Upon completion of the The Mill on the Floss, I realized that I had just finished something monumental—a staggeringly amazing literary achievement. This novel, written by ‘George Eliot’ (Mary Anne, or Marian Evans), and first published by Blackwood and Sons in 1860, could have just as easily been titled, “Pride and Prejudice” had not that title been put to use already. Some twenty-four hours after finishing this book, I am coming to the conclusion that Eliot may, in fact, represent the absolute pinnacle of writing in the Victorian Age. This is not, in any way, shape, or form, a “Silly novel by a Lady Novelist” (see Eliot’s essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” Westminster Review, October 1856). This novel is not of the “mind-and-millinery,” “rank-and-beauty,” or of the “enigmatic” species. This is a novel in the finest tradition of Realism, and I can’t help but think that it must have inspired the later Naturalism of Thomas Hardy and his ‘Wessex’ novels.
This book should really be required reading for parents and brothers and sisters. The story of the young Maggie Tulliver, and her relationship with her older brother Tom and her parents is compelling, and is one that we can all relate at so many levels. It warns us that actions, things said, or beliefs instilled upon the young can have profound implications for years to come.
I suppose in some respects that The Mill on the Floss can also be considered to be the bildungsroman of Maggie Tulliver as Eliot clearly focuses on the psychological and moral growth of Maggie, her main protagonist, from when she was a little girl until she has become a young-adult. It is the ability (or inability) of Maggie to adapt to changes in her own life, and the lives of those she loves around her, that provides the main premise of the narrative. In the spirit of full disclosure, I began to fall in love with Maggie early on in the novel, and loved her more with each page that I turned.
In my opinion, Maggie Tulliver is one of the most engaging and endearing heroines that a reader will encounter in Victorian fiction. Eliot’s raven-haired and dark-eyed beautiful creation manages to combine the goodness, sensitivity, and natural curiosity of Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Molly Gibson;’ the spirit and independence of Charles Dickens’s ‘Bella Wilfur;’ and the wit and humor of Jane Austen’s ‘Elizabeth Bennet.’ Maggie Tulliver has a heart the size of the sun, nearly as bright, and burns just as hotly. She wants to please everyone, all of the time; and it is this propensity to love and be loved that leads to her troubles. Mostly though, Maggie desires more than anything to please her older brother Tom; and, in return, to be unconditionally loved by him.
We see an example of Maggie’s spiritual and emotional maturation in her heart-felt and frank discussion with Stephen Guest, a young man who has fallen head-over-heels in love with her, even though he is essentially ‘promised’ to Maggie’s cousin, Lucy Deane:
“She was silent for a few moments, with her eyes fixed on the ground; then she drew a deep breath, and said, looking up at him with solemn sadness—
“O it is difficult—life is very difficult! It seems right to me sometimes that we should follow our strongest feeling—but then, such feelings continually come across the ties that all our former life has made for us—the ties that have made others dependent on us—and would have cut them in two. If life were quite easy and simple, as it might have been in paradise, and we could always see that one being first towards whom… I mean, if life did not make duties for us before love comes, love would be a sign that two people ought to belong to each other. But I see—I feel it is not so now: there are things we must renounce in life; some of us must resign love. Many things are difficult and dark to me; but I see one thing quite clearly—that I must not, cannot, seek my own happiness by sacrificing others. Love is natural; but surely pity and faithfulness and memory are natural too. And they would live in me still, and punish me if I did not obey them. I should be haunted by the suffering I had caused. Our love would be poisoned. Don’t urge me; help me—help me, because I love you.”
--These are the words of a young woman that has finally found herself, and has reconciled the passionate and intellectual sides of her spirit. Arguably one of the most eloquent and beautiful passages I’ve read in some time.
Finally, like Dickens does with the Thames River in his magnum opus, Our Mutual Friend, Eliot weaves the theme of The Floss, the river that binds together the peoples and the landscape of Maggie’s world, through the novel with her use of metaphor and allusion, and pastoral description. The novel starts with The Floss, and through the course of the book it is always there, relentlessly flowing to the sea. In some respects, The Floss represents the things we say, feelings we have, or actions we take that get away from us; sometimes ‘flowing’ past us, becoming irretrievable and lost forever. Ultimately, it is this connection with The Floss that Eliot masterfully uses to bring her readers to the close of this magnificent novel culminating in the great climax that finally defeats pride and prejudice and brings Maggie the redemption she longs for.
“The Mill on the Floss” is a towering masterpiece—a novel for the ages.