The Mill on the Floss is the second novel by George Eliot, published in 1860. When I first heard this title, I thought, what does that even mean? What is ‘the mill’ and what is ‘the floss’? Now I’ve read it, I can tell you that ‘The Mill’ is an actual mill where flour is made from grain and ‘the Floss’ is the name of the river. So the book title actually gives a clue to the story: it’s about a family who are millers and they live on River Floss.
As usual I’ll tell you what the story is about, without telling you the ending. And then we’ll look at one of the opening scenes where we meet some of the main characters and see how masterful George Eliot is at character building.
If you prefer watching me explaining all these instead of reading, I put the link to my video on the same topic at the bottom of this post.
What is the story about?
The story is set in Lincolnshire in the 1820s and 30s. Our main character is Maggie. The story is about her family, Mr and Mrs Tulliver, Maggie’s parents, and Tom, her brother, who was three years older than her. The story starts in Maggie and Tom’s childhood. Maggie was nine, Tom was twelve. Tom just came back home from school for the summer holiday. Brother and sister had a glorious summer fishing, sharing pudding, arguing, and making up again. It was a beautiful picture of happy childhood. This is my favourite part of the novel – that’s why I’d like to look at it specifically later on.
Tom was sent to a tutor to learn Latin Grammar and ‘Euclid’, and met a schoolfellow called Philip Wikem. There were only two of them with this tutor but they didn’t become friends because, firstly, they had very different temperaments: Philip was older and quiet because of his physical deformity, and Tom was active. They liked doing different things. Secondly, their fathers have gone to law against each other about the mill. Tom had it in his head that Philip was a ‘rascal’s son’.
When Maggie visited Tom and met Philip, they became good friends. Because firstly, even though Philip was quiet, he was knowledgeable and intelligent, and he knew a lot of good stories from history and Greek classics. Secondly, Philip was kind to Tom when Tom was injured in an accident and Maggie was grateful for his kindness to her favourite brother Tom.
When Tom was 15, the lawsuit was lost and their father fell ill because of it. Tom had to stop his education and started to work to support his family and pay the debt. Maggie suppressed her passion and spirit to become a submissive daughter in a depressing home.
The downfall of their father because of Wikem meant Maggie and Philip could not be friends but their friendship rekindled in secret – I thought at this point this is going to be a Romeo and Juliet story, but not quite! Because another young man was introduced. Stephen Guest appeared towards the end of the novel as cousin Lucy’s fiance and he soon fell in love with Maggie.
I won’t tell you what happened at the end, but expect surprises and drama!
Reading an opening scene
George Eliot is such a master at crafting characters. Let’s look at one of the opening scenes where we meet Mr and Mrs Tulliver and Maggie for the first time. Mr and Mrs Tulliver have been talking about sending Tom to a better school to get a better education:
“what I’m a bit afraid on is, as Tom hasn’t got the right sort o’ brains for a smart fellow. I doubt he’s a bit slowish. He takes after your family, Bessy.” “Yes, that he does,” said Mrs Tulliver, accepting the last proposition entirely on its own merits; “he’s wonderful for liking a deal o’ salt in his broth. That was my brother’s way, and my father’s before him.”
Mrs Tulliver is so proud and pleased that her son ‘takes after’ her family that she doesn’t sense the hint of insult at all – that Tom is slow because Mrs Tulliver and her family are stupid. And the evidence Mrs Tulliver gives to prove that Tom is a true Dodson? Liking a great deal of salt!
“It seems a bit a pity, though,” said Mr Tulliver, “as the lad should take after the mother’s side instead o’ the little wench. That’s the worst on’t wi’ crossing o’ breeds: you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t. The little un takes after my side, now: she’s twice as ’cute as Tom. Too ’cute for a woman, I’m afraid,” continued Mr Tulliver, turning his head dubiously first on one side and then on the other. “It’s no mischief much while she’s a little un; but an over-’cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep,—she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that.”
The wrong spelling of ‘calkilate’ and many other misspelt words throughout this scene shows Mr Tulliver’s level of (lack of) education. ‘Little wench’ and ‘little un’ both mean little girl, referring to his daughter Maggie. ‘Cute’ is short for acute. According to Oxford English Dictionary, it means ‘intelligent and quick to notice and understand things’. Maggie is uncommonly clever as a girl. Mr Tulliver worries if that’s a good thing or not for the future, though it’s not a big deal when she’s just a little girl.
But Mrs Tulliver disagrees:
“Yes, it is a mischief while she’s a little un, Mr Tulliver, for it runs to naughtiness. How to keep her in a clean pinafore two hours together passes my cunning. An’ now you put me i’ mind,” continued Mrs Tulliver, rising and going to the window, “I don’t know where she is now, an’ it’s pretty nigh tea-time. Ah, I thought so,—wanderin’ up an’ down by the water, like a wild thing: She’ll tumble in some day.”
Mrs Tulliver rapped the window sharply, beckoned, and shook her head,—a process which she repeated more than once before she returned to her chair.
Mrs Tulliver doesn’t think Maggie clever, but naughty. Her clothes get dirty from playing outdoors; she plays outdoors for long stretches of time; and she plays along the river when her mother tells her clearly not to – what a disobedient child!
Mrs Tulliver’s problem with Maggie is not just that she’s naughty. Maggie’s a bit mad too:
“You talk o’ ’cuteness, Mr Tulliver,” she observed as she sat down, “but I’m sure the child’s half an idiot i’ some things; for if I send her upstairs to fetch anything, she forgets what she’s gone for, an’ perhaps ’ull sit down on the floor i’ the sunshine an’ plait her hair an’ sing to herself like a Bedlam creatur’, all the while I’m waiting for her downstairs. That niver run i’ my family, thank God! no more nor a brown skin as makes her look like a mulatter. I don’t like to fly i’ the face o’ Providence, but it seems hard as I should have but one gell, an’ her so comical.”
Two phrases appear in this monologue. Mrs Tulliver describes her daughter as a ‘Bedlam creature’ and a ‘mulatter’. ‘Bedlam’ refers to Bethlam Hospital, at the time a madhouse and lunacy asylum. The term appears often in classic novels as a synonym for madhouse or madness. Mrs Tulliver thinks Maggie behaves abnormal while we see she’s just a bit dreamy and easily distracted. ‘Mulatter’ is an offensive way to call someone who has one white parent and one black parent. I was going to give Mrs Tulliver the benefit of the doubt that maybe in the 19th century the word was not yet offensive. But according to Wikipedia, it was even then. George Eliot, knowing the word is rude, gives it to Mrs Tulliver intentionally. That one word gives us an idea of what kind of person Mrs Tulliver is.
“Pooh, nonsense!” said Mr Tulliver; “she’s a straight, black-eyed wench as anybody need wish to see. I don’t know i’ what she’s behind other folks’s children; and she can read almost as well as the parson.”
“But her hair won’t curl all I can do with it, and she’s so franzy about having it put i’ paper, and I’ve such work as never was to make her stand and have it pinched with th’ irons.”
The father is proud that his daughter can read at a young age; the mother only worries about how looks – ‘her hair won’t curl’.
“Cut it off—cut it off short,” said the father, rashly.
“How can you talk so, Mr Tulliver? She’s too big a gell—gone nine, and tall of her age—to have her hair cut short; an’ there’s her cousin Lucy’s got a row o’ curls round her head, an’ not a hair out o’ place. It seems hard as my sister Deane should have that pretty child; I’m sure Lucy takes more after me nor my own child does. Maggie, Maggie,” continued the mother, in a tone of half-coaxing fretfulness, as this small mistake of nature entered the room, “where’s the use o’ my telling you to keep away from the water? You’ll tumble in and be drownded some day, an’ then you’ll be sorry you didn’t do as mother told you.”
I love the sentence ‘as this small mistake of nature entered the room’.
Maggie’s hair, as she threw off her bonnet, painfully confirmed her mother’s accusation. Mrs Tulliver, desiring her daughter to have a curled crop, “like other folks’s children,” had had it cut too short in front to be pushed behind the ears; and as it was usually straight an hour after it had been taken out of paper, Maggie was incessantly tossing her head to keep the dark, heavy locks out of her gleaming black eyes,—an action which gave her very much the air of a small Shetland pony.
“Oh, dear, oh, dear, Maggie, what are you thinkin’ of, to throw your bonnet down there? Take it upstairs, there’s a good gell, an’ let your hair be brushed, an’ put your other pinafore on, an’ change your shoes, do, for shame; an’ come an’ go on with your patchwork, like a little lady.”
“Oh, mother,” said Maggie, in a vehemently cross tone, “I don’t want to do my patchwork.”
“What! not your pretty patchwork, to make a counterpane for your aunt Glegg?”
“It’s foolish work,” said Maggie, with a toss of her mane,—“tearing things to pieces to sew ’em together again. And I don’t want to do anything for my aunt Glegg. I don’t like her.”
Exit Maggie, dragging her bonnet by the string, while Mr Tulliver laughs audibly.
“I wonder at you, as you’ll laugh at her, Mr Tulliver,” said the mother, with feeble fretfulness in her tone. “You encourage her i’ naughtiness. An’ her aunts will have it as it’s me spoils her.”
I can see little Maggie and her parents in that snapshot of mundane everyday life – it’s fabulous. We see the interaction between the parents and the child. Mrs Tulliver wants Maggie to be pretty, with curls like Lucy, like other children; she wants her to do things that girls are supposed to do, to please her family. But Maggie will have none of it.
Her comment on patchwork reminds me of Anne Shirley from Anne of the Green Gables. Anne doesn’t like doing patchwork either, she says it had no scope for imagination – it’s boring. Maggie is even more critical – it’s not just boring, it’s foolish, a waste of time.
I also love the undiplomatic comment only a child can utter – ‘I don’t want to do anything for my aunt Glegg. I don’t like her!’
And that sentence ‘Exit Maggie, dragging her bonnet by the string’ reads almost like a stage direction of a play. It gives such a vivid picture of the scene, we are not reading it, we are watching it.
A place to start
If you’d like to read George Eliot but are a bit intimidated by Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss might be a good place to start. It’s shorter and the storyline is less complicated where we follow one protagonist with a smaller cast.
But there are many similarities. Both are a study of ‘provincial life’, although on a smaller scale in The Mill. Both have a female protagonist who is beautiful and intelligent with a hunger for knowledge and learning but both are unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Also both of them have a relationship with a knowledgable but physically weaker man at the beginning and with a younger man later on.