Powerful and moving, "The Mill on the Floss" is considered to be George Eliot's most autobiographical novel. Along with "Middlemarch" it is my favorite. Set in early 19th century England - St. Ogg's, Lincolnshire to be exact - this is the tale of gifted, free-spirited Maggie Tulliver and her selfish, spoiled brother, Tom, who were born and raised at Dorlcote Mill on the River Floss. Eliot's portrayal of sibling relationships is terribly poignant and plays a major part in the novel, as does the longstanding rivalry between two local families - the Tullivers and the Wakems.
From earliest childhood Maggie worships her brother Tom, and longs to win his approval, and that of her parents. However, her fierce intelligence and strong streak of independence bring her into constant conflict with her family. She finds, in literature, the kindness and love she longs for in life. "...everybody in the world seemed so hard and unkind to Maggie: there was no indulgence, no fondness, such as she imagined when she fashioned the world afresh in her own thoughts. In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one Maggie felt. If life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie?" Her nature, complex, passionate, sensuous, noble, intellectualized, and spiritualized, is of great importance to this novel, as is the pathos of her relationship with Tom.
Maggie's early years are brilliantly and unsentimentally portrayed from a child's perspective. The author structures a sequence of childhood's phases, which might appear, at first, to be random vignettes, but constitute an excellent psychological basis on which to build a character and motivation. Eliot once stated "my stories always grow out of my psychological conception of the dramatis personae." Thus, the author chronicles Maggie's life as she grows from a precocious little girl to a strikingly attractive young woman, tall with full lips, and a "crown" of jet black hair. Her lack of social pretension makes her even more charming and likeable. As she matures her conflicts with her brother, her family, even with her community, increase significantly. She, herself, feels torn between what is considered her "moral responsibility" and her search for self-fulfillment. Ultimately, she demonstrates honor and courage in the face of the disapproval of a narrow, tradition-bound society.
Parallel to, and intertwined with, Maggie's story, is that of families Tullivur and Wakem. After Tullivur loses his mill and social respectability through bankruptcy, (a loss precipitated by a rash lawsuit he undertook), Wakem purchases it all. Mr. Tullivur agrees to stay on as manager. At first he seems resigned to his misfortune. However, within the space of a few pages he is swearing vengeance on the new owner and cursing him. He actually summons Tom to inscribe his curse on Wakem in the family Bible, and makes his son swear to uphold it. The feud becomes violent when Wakem, in the role of proprietor, appropriately corrects Tullivur's management of the mill. Of course the criticism is taken as an insult, and shortly afterward, upon meeting his boss on the road, Tullivur horsewhips him in "a frenzy of triumphant vengeance." Tom sees this uncontrolled outbreak of madness as the result of long repressed hatred. Mr. Tullivur never repents his beating of Wakem. His injured pride and sense of righteous indignation, justify him in his own mind. This lack of forgiveness is also demonstrated by Tom for his sister. In direct contrast, Maggie couples love with forgiveness.
As she reaches adulthood, Maggie finds herself torn between her relationships with three extremely different men: her proud, stubborn brother, Tom; Philip Wakem, a beloved friend who is also the son of her family's worst enemy; and a charismatic but unacceptable suitor. When Tom is thrown suddenly into the role of adult, after his father's death, he becomes obsessed with acquiring social status and power. He attempts to arrange a socially advantageous marriage for Maggie, and when she refuses, he severs ties with her.
I won't spoil your read with any further discussion of the novel's details, especially the dramatic conclusion. George Eliot's writes with a keen sense of humor, especially when addressing the grotesque in the human character. Her narrative has great depth, as insight to character and social observations are more important to Eliot than pace and action. "The Mill On The Floss" is deeply romantic - a work of great beauty and a literary classic. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
"The Mill On The Floss" is based partially on Eliot's, (born Mary Ann Evans), own experiences with her family and her brother Isaac, who was three years older than she. Eliot's father, like Mr. Tulliver, was a businessman who had married a woman from a higher social class. His wife's sisters were rich, ultra-respectable, and self-satisfied. These maternal aunts provided the character models for the aunts in the novel. Like Maggie, Eliot was extremely intelligent, energetic, imaginative and unconventional. She did not fit traditional models of feminine beauty or behavior, causing her family a great deal of consternation. Eliot lived with a man who she had not married - a daring enterprise in Victorian England. By the time this novel was published, she had gained considerable notoriety as an "immoral woman."
In this edition writer and critic A. S. Byatt provides full explanatory notes and an Introduction further relating "Mill On The Floss" to George Eliot's own life and times.