The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot, 1861

The Great Books Group loved Middlemarch and I think we’ll end up going through all of Eliot eventually. Half of us thought this was even better, and the other half (including me) disagreed—both on the basis of its tighter focus (less sprawling/not as all-encompassing). I loved the humor, especially the Dodson sisters, Mrs. Tulliver, Mrs. Glegg, and Mrs. Pullett: “…while no individual Dodson was satisfied with any other individual Dodson, each was satisfied, not only with him- or herself, but with the Dodsons collectively.” The narrator, discussing which history of St. Ogg to choose: “I incline to the briefest, since, if it should not be wholly true, it is at least likely to contain the least falsehood.” Mr. Tulliver, embroiled in lawsuits, wants his son to learn “‘how to wrap things up in words as aren’t actionable. It’s an uncommon fine thing …. when you can let a man know what you think of him without paying for it.'”

Eliot is a master of description—Yap the dog “danced and barked round her, as much as to say, if there was any noise wanted he was the dog for it”; Maggie impulsively cuts her hair: “one delicious grinding snip, and then another and another…”; “the hum of insects, like tiniest bells on the garment of Silence.”

Mr. Riley, asked for a recommendation for a tutor, rationalizes a choice for so many believable reasons:

…He would not omit to do a good turn to a son-in-law of Timpson’s, for Timpson was one of the most useful and influential men in the parish, and had a good deal of business, which he knew how to put into the right hands. … Timpson had a large family of daughters; Mr. Riley felt for him; besides, Louisa Timpson’s face, with its light curls, had been a familiar object to him over the pew wainscot on a Sunday for nearly fifteen years; it was natural her husband should be a commendable tutor. Moreover, Mr. Riley knew of no other schoolmaster whom he had any ground for recommending in preference; why, then, should he not recommend Stelling? His friend Tulliver had asked him for an opinion; it is always chilling, in friendly intercourse, to say you have no opinion to give. And if you deliver an opinion at all, it is mere stupidity not to do it with an air of conviction and well-founded knowledge. You make it your own in uttering it, and naturally get fond of it. Thus Mr. Riley, knowing no harm of Stelling to begin with, and wishing him well, so far as he had any wishes at all concerning him, had no sooner recommended him than he began to think with admiration of a man recommended on such high authority, and would soon have gathered so warm an interest on the subject, that if Mr. Tulliver had in the end declined to send Tom to Stelling, Mr. Riley would have thought his “friend of the old school” a thoroughly pig-headed fellow.

I identified so strongly with poor old impulsive Maggie as a child, in contrast to Tom, who “would have said, ‘I’d do just the same again.’ That was his usual mode of viewing his past actions; whereas Maggie was always wishing she had done something different.” Eliot is a master at diving into  thoughts and feelings with sympathy. “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.”

The first and second halves are radically different in style and pace, and although in some ways it feels awkward, it also sweeps you along to the end—narratively inevitable, and yet how I wish Maggie and Stephen Guest could have had a happy ending together, especially since Eliot so brilliantly explains exactly how their behavior would have been rehabilitated by “the world’s wife”:

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…, still, she was very young…”and 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,–they 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,––quite romantic? Why, young Guest will put up for the borough at the next election. Nothing like commerce nowadays! … Miss Unit declares she will never visit Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Guest,––such nonsense! pretending to be better than other people. Society couldn’t be carried on if we inquired into private conduct in that way,––and Christianity tells us to think no evil,––and my belief is, that Miss Unit had no cards sent her.”

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald, 2014

The November book for the Nature and Environment book group, and one I’d been looking forward to since its release because of my T. H. White obsession. I also read The Goshawk at a young age, but it didn’t give me any desire to train hawks myself. One of the main critiques the discussion brought up was how little we ended up understanding the attraction of falconry, to people who clearly love hawks, when it’s also clearly a kind of slavery for the birds.The best explanation for me was “The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” Macdonald’s vivid description of falling into depression/mental illness after the death of her father was hard to experience, but also helps clarify: “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.”

I identified strongly with Macdonald’s early life, especially reading so much from the 19th century:

Being in the company of these authors was like being dropped into an exclusive public school… What I was doing wasn’t just educating myself in the nuts and bolts of hawk-training: I was unconsciously soaking up the assumptions of an imperial elite. I lived in a world where English peregrines always outflew foreign hawks, whose landscapes were grouse moors and manor houses, where women didn’t exist. These men were kindred spirits. I felt I was one of them, one of the elect.

Her initial reaction to The Goshawk is priceless:

I’d reached the bit about the sparrowhawks and I was too upset to read any more. I’d jumped from my bed and gone looking for reassurance.
“Is this the Goshawk book you’ve been telling me about?”
“Yes! He’s got his hawk ready to fly free but then he starts making traps to try and catch some sparrowhawks and goes off and leaves the hawk behind and it’s stupid.”
A long pause.
“Maybe he was tired of his hawk,” [my mother] said, the hand with the cloth in it now pressed to the sink.
This made no sense at all.
“But how could he be tired of a hawk?”

Her material on White seems to come fairly straight from the Sylvia Townsend Warner biography, but with some interesting observations about his context:

… the countryside wasn’t just something that was safe for White to love: it was a love that was safe to write about. It took me a long time to realize how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationship with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak.

She mentions Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (I think I read it a long time ago, but due for a re-read), and a new one to me, A Cuckoo in the House by Maxwell Knight. My Dog Tulip (J. R. Ackerly)  is another that jumps to mind.

I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing—not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to is now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?

November 2017 books read


  • H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald, 2014
  • Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature – Margo DeMello and Susan E. Davis, 2003 (mostly skimmed)
  • Goodnight, Mr. Tom – Michelle Magorian, 1981 – A modern classic children’s book I had never heard of and picked up at a tag sale. Good not great.
  • Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens, 1848 – Since I got my first smartphone, I’ve kept a new-to-Dickens to read  if I don’t have anything else around; it takes me a very long time to get through them. I started this one probably 3? years ago. The death of Paul (Chapter 16, What the Waves were always saying)–wow wow wow, the “golden water” foreshadowing Proust’s “petit pan de mur jaune” (I didn’t realize there was controversy about which part of the Vermeer painting that refers to!) Now up is The Uncommercial Traveller.
  • The Given Day – Denis Lehane, 2008
  • The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot, 1861
  • The Stand – Stephen King, 1978. Yet another re-read (of the original, not the misbegotten rewrite). This time around it was the evolution of Larry Underwood’s character from “you ain’t no nice guy” to a real hero that particularly grabbed me.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne-Jones, 1986 – Because I saw the Miyazaki movie again (love it!) and wanted to compare to the source. Good in its own way, but it was interesting to see, for example, that the classic Miyazaki transformation of the Witch of the Waste was entirely his.
  • Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words – Boel Westin, 2014 (mostly skimmed)