Eliot, George

Review: “The Mill on the Floss” by George Eliot [1860]

The souls by nature pitch’d too high, by suffering plung’d too low. – p. 454

I have always had the impression that George Eliot’s writing was distinctly cold and subdued, choosing to critique society and explore social hierarchies rather than write romances with happy endings. My only experiences with Eliot’s writing are her rather odd fiction, Silas Marner and The Lifted Veil, both which meanders from what she is known for. But The Mill on the Floss begs to differ – it is so intense and so utterly romantic, thankfully not in a cringe-worthy way, that this must be one of the most emotional and moving books I’ve ever read.

Beginning at Dorlcote Mill in St. Oggs, the Tulliver family and their relations, with its numerous aunts and uncles, are established. Maggie Tulliver, with her dark hair, wild eyes and tanned skin, is a passionate and precocious young girl and never far from the reach of trouble. Constantly derided and scolded despite Maggie’s best intentions, Maggie can’t seem to win the love of her family. Only her father, Mr. Tulliver, sees his daughter’s attempts and is the only one who ever defends her, affectionately referring her as his ‘little wench’. Here is a scene after Maggie has chopped off all her hair:

‘Come, come, my wench,’ said her father soothingly putting his arms round her, ‘never mind. You was i’ the right to cut it off if it plagued you. Give over crying: father’ll take your part.’

Delicious words of tenderness! Maggie never forgot any of these moments when her father ‘took her part’. – p. 74

The relationship between Mr Tulliver and Maggie is one of the highlights of the story. The tenderness and love that shines through is unmistakable and never fails to grasp my heart. Aside from her father, Maggie adores and idolises her older brother, Tom, with whom she shared a close and affectionate relationship while they were both children. As Tom reaches adolescence, he develops strong ideas about justice and what is right and wrong. His strong ideas of morals, where there is no room for shades of grey, will play a part in the later division between Tom and Maggie.

When the siblings are in their mid-teens, Mr. Tulliver loses one of his many court cases and is consequently bankrupted and loses the mill. This shakes up the family significantly and life changes forever for Tom and Maggie. Tom finds solace in his work, proving himself to have a head for business, while Maggie finds newfound faith in the bible and religion. As a result, Maggie becomes calmer and subdued, her passionate and fiery nature now in check. As the two siblings grow up, they also grow further apart with their different temperaments now more distinct than ever and also suffering from hardship.

Maggie grows into a beautiful young woman who, while still subdued, finds her passionate nature threatening to boil over the mask she has created. She finds herself attached to two impossible and unsuitable men. The first, Philip Wakem, a wealthy but deformed childhood friend whose lawyer father was also the force behind the Tulliver’s bankruptcy and the second, Stephen Guest who is informally engaged to Maggie’s sweet and gentle cousin. Torn between her love and attraction to these men and her desire to do right by Tom, Maggie finds herself in an impossible situation because it is both¬† Philip and Stephen who are able to provide the one thing Maggie craves more than anything and which is something Tom never gives freely – love.

I absolutely loved this book and it is now one of my utmost favourite books. The story has left me reeling and the ending devastated me. I’m still a little angry about it. While the story was beautiful throughout, there was always a sense of foreboding that something terrible was going to happen. I loved Maggie and Mr. Tulliver who had the the most beautiful father-daughter relationship I’ve ever read. I didn’t quite get the same sense between Maggie and Tom. Maggie is a character that is difficult to forget and I feel desperately sorry for her, always an outsider despite whatever she did. Have some tissues nearby when you read this.