When I commenced on a classics challenge this year, George Eliot was one author I was determined to read. I’ve read at least some of the works by the other major 19th century female writers but had never really explored Eliot. The obvious place to start was The Mill on the Floss. I had read to first two sections in college as part of a course on the representation of childhood in the novel and enjoyed it but had been unable to read the rest as I had a pile of other coursework to read.
The Mill on the Floss is the story of Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Growing up in the rural idyll of Dolcorte Mill, they are close as children, but as the years pass and their family faces many trials, they grow apart. Maggie though always remains torn between her family and the brother she loves, and her hearts desire.
The focus on this book is very much the family, and the dynamics of family relationships. The portrayal of a sibling relationship, with all its ups and downs in particular is excellent. While it is clear that Tom and Maggie love each other, they have widely divergent personalities. Many of their problems arise from an inability to understand the other.
Maggie is one of the great heroines of literature. In many respects she reminds me of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. She is passionate, tempestuous, sensitive and loyal. She loves deeply with her whole heart and soul. She also has an unfortunate ability to get herself in trouble. The scene where as a child she cuts off her hair in a temper was particularly memorable. It is impossible not to love Maggie, as her little heart is pulled from pillar to post, torn between her love of her brother and family, and her own happiness.
Tom on the other hand is not one of the great hero’s of literature, rather he is one of the unlikable. As a boy its clear he views his sister with that disdain of older siblings, not entirely sure what the ‘point’ of a little sister is. He views the world in black and white, with a clear sense of ‘fair play’. There are no infinite shades of grey softening this viewpoint, no allowances made for others who do not live by his standards or see the world as he does. The result is he often comes across cruel and harsh, especially with Maggie. The reality is he just doesn’t understand her, or her view of the world.
The characterisation overall is wonderful. They are all flawed. They make mistakes, are blinded by prejudice. They are human. While there are some who are unlikable, they are unlikable because of their failings not because they are evil or ‘wicked’ to use the Victorian term. Towards the end two characters who up to that point I had disliked, surprised me. I won’t say who for risk of spoilers, but in the case of one in particular if felt like shouting “Go, characters name”. A reminder that everyone is capable of surprising you.