The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

George Eliot has always proved to be a bit of a mixed bag for me: whilst I loved Middlemarch, I can’t say that I enjoyed Silas Marner or Adam Bede all that much at all. But my love for Middlemarch keeps me optimistic about her writing, and that definitely paid off with The Mill on the Floss. This might actually be the shortest amount of time between finishing a novel and writing a post about it; I literally finished reading five minutes ago (at the time of writing, not posting). The reason for this quick turnaround is simple: this was a novel which provoked a lot of emotion in me. I spent five minutes in a state of shock at the ending, and then decided that I must write my thoughts down before I forgot them, because I think this is one of those occasions where an emotional response is a good thing.

The Mill on the Floss follows the story of the Tulliver family as they navigate the expectations of their extended family, the failure of their livelihood, and their complex relationships with each other. The novel focuses on the relationship between Tom and Maggie, generally believed to be loosely based on Eliot’s relationship with her own brother. It is an unusual structure for a novel of its time: much more circular, particularly in ‘Book First: Boy and Girl’ and ‘Book Second: School-Time’, than I originally expected. For this reason, it took a few chapters for me to get fully invested in the narrative, but in retrospect I can see the effect that it gives to the novel as a whole. From the opening chapter, in which the reader is introduced for the only time to the narrator, The Mill on the Floss has the same feeling of a biography. As Eliot gradually builds up these characters, through events both significant and insignificant, they become almost as though real people making the choices that real people sometimes have to make. The effect of the ending, taken with this in mind, is incredibly clever: in a differently structured narrative, it would be a little bittersweet perhaps; in The Mill on the Floss, it is devastating.

The real draw of the novel is in the character of Maggie. Eliot’s protagonist is such a full, flawed, endearing character that you can’t help but identify with her. There is a universal emotion that Eliot taps into here: that doubt and fear when we look at the mistakes we’ve made and wonder why they happened when we thought we were doing the right thing. It is a very human emotion, I think. And it is something which Maggie encapsulates beautifully: it could never be doubted that she is loving, generous, and well-meaning, yet she is also impulsive, careless, and jealous. Not all of the circumstances she finds herself in are of her own making, but the reader can see how she often ends up making the situation worse for herself. By the mid-point of the narrative, I found myself not only pretty attached to Maggie as a character, but surprisingly protective of her: I wanted her to be happy; I wanted her friends and family to acknowledge her strengths and not just her flaws; I wanted something good to happen to her for once.

Last week, I criticised Career of Evil for introducing an unnecessary love triangle. This week, I’m commending The Mill on the Floss for the way in which the love stories (Love triangles? Love rectangle?) were handled. Towards the end of the novel, Maggie finds herself facing an impossible choice, and there is no decision she can make which won’t hurt the people that she loves. Yet, despite everything that has happened, and despite every expectation from a Victorian novel, it is friendship and family which endures. There is a point in which Maggie truly and utterly believes she has lost everyone she cares for, and she truly and utterly believes that she deserves to have lost everyone. Yet it is made abundantly clear that the people who really care for her, will always care for her: strengths, and flaws, and mistakes, and all. Romantic love is only one way in which Maggie is seen: she is loved as a sister, as a daughter, as a cousin, as a niece, and as a friend. That is such an important message for Maggie, and it is an important message for the reader, too.

I had no idea what to expect from The Mill on the Floss when I started reading; I was simply thinking that I hadn’t read a Victorian novel in a little while. To be honest, I spent most of the novel not being sure what to expect from it, as the narrative seemed to be meandering a little from time to time. Yet my emotional response is such that I almost wish I could read it again right now. I suspect a large part of this is tied up with the character of Maggie; I suspect another part is the prioritisation of platonic love over romantic love. Either way, it shows how well-written a novel it is. I don’t know that I could necessarily say that I loved this more than Middlemarch, but it is definitely up there with books I would not hesitate to recommend again and again.

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