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.”

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