The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is a wonderful frustrating read. George Eliot’s major interest is the situation of unmarried women. In her day, their situation was not very good. Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of The Mill on the Floss, must obey first her father’s and then her brother’s wishes. She is devoted to both and never questions her position or her duty to them. This is especially hard for her because she is in love with Phillip Wakem whose father has used legal means to steal away the Tulliver family’s mill. In one of the book’s most dramatic scenes Mr. Tulliver makes his son Tom swear out a written oath in the family bible to get revenge on the Wakem family for stealing the mill.
A modern reader can’t help but want Maggie to forsake her family and run off with Phillip Wakem. Phillip is smart, kind, rich, granted he is physically deformed in a way that is not completely explained, but otherwise he is a perfect match for Maggie. But Maggie’s devotion to her brother Tom is unassailable, even though it is clear to this reader that Tom does not deserve it. Maggie forces Phillip to vow never to see her again only to meet Stephen Guest who falls in love with her in spite of being already more or less engaged to Maggie’s cousin Lucy. Again, the modern reader wishes she would run off with Stephen who is smart, kind, rich and physically fit, but Maggie will not neglect her duty to both Lucy and her brother Tom’s reputation.
Just what exactly does George Eliot want the reader to take away from The Mill on the Floss? Her answer would not be ours, since the book deals with 19th century morals not 21st century ones. Maggie is not the compelling character one finds in Eliot’s Middlemarch. She lacks the depth of Dorothea Brooks which makes it difficult to sympathize with her. She is clearly a good woman, repeatedly forced into situations that risk ruining her reputation by the men around her. But it’s just this lack of force, lack of action on Maggie’s part that makes her such a frustrating character. Perhaps this is part of the critique Eliot offers; the myth of the good woman would have us believe that through her example, through the high moral standard Maggie sets, the men around her would be moved to better behavior. They are not. Tom remains insuffrable and vindictive, Phillip never rises to the occasion, Stephen practically kidnaps Maggie. In the end, Maggie’s high moral compass fails to help anyone.
The first part of the novel deals with Maggie and Tom’s childhood and with the assorted members of the extended family and it’s here that you’ll find the most enjoyment. The long family dinner scenes are colorful, warm and witty. I found myself laughing out loud several times. Mrs. Tulliver and her three sisters, their husbands and children all make up a very entertaining group and provide George Eliot ample opportunity to show off her skill at creating wide ranging characters. Unfortunately, instead of showing us the world in a small town like she did in Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss narrows its focus to a small set of very frustrating personalities.
I don’t think this review is very good. I first ran it on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. I can’t quite pin down why I don’t like this review much. It seems wishy-washy to me, somehow. I rally don’t recall much about the book either, which surprises me some. Middlemarch is one of my all time favorites, I’ve even gone so far as to call it the best novel in English, but this one didn’t make much of an impression.