), with witty observations throughout:
Mrs. Glegg had both a front and a back parlor in her excellent house at St. Ogg’s, so that she had two points of view from which she could observe the weakness of her fellow-beings, and reinforce her thankfulness for her own exceptional strength of mind.
… but in the feminine character, it may easily happen that the flavor is unpleasant in spite of excellent ingredients; and a fine systematic stinginess may be accompanied with a seasoning that quite spoils its relish.
Have I convinced you yet? As you can see, I really enjoyed and recommend this book.