I recently finished rereading George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Maggie Tulliver and her brother Tom have met their fates as have all the broad cast of other characters. Boat rides down the Floss, fortunes lost and recovered, rain and tears, the quick and the dimwitted, all now tucked back into the pages of the novel. And I, washed ashore, think about the past.
For the past three summers, I have chosen to reread a classic text that I read in college. Specifically, I have chosen the big ones, the 800+ paged novels. Two summers ago, I tackled Eliot’s extraordinary Middlemarch and then, inspired to go on, I reread her paean to Judaism, Daniel Deronda. Last summer I tackled Anna Karenina. Each of these particular texts has held a particularly dear place in my heart and mind–milestones in my intellectual development–so rereading them maps how I have changed thirty-odd years later.
On this reading of the novel, I see its flaws–Eliot had trouble ending her novels, this one in particular, as though she just said, “Screw it! Let’s finish this sucker” and flooded the place. But at the same time, I marvel at her sense of character, her sense of humor, and her sense of human nature. I think we will all meet a Maggie Tulliver in our time; sometimes I think I am, or rather was, a Maggie Tulliver–dreamily distracted, lost in a good book, sometimes unkempt with unruly hair, and often stumbling into mistakes because she becomes engrossed in some compelling scene, real or just in her head. Eliot creates full-bodied, complex characters both appealing and imperfect.
Eliot’s critique of her world comes through powerfully, for it does not afford a place for a Maggie. The text is larded with lines such as Mr. Wakem’s exclamation, “We don’t ask what a woman does; we ask whom she belongs to.” Tom taunts Maggie repeatedly about gender, saying such things as “I’ve got a great deal more money than you, because I’m a boy. I always have half-sovereigns and sovereigns for my Christmas boxed because I shall be a man, and you only have five-shilling pieces, because you’re only a girl.” And Maggie exclaims about literature in general, “I’m determined to read no more books where the blond-haired women carry away all the happiness. I should begin to have a prejudice against them. If you could give me some story, now, where the dark woman triumphs, it would restore the balance.” In 1975, reading the novel for the first time, I missed that underlying anger.
I also missed, in my haste to finish the reading assignments, Eliot’s wit. Or perhaps I was too serious and scared as a student to find my own sense of humor; intellectual seriousness was the order of the day. But now, after a lifetime spent learning that laughter defends best against the cruelties of the world, I appreciate Eliot’s jaundiced humor. Of one of Maggie’s relatives, Eliot notes, “Uncle Pullet has a great natural felicity for ignorance.” Ouch. And of an aunt, Eliot says,
Mrs. Glegg had both a front and a back parlor in her excellent house at St. Ogg’s, so that she had two points of view from which she could observe the weakness of her fellow- beings, and reinforce her thankfulness for her own exceptional strength of mind.
Funniest of all, for those of us who teach, Eliot describes an instructor past his prime as follows:
Mr. Poulter. . . . had rather a shrunken appearance, and was tremulous in the mornings, not from age, but from the extreme perversity of the King’s Lorton boys, which nothing but gin could enable him to sustain with any firmness.
Not really anything one can add to such a description.
But most of all, beyond critique or humor, lies Eliot’s great compassion that come through in her philosophical musings about humanity. She ennobles each of us in our anonymous lives, aware that “the pride and obstinacy of millers and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record.” She wants to make us aware of that lost “record.” And she reflects movingly on childhood and our distance from it, observing,
“‘Ah, my child, you will have real troubles to fret about by and by,’ is the consolation we have almost all of us had administered to us in our childhood, and have repeated to other children since we have been grown up. We have all of us sobbed so piteously, standing with tiny bare legs above our little socks, when we lost sight of our mother or nurse in some strange place; but we can no longer recall the poignancy of that moment and weep over it, as we do over the remembered sufferings of five or ten years ago. Every one of those keen moments has left its trace, and lives in us still, but such traces have blent themselves irrecoverably with the firmer texture of our youth and manhood; and so it comes that we can look on at the troubles of our children with a smiling disbelief in the reality of their pain. Is there any one who can recover the experience of his childhood, not merely with a memory _of_ what he did and what happened to him,. . . but with an intimate penetration, a revived consciousness of what he felt then, . . . what he felt when his school fellows shut him out of their game because he would pitch the ball wrong out of mere wilfulness; or on a rainy day in the holidays, when he didn’t know how to amuse himself, and fell from idleness into mischief, from mischief into defiance, and from defiance into sulkiness; or when his mother absolutely refused to let him have a tailed coat that “half,” although every other boy of his age had gone into tails already? Surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life, that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the griefs of our children.”
Such a great and tender heart. Eliot looks out upon humanity, upon all our earnest feelings and all our foolish foibles, and loves us for them all.
In the end, The Mill on the Floss does not stand up to Eliot’s stunning masterpiece Middlemarch, but she explores the vagaries of childhood in far more depth, and I continue to have such fond memories of the novel, both for itself and for its significance in my life, for through it, I learned to write clearly and cogently for the first time. But that story is for Part II and another Maggie.
[Source of quotations: Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Gutenberg.org]