The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
I first encountered this wonderful novel in an obscure module studied in my first year of my undergraduate degree called ‘writing and the self’. Much like reading Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in GCSE, I felt like I was the only one in my class that actually read The Mill on the Floss and enjoyed it. Part of our assignment was to write a reading journal, a task I enjoyed immensely, even if I was crazy enough to write it all by hand. Luckily, one of my final entries in my diary was a General Review, which I will copy out here.
Here be spoilers.
I loved The Mill on the Floss. It’s beautifully written, the imagery conjuring works of Eliot’s contemporaries such as John Constable. This beauty is apparent throughout the entire book, enabling the reader to see everything accurately and with great appreciation.
The main character, Maggie, is strong-willed, and not wholly good, nor wholly evil, making her easily relatable. I love her qualities and cleverness as a child. Her relationship with brother Tom is sweet – sometimes too sweet – but still lovely. The presentation of her aunts is more often than not satirical and comical. Eliot captures the world through a child’s yes perfectly – always referring to the senses and forever being subtle. Maggie’s childhood is my favourite part of the book – as Maggie grows older, the book becomes more serious, more melancholy.
Characterisation, then, is one of Eliot’s strong points. Lucy is constantly compared to Maggie as a prim and pristine girl who doesn’t have a bad bone in her body. We get the sense that Eliot is subtly criticising rigid ways of life through such techniques. Her attitudes are displayed very well – from the way she titles each chapter to how she describes everything.
Eliot’s subtleties within the novel make it complete. The foreshadowing of the flood is used constantly through metaphors of water, preparing the reader for the novel’s devastating close. Eliot manages to keep a sense of the whole while picking out minor details for the reader’s perusal.
As Maggie grows up, the novel takes a much more mature tone and references to contemporary literature works as well as scientific ones are made. Eliot is a master of free-indirect speech, enabling the reader to get right into the character’s head.
There’s not much I did not like in The Mill on the Floss. Sometimes the dialogue between the characters was slightly overwhelming and, as to be expected of a novel of that time, long historical passages were quite boring. Eliot avoids mentioning a particular setting of the novel which can be quite distracting to the imagination, and although we are given subtle clues, it is hard to imagine what context the characters are in.
I did not expect Maggie and a relatively new character Stephen Guest, to elope. It makes you think how 19th century audiences would have reacted! It certainly disrupted the almost ‘pretty’ tone of the novel, making it more realistic, acting as a catalyst for the denouement.
The conclusion echoes the beginning of the book because it’s so beautiful, but contrasts to it because it is so sad. I was genuinely upset at the deaths of Tom and Maggie, and I felt the time we had with them at the end was rushed – maybe this is representative of the river washing all they know away. The conclusion wraps up everything, though, and it’s stunning.
The Mill on the Floss is a perfect display of realism and beautiful, articulate writing from a highly skilled author.