Book Review: The Mill on the Floss
Three times I’ve made it through George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss – 1996, 2006, and 2021. And I can honestly say that I don’t ever need to read it again.
Two years ago, I started revisiting George Eliot’s novels. They were supremely important to me when I was in my twenties and thirties. My fascination with all Victorian novels led me to read Dickens, Trollope, Gaskell, the Brontes, and at the top of the list was Eliot. Something about her work fascinated me. Maybe it was the combination of analysis and passion, and the depictions of life as a series of challenges. While there was always some romance in the plot, at the core her novels were not simply love stories but rather examinations of personal moral choices.
The Mill on the Floss is the story of the Tulliver family. The patriarch, Jeremy, owns the Dorlcote Mill on the River Floss. When a neighboring farmer diverts the river water to irrigate his lands, Tulliver takes him to court. The case goes against him, and he becomes a bankrupt and loses the mill. To make matters worse, the defense attorney Wakem purchases the mill and hires the disgraced Tulliver to manage it.
The first half of the novel primarily focuses on Tulliver’s children, Tom and Maggie. Like his father, Tom is stubborn and righteous. He holds people to high moral standards and exhibits very little compassion for weakness. His younger sister, Maggie, is intelligent and passionate but is often minimized and criticized for her impulsive nature. Their relationship is at the center of the story – how Maggie longs for Tom’s love and approval, and how he withholds them when Maggie doesn’t measure up to his standards.
After Tulliver loses the mill, Tom takes a job in his uncle’s company, and through shrewd practice, he is able to save enough money to pay off the family’s debts. He even hopes to purchase the mill back from the lawyer Wakem.
After her father’s death, Maggie takes a position teaching. During a break between terms, she visits her cousin Lucy, who is betrothed to Stephen Guest. There is instantaneous attraction between Maggie and Stephen, and while they endeavor to resist it, soon they are pulled along (literally) by the current of fate. Stephen wishes to elope, but Maggie refuses him, and she returns to her home to face her disgrace of breaking her cousin's engagement.
Much of Eliot’s novel focuses on the judgments of society. Everyone has an opinion about how people should behave. Each of Maggie’s aunts (the Dodson clan) holds herself superior to all other citizens of the town, often with the assertion that the Dodson way of doing things is the most proper way. Clearly, Tom has inherited their judgmental views, as he refuses to have anything to do with Maggie so long as she acts independent of his wishes.
As with all of Eliot’s novels, her characters face a moral crisis, usually at the intersection of personal desire and the public good. Maggie herself longs for love and affection but feels she must renounce them as nothing more than selfish desires. In her mind, it is better to deny what gives her pleasure; self-abnegation helps you put other people’s needs first.
The Mill on the Floss is George Eliot’s most autobiographical novel. The tension between Maggie and her brother is reminiscent of her relationship with her own brother, Isaac, who broke off all contact with her when she began living with a married man. You can get a sense that Maggie, with her intelligence and deeply-felt passion, is something of an avatar for the author.
Out of all of George Eliot’s novels, I have to rank The Mill on the Floss as my least favorite. I’ve tried – three times! – to enjoy it, but the truth is I can’t get past the characters. Admittedly, they are realistically portrayed, but I just don’t like them. I don’t like Tom and his stubbornness, I don’t like the father’s impulsivity or the mother’s flightiness. I don’t care for the aunts’ judgmental sides, and I got tired of Maggie’s neediness. I can understand them, maybe even sympathize with them, but overall I simply get bored with the family dysfunction.
Now that I have been revisiting Eliot’s novels, I am able to look at them with a more mature eye. I understand on a deeper level the themes that are raised, and I recognize the craft which the author brings to her work. But after careful consideration, I finally accept that The Mill on the Floss is not the novel for me. I’m glad I gave it one more shot, but it’s going to be the last one.