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The Mill on the Floss

I like it as much as I like Middlemarch. Which of course is a lot. 

There seems to be a critical consensus that Middlemarch is George Eliot's great achievement, and a great achievement by any standard. And I wouldn't argue with that as a matter of cool-headed judgment. The introduction (excellent, by the way) to the edition of The Mill on the Floss that I have, one of the Houghton-Mifflin Riverside editions that were common in the '60s, claims that "dissatisfaction with the...ending is almost universal." And I don't dissent. But by the straightforward criterion of enjoyment, I can't much prefer either novel over the other.

In both cases the fundamental pleasure is Eliot's prose, either in narration or in the voices of her characters. The drama in both is foremost in the nature of the characters and in their relationships rather than in external events, and those are communicated with a grace, intelligence, and wit that in my somewhat limited reading experience have no superior and few (if any) equals. As with Middlemarch, I closed the book thinking "I want to meet Mary Anne Evans." Not that I would have anything to say to her, but I think I would love to hear her talk. 

On the basis of these two novels it's impossible for me to believe that their heroines did not have something in common with Evans/Eliot herself. The central character in both is a dark-haired, brilliant, and passionate girl or woman who finds herself in--or gets herself into--various difficulties. Dorothea (Middlemarch) and Maggie Tulliver (The Mill) are not the same person, but they are certainly similar: middle-class girls in provincial towns among a fairly narrow bourgeoisie, intelligent and ambitious of noble thoughts and deeds, but with little opportunity of pursuing them. And they might be more similar if we saw them at similar periods of their lives. We meet Dorothea when she is nineteen, whereas at the end of The Mill Maggie is barely that old. 

Maggie is only nine at the opening of her story (and by the way both she and her creator were born in November 1819). She's the daughter of a miller who dotes on but is puzzled by her, a mother who despairs of her none-too-orderly appearance and behavior, and an older brother who cares for her but likes to lord it over her. The father is good-hearted, but impetuous, hot-tempered, and none too wise in the ways of the world. These traits bring him and the family to disaster. and a great deal of the story, the second half at least, is the account of their several struggles to cope with the situation.

I'm always at a bit of a loss when I discuss a great work in these short notes: what, of the many many things worth mentioning, shall I mention? A full appreciation would be the labor of many weeks and thousands of words. Yet to pick out one or two seems to slight others of equal significance. But since I don't want to put in those weeks of work, I'll have to do it.

One thing that presents itself most strongly to me in these characters, not only Maggie and Dorothea but several others, is a sense of their own personal honor and integrity that is quite foreign to our culture. (You could make that part of an argument for the benefit of reading the classics.) Their moral standards are very high, and not only is it extremely important to them that they not fall below those standards, but also that they not be seen as falling below them. I don't mean to be suggesting hypocrisy or the empty moral posturing of "whited sepulchres." There is certainly plenty of those in some of the other characters; Eliot is very much a realist. And I don't mean for "moral" to conjure up the usual picture of prudish Victorians, although sexual morality is is certainly included (and is more closely connected to integrity than our culture understands).

It's a scorn of base motives, an intention to act only from principle unaffected by self-interest. I'll try to keep this example a bit vague, so as not to give away too much. (That may seem silly with respect to a book published 150 years ago which many people reading this will have read. But when a work is new to me I can't help assuming that it will be new to at least some others.)

Maggie, towards the end of the story, finds herself in a romantic situation in which she cannot "follow her heart," as people today might urge her to, without being disloyal to others. And not only does she not even seriously consider doing so, but she regards it as imperative that she not show any sign whatsoever that the emotions which are tormenting her exist. This is not only a soft concern for the others, but a hardness toward herself, toward any least hint of self-seeking and self-indulgence. It is not only what she does not do, not only that her feelings must remain hidden from others, but that even inwardly she must not give in to them--must not wallow in them, not cherish and nurture them even in the privacy of her heart. And it is certainly not that she is cold; on the contrary, her overflowing generous love, and corresponding desire to be loved, are manifest. Her sense of duty to others is not separable from her love for them. 

I see that that brief description doesn't really convey the intensity of her determination, so here's an incident. Maggie and the young man with whom she has fallen in love, and who has fallen in love with her, have found themselves alone. The young man, seized by an impulse, takes her bare arm and "showers it with kisses." Maggie recoils as if his kiss had been a snakebite: 

All the pride of her nature was stung into activity: the hateful weakness which had dragged her within reach of this wound to her self-respect, had at least wrought its own cure. The thoughts and temptations of the last month should all be flung away into an unvisited chamber of memory: there was nothing to allure her now; duty would be easy, and all the old calm purposes would reign peacefully once more.

What I'm getting at is not just that she can and will violently suppress an illicit emotion, but that her reaction is an equally powerful, for the moment a more powerful, emotion. She is not only acting objectively, so to speak, in obedience to an external rule, but subjectively, experiencing genuine horror at her lapse, at the possibility that she could give in to the temptation. Moreover--and I'm not sure I'm correctly understanding this, but if I am: the immediate cause of the horror, the thing which makes her see her danger, is that she regards the kiss as a lack of respect for her. And this is not because, or at least not only because, it suggests that she is susceptible to sexual misconduct, but because it implies acknowledgement of the feeling between them, which honor absolutely forbids that they do, and the suggestion that she would participate even that far is an insult to her.

Perhaps a better example, a simpler one anyway, but not easily illustrated with an excerpt, is the instance in Middlemarch where a man regards the fact that the woman he loves has money, and he does not, as a prohibition of his marrying her. Even though there is no question on either's part that he would be marrying her for her money, the mere fact that it would look that way would be enough of a stain on his honor that he quite firmly refuses to consider it. 

This determined integrity is part of what is encompassed in the ideal of nobility, an ideal on which our culture no longer puts much value--or perhaps I should say no longer even recognizes.


Photo By Evelyn Simak, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13578112
This is not a mill on the Floss, which by the way is the name of the river on which the Tullivers' mill is located. But it was used in a 1997 BBC adaptation of the novel, and I suspect it's a more realistic image than most of those I see on covers of the novel, which are of the Ye Picturesque Olde Mill school and don't look like working commercial concerns at all.


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All good stuff, Mac. You are a Puritan at heart. In my reading of this book I probably did not give a lot of thought to your points, which makes them all the more interesting to me. One day I will dive back into it and think more on your thesis. Eliot was a really great writer. I would be curious to your thoughts on Adam Bede, which is much more specifically about religion than Middlemarch or MOTF. Bede is the only one I have read multiple times, so the plot remains ingrained to some degree in my memory.

I know Janet has read most of the classics, so would be curious what her thoughts are as well. :-)

What I talked about is not by any means the most prominent theme in the book. The "woman problem" maybe deserves attention before others--the situation of the heroines as women in a society where their activities are so limited. Although I'm sure that's been beaten to death by feminists over the last fifty years or so. One thing I noticed in both books is that we don't actually see much of what the men do, even though it's often very important to the story. I figure Eliot didn't really have much firsthand knowledge. Most of the "action" in both books is conversation.

Somebody, maybe C.S. Lewis...probably more than one person, actually...has made the point that we often have something to learn from the ideals that were emphasized in the past but valued less now. I think the kind of thing I'm talking about here is an instance. Just think about how easily our politicians and other public figures lie. And when the lie is pointed out they just move on, maybe even laugh about it. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about Yeats's disdained for one

Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours' eyes...

Adam Bede will probably be my next Eliot but it won't be right away. Maybe sometime this year.

Stu, I haven't read most of this post because I am currently reading MotF. I haven't read it, or most of the classics before. I will let you know what I think when I finish.

I have read Adam Bede once long ago, and I remember that I liked it, but little else.


Have any of you read Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy? Given your appreciation of Eliot I think you'd probably enjoy it. I'm actually due for a re-read of it, as it's been many years since I read it. Come to think of it, it was probably the first work I ever read that focused on rural England other than Austen and Hardy (I've since read dozens). Although it's technically a trilogy the books are fairly brief and when combined into one volume, as they usually are, run to about the same length as one of Eliot's novels.

I’m pretty sure it’s been mentioned here, probably by you I guess. But no, I haven’t read it. I see there’s a BBC dramatization. Have you seen it?

Have not even heard of this author, Rob. I will look into it. Thanks for the recommendation!

I've not watched the TV series yet because I've wanted to re-read it before I do.

It's a little different from your typical English rural novel in that it's a fictionalized autobiography. Thompson's basically telling her own story in the third person as the character "Laura."

I have read part of it, but I don't remember how much, and it was a long time ago. I watched a good bit of the series, but unfortunately, I watched it around the same time as North and South, and the actor who plays her father is in both and they are conflated in my head.


Looks like it's available on BritBox, so I'll probably give it a try. No way I'll get to the book anytime soon, though it sounds enjoyable. In this general vein, by the way, a Facebook friend was advocating for Trollope recently, with some quotes that sounded very appealing. My only acquaintance with him is a BBC version of one of his novels (or a conflation of several?).

I read one Trollope novel ages ago but have never revisited him. A friend of mine who's a literature prof has recommended He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now as his best stand-alone novels. I'm pretty sure both have been done by the BBC. I've put Trollope down as one of those authors I may try again someday, but if it happens it won't be for a while -- I consider them "post-retirement" books. :-)

I have read the entire Barchester series (Trollope) and they are fun and enjoyable. I might have also read He Knew He Was Right...I did read one other and it was a stand-alone, so I think that was it. I might have read one Palliser (sp?) as well. About ten years ago I was Trollope-crazy!

Oh, I hate He Knew He Was Right. I have read tons of Trollope, maybe all except The Way We Live Now, and I think He Knew was the he worst.



I am glad you mentioned Lark Rise because I am looking for something to read on a plane, and that will be perfect.

I can't believe I getting on a plane.


What was so bad about He Knew He Was Right?

The BBC's The Barchester Chronicles TV series is up on YouTube. It's based on two of Trollope's books, The Warden and Barchester Towers. I've watched only a bit of the first episode. Looks pretty good.

Well, this is a spoiler.

If I remember correctly, it's about two people destroying each other.


It's just not what I expect from Trollope.

From what I remember, the BBC series was pretty accurate.


I'm pretty sure I saw and enjoyed that BBC Barchester series. I don't remember much but I think there were one or two really despicable characters in it.

There are always a few.


I think you will enjoy Lark Rise, Janet. One of the reasons I liked it because there was so much observation and description in it. For some readers that seems to be a liability, however, especially for those who watched the TV show first.

If memory serves 'He Knew He Was Right' was intended as a tragedy. But maybe it just turned out negative and morose, like Jude the Obscure, which despite loving Hardy, I hate. The female lead mouthing all that warmed-over Voltaire! Ugh.

Right. That's exactly it. You could have a great novel about a married couple destroying one another, but this is a novel that just wallows around in the Slough of Despond without any redeeming qualities.

And usually, there is a lot of humor in Trollope, but I don't remember any in this one.


Speaking of Trollope I noticed this morning that there is a Doctor Thorne series on either Netflix or Amazon Prime, and Julian Fellowes is responsible. Has anyone watched it?

I haven't, but if I can get it without paying extra I will.

Speaking of getting on a plane, things are rapidly getting back closer to normal here. It was never as locked down as some places.

I think an old Masterpiece Theater dramatization of Jude the Obscure left me with a mild aversion to reading Hardy's novels, not because of the warmed-over Voltaire but because of the horrible suicide(s), and in general the overall misery of the characters and their fates. It seems, now that I think of it, an early entry in the literature of hopeless misery that now seems almost like a sub-genre.

I saw Dr. Thorne when it first aired. I am pretty sure I liked it, but it has been a long time.

One of the lead roles in The Way We Live Now was the actress who played Moaning Myrtle. She played an adult in the Trollope long before the HP movies.


I watched the first two episodes of the BBC Lark Rise series. It was enjoyable but I'm not exactly enthused. There's a quality about it that I don't care much for which I'll try to articulate another time--sort of a sentimentality, I guess, is the bottom line.

It says on Wikipedia that "He Knew He Was Right' is full of references to Othello. That might explain some things.

Re 'Lark Rise', I don't recall the books being very sentimental or idyllic. Maybe that's what caused the TV viewers who liked the show to find the books less satisfactory.

Finished The Little Drummer Girl last night. I think the acting and writing is very good, but it seemed longer than it needed to be and thus slow in spots, especially in the first half. They probably could have done it in four episodes instead of six. Some of the director's touches left me a little cold as well. The love scenes, for instance, while not graphic or prurient, were overwrought, and the finale could have been handled more suspensefully. So overall I'd probably give it a B minus -- somewhat better than average but not great. The other Le Carre miniseries from around the same time, The Night Manager, is far better.

As I guess I probably said earlier, Drummer Girl is far from my favorite LeCarre novel. But sounds like I'd probably enjoy this show. I liked The Night Manager, btw, both book and series.

There's a slightly condescending quality to the Lark Rise series...at least I think that's what I mean. Sort of "look at the charming rascally but basically good-hearted rustics." With folky music...I don't know, it's not bad but obviously I'm not enthusiastic.

I haven't gotten very much farther in Mill on the Floss, but I have a question. In both Middlemarch and MotF, she talks about "The Catholic Question. " What, specifically, is that?


I didn't delve very far into it, but I took it to refer to "Catholic emancipation," the ending or loosening of various restrictions on Catholics that had been in effect since the Protestant Reformation.


The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 would have been fairly recent and very much on people's minds at the time depicted in the novels. And passing references suggest that most of the people in Eliot's world were opposed to it. There's a funny (to me) note early in MOTF where Mr. Tulliver worries that "the country would become utterly the prey of Papists and Radicals and there would be no more chance for honest men."

If memory serves, I think Burke wrote in favor of "Catholic emancipation" despite himself being a non-Catholic (although I believe his mother was).

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