The Mill on the Floss

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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I ended up listening to The Mill on the Floss twice through, and for that I blame the fact that I have been doing more running and less stair-climbing recently. When I run, I usually prefer to listen to music rather than books. Result : whereas normally I listen to a book in big chunks of time at the gym supplemented by smaller chunks in the car, at the store, etc., The Mill on the Floss got heard nearly entirely in very short fragments and interrupted snatches.

That was a bad way to listen! George Eliot opens this, her second full-lenth novel, with a long conjuring of the adult world as seen through the eyes of two children. Broken into short pieces, this first section seemed endless and rather boring. I grumbled about this opening for a couple of weeks, until the plot began to accelerate. Only then did I grasp what Eliot was doing and why – and regretted my complaining. So as soon as I finished I listened all over again, and this time had a much better experience.

The Mill on the Floss tells the story of two children: willful, emotional, and bookish Maggie Tulliver, and her brother, determined, unbending, and forceful Tom Tulliver.

Tom was only thirteen, and had decided views in grammar and arithmetic, regarding them for the most part as open questions, but he was particularly clear and positive on one point,Ñnamely, that he 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.

Their father owns a water mill on the River Floss. He elder Mr. Tulliver is a hot-headed, argumentative man, always quarreling with his neighbors and relatives and unrestrained by his stupid and pettish wife.

The miller’s litigiousness ends by ruining him. He loses everything, the family possessions are sold off, and he is reduced to eking out a living as an employee at the mill he once owned, miserably saving his money in hope of repaying his debts and regaining his shattered honor.

Eliot renders these details of middle class provincial life with brilliant and rather cruel vividness. The miller’s wife’s relatives are well off by local standards – one of them very well off. They make no effort to save the miller’s family from ruin. Their duty to the family, as they see it, involves no more than averting outright destitution: sending round a pound of tea every now and then, seasoned with scolding and reproaches.

Tom and Maggie must leave school. That’s not a tragedy for Tom, who hates school and is not good at it. Tom’s schooling is mercilessly caricatured anyway as beyond useless: fragments of Latin and Euclid taught by a pompous schoolmaster – an experience made all the worse because one of Tom’s schoolmates is the son of his father’s arch-enemy, Mr. Wakem, the lawywer who bests him in court and gains ownership of the mill from the wreck.

Tom devotes himself to work and flourishes. He invests, speculates, and begins to grow rich. After 5 years of effort, Tom repays his father’s debts and gains a partnership in the leading trading house in the Tullivers’ town. Mr. Tulliver dies a vindicated man.

As Tom pursues wealth, Maggie seeks love. As a girl, she had adored Tom. After the ruin of the family’s fortunes, she threw herself into ascetic religion. Next, she embarks on an intense but chaste affair with Philip Wakem, Tom’s detested schoolfellow. Philip is crippled in body and thus regarded by everyone as utterly unmarriageable, despite his brilliant mind and sensitive spirit. He falls desperately in love with the beautiful Maggie, and she eventually promises to marry nobody else but him.

More plot twists. Tom has now amassed enough money to repurchase the old mill as his own home. Yet he is unlucky in love: He has fallen in love with a cousin, Lucy Deane. Lucy alas prefers Stephen Guest, the handsome, idle heir of the richest family in town. Lucy’s preference is nicely indicated by her acceptance of a birthday gift of a spaniel puppy from her wealthy suitor – after which we learn that Tom had also bought a puppy for the birthday but returned home without presenting it.

(Spaniel fanciers will appreciate the subtle class distinction that Stephen’s gift was red-and-white while Tom’s was black. Spaniels make such frequent appearances in 19th century novels that I have come to believe there could be a Ph.D. dissertation on “the spaniel in literature” – that is, assuming it has not been done already, which come to think of it, it must.)

Stephen now begins ardently to pursue the exotic and passionate Maggie. She responds. Stephen proposes. She is tempted. Shall she build her happiness on the misery of Lucy and Philip?

“Remember what you felt weeks ago,” she began, with beseeching earnestness; “remember what we both felt,Ñthat we owed ourselves to others, and must conquer every inclination which could make us false to that debt. We have failed to keep our resolutions; but the wrong remains the same.”

“No, it does not remain the same,” said Stephen. “We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us toward each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts every other; we can’t help what it clashes with.”

“It is not so, Stephen; I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again; but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty; we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.”

“But there are ties that can’t be kept by mere resolution,” said Stephen, starting up and walking about again. “What is outward faithfulness? Would they have thanked us for anything so hollow as
constancy without love?”

Maggie did not answer immediately. She was undergoing an inward as well as an outward contest. At last she said, with a passionate assertion of her conviction, as much against herself as against him,Ñ “That seems rightÑat first; but when I look further, I’m sure it is not right. Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us,Ñwhatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us. …

But now comes an entrapping circumstance. Through a series of accidents and incidents, she finds herself alone in a rowboat with Stephen. Lost in silent thought, the two of them unconsciously allow the boat to float hours downstream, far past the point where they could catch a carriage home.

Now she is trapped. They will have to continue to float downstream to the nearest city, Mudport, a full 15 miles from their town of St. Ogg’s. That journey would take hours – and keep them away overnight alone together. Nobody will believe their innocence. Stephen seizes on this fact: Now Maggie has no choice. She must marry him or stand condemn in the eyes of all who know her as an immoral woman. Land in Mudport, take a train to Scotland (the Las Vegas of the day, where a wedding license could be obtained immediately rather than after three weeks’ delay), and return home after a judicious interval as man and wife.

Eliot sardonically depicts the likely consequences of this choice:

If Miss Tulliver, after a few months of well-chosen travel, had returned as Mrs. Stephen Guest, with a post-marital trousseau, and all the advantages possessed even by the most unwelcome wife of an only son, public opinion, which at St. Ogg’s, as else where, always knew what to think, would have judged in strict consistency with those results. Public opinion, in these cases, is always of the feminine gender,Ñnot the world, but the world’s wife; and she would have seen that two handsome young peopleÑthe gentleman of quite the first family in St. Ogg’sÑhaving found themselves in a false position, had been led into a course which, to say the least of it, was highly injudicious, and productive of sad pain and disappointment, especially to that sweet young thing, Miss Deane. Mr. Stephen Guest had certainly not behaved well; but then, young men were liable to those sudden infatuated attachments; and bad as it might seem in Mrs. Stephen Guest to admit the faintest advances from her cousin’s lover (indeed it had been said that she was actually engaged to young Wakem,Ñold Wakem himself had mentioned it), still, she was very young,Ñ”and a deformed young man, you know!Ñand young Guest so very fascinating; and, they say, he positively worships her (to be sure, that can’t last!), and he ran away with her in the boat quite against her will, and what could she do? She couldn’t come back then; no one would have spoken to her; and how very well that maize-colored satinette becomes her complexion! It seems as if the folds in front were quite come in; several of her dresses are made so,Ñthey say he thinks nothing too handsome to buy for her. Poor Miss Deane! She is very pitiable; but then there was no positive engagement; and the air at the coast will do her good. After all, if young Guest felt no more for her than that it was better for her not to marry him. What a wonderful marriage for a girl like Miss Tulliver,Ñquite romantic? Why, young Guest will put up for the borough at the next election. Nothing like commerce nowadays! That young Wakem nearly went out of his mind; he always was rather queer; but he’s gone abroad again to be out of the way,Ñquite the best thing for a deformed young man. Miss Unit declares she will never visit Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Guest,Ñsuch nonsense! pretending to be better than other people. Society couldn’t be carried on if we inquired into private conduct in that way,Ñand Christianity tells us to think no evil,Ñand my belief is, that Miss Unit had no cards sent her.”

Yet still Maggie refuses. Stephen miserably hails a passing freighting vessel. They arrive in Mudport, there to separate: Stephen to the continent, Maggie to return home. Stephen writes a generous letter insisting on Maggie’s blamelessness, but to no avail.

Maggie had returned without a trousseau, without a husband,Ñin that degraded and outcast condition to which error is well known to lead; and the world’s wife, with that fine instinct which is given her for the preservation of Society, saw at once that Miss Tulliver’s conduct had been of the most aggravated kind. Could anything be more detestable? A girl so much indebted to her friendsÑwhose mother as well as herself had received so much kindness from the DeanesÑto lay the design of winning a young man’s affections away from her own cousin, who had behaved like a sister to her! Winning his affections? That was not the phrase for such a girl as Miss Tulliver; it would have been more correct to say that she had been actuated by mere unwomanly boldness and unbridled passion. There was always something questionable about her. That connection with young Wakem, which, they said, had been carried on for years, looked very ill,Ñdisgusting, in fact! But with a girl of that disposition!

To the world’s wife there had always been something in Miss Tulliver’s very physique that a refined instinct felt to be prophetic of harm. As for poor Mr. Stephen Guest, he was rather pitiable than otherwise; a young man of five-and-twenty is not to be too severely judged in these cases,Ñhe is really very much at the mercy of a designing, bold girl. And it was clear that he had given way in spite of himself: he had shaken her off as soon as he could; indeed, their having parted so soon looked very black indeedÑfor her. To be sure, he had written a letter, laying all the blame on himself, and telling the story in a romantic fashion so as to try and make her appear quite innocent; of course he would do that! But the refined instinct of the world’s wife was not to be deceived; providentially!Ñelse what would become of Society? Why, her own brother had turned her from his door; he had seen enough, you might be sure, before he would do that. A truly respectable young man, Mr. Tom Tulliver; quite likely to rise in the world! His sister’s disgrace was naturally a heavy blow to him. It was to be hoped that she would go out of the neighborhood,Ñto America, or anywhere,Ñso as to purify the air of St. Ogg’s from the stain of her presence, extremely dangerous to daughters there! No good could happen to her; it was only to be hoped she would repent, and that God would have mercy on her: He had not the care of society on His hands, as the world’s wife had.

Everyone condemns her, even Tom, who closes his door on her. There is one exception: Philip, who generously forgives her. Maggie takes refuge in rented quarters in St. Ogg’s with an old family friend, in a house sited directly upon the Floss.

Then comes a night of terrible rains. The Floss floods – Eliot recreates the flooding based on an actual flood of the Trent River. Maggie acts with sudden heroism. She leads the family with whom she is staying to safety – then seizes their boat and rows to the mill, where Tom is stranded and threatened by rising waters. He joins her in the boat. There is time for a second of reconciliation before the boat is struck by a loosened piece of factory equipment. It is overturned, and Tom and Maggie drown. The book ends with a visit to their shared grave by a reunited Lucy and Stephen, to view the chiseled inscription, “In death they were not divided.”

The Mill on the Floss is not entirely free of that heavy-handedness which is Eliot’s one great flaw as a writer. The drowning of Maggie and Tom is thickly and repeatedly foreshadowed in the opening pages of the novel, including this bit, 8-year-old Maggie reading from one of her beloved books:

“That old woman in the water’s a witch,–they’ve put her in to find out whether she’s a witch or no; and if she swims she’s a witch, and if she’s drowned–and killed, you know–she’s innocent, and not a witch, but only a poor silly old woman. But what good would it do her then, you know, when she was drowned? Only, I suppose, she’d go to heaven, and God would make it up to her.”

Maggie is drowned, therefore she’s not guilty of moral crime, but only a poor silly woman. Couldn’t ask for it to be spelled out clearer than that.

The symbolism of the river is likewise underscored to the point where you wonder if there is anything left for the editors of Cliff’s Notes to do. It’s life, it’s passion, it’s the irreversible transition from golden childhood to adulthood. Like the river, the novel starts slow; like the river, its current accelerates as the story deepens and widens. Got it.

Those quibbles recorded, you will hear no other dissent from me from the verdict that The Mill on the Floss is one of the supreme achievements of 19th century English literature. The evocation of childhood really is marvelous, Maggie is a fascinating and beguiling person, and Eliot does profound moral and aesthetic justice to everyone touched by the tragedy of her life.

Some critics see in Maggie a voice of protest by Eliot against the intellectual and moral restrictions imposed upon women. Maggie has to fight ferociously to get even a small share of the education so lavishly and uselessly expended upon Tom. When disaster strikes the family, she is denied any opportunity to contribute to the retrieval of the family fortunes.

For example, she not only determined to work at plain sewing, that she might contribute something toward the fund in the tin box, but she went, in the first instance, in her zeal of self-mortification, to ask for it at a linen shop in St. Ogg’s, instead of getting it in a more quiet and indirect way; and could see nothing but what was entirely wrong and unkind, nay, persecuting, in Tom’s reproof of her for this unnecessary act. “I don’t like my sister to do such things,” said Tom, “I’ll take care that the debts are paid, without your lowering yourself in that way.”

(Eliot adds with her usual fair-mindendess:

Surely there was some tenderness and bravery mingled with the worldliness and self-assertion of that little speech; but Maggie held it as dross, overlooking the grains of gold, and took Tom’s rebuke as one of her outward crosses. )

These critics are surely right of course. But they miss something: If Eliot espouses an early feminism, it is not all the kind of feminism that we see in contemporary fiction. Eliot is the great novelist of moral responsibility – a theme all the more impressive because she in her own personal life transgressed the moral conventions of Victorian society by living unmarried with a man married to someone else. (That man in turn accepted his wife’s relationships with other men, and even signed the birth certificates accepting children of those relationships as his own.)

These transgressions might have turned Eliot into a scourge of social conventions – a phenomenon we see often enough in our day. Instead, they led her to a deeper scrutiny of moral rules, and a deeper sympathy for duty as well as for passion.

I can see why they used to put this novel so often on high school curricula. It invites young people into a world governed by a code so very different from that so often articulated in our own less rigorous time, guided by a narrator whose story provokes us both to criticize that code and yet also to appreciate it – and even to apply it, just a little, to ourselves.

And before young people give up novel-reading entirely – and our speech is so altered that Eliot becomes as alien as Milton … or Chaucer … or Beowulf … it is eye-opening at least for citizens of the modern consumer republic to encounter a world, not so very removed in time from our own, in which

there was no incongruous new-fashioned smartness, no plate-glass in shop-windows, no fresh stucco-facing or other fallacious attempt to make fine old red St. Ogg’s wear the air of a town that sprang up yesterday. The shop-windows were small and unpretending; for the farmers’ wives and daughters who came to do their shopping on market-days were not to be withdrawn from their regular well-known shops; and the tradesmen had no wares intended for customers who would go on their way and be seen no more.

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