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The George Eliot Fellowship

The Mill on the Floss

Book mill on floss1The Mill on the Floss is based around George Eliot's own experiences of provincial life, focusing on the struggles of the headstrong Maggie and her brother Tom Tulliver of Dorlecote Mill, St Oggs.  Eliot needed no model for the brother-sister relationship at the heart of the novel, the novel widely being seen as semi-autobiographical.  As Lewes reported to their publisher Blackwood, 'Mrs Lewes is getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story.  But there is such a strain of poetry to relieve the tragedy that the more she cries, and the readers cry, the better say I'.  Eliot needed to find an actual mill and tidal river capable of the disastrous flood at the end of the novel.  She and Lewes eventually found what they were looking for at Gainsborough on a tributary of the River Trent.

The Tulliver family are at the heart of the novel. Equally memorable are the Aunts - the famous 'Dodson' sisters based on Mary Anne's own aunts, her mother's sisters, the Pearsons.  The novel explores the complex relationships of Victorian familial life as well as wider societal issues such as the position of women in the world.  Commenting on the lives of the Dodsons and the Tullivers the narrator claims that 'you could not live among such people', and that  'I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness'.  It is possible to read this as Eliot's confession that she could not live among such people.  In Maggie's struggles with her confining condition and her much-loved but oppressive brother, Eliot is clearly confronting the world of her upbringing which she had rejected, and since her liaison with Lewes, had rejected her (see 'About George Eliot'). Tom's domineering treatment of Maggie and even his affection for her reveal that he sees Maggie as subservient: 'he was very fond of his little sister, and meant always to take care of her, make her his housekeeper, and punish her when she did wrong'.  This is simply one manifestation of a larger system of oppressive patriarchal authority most crudely expressed in Wakem's outburst to his son: 'We don't ask what a woman does - we ask whom she belongs to'.

Increasingly Maggie feels not only does she not fit in, but Tom constantly disapproves of all she does.  After their hardworking but stubborn father becomes bankrupt, the family face adversity and potential ruin.  Following the teachings of Thomas à Kempis, Maggie enters a phase of renunciation and self-denial as she quietly helps to run the home and look after her parents.  Secretly she is meeting the son of her father's sworn enemy, Philip Wakem, which enrages her brother when he discovers it. There are further challenges for Maggie on the arrival of the handsome Stephen Guest, engaged to her dear cousin, Lucy.

In the end the river Floss is as much a character in the novel as the humans.  Alternately symbolic and real, the river is not only the current of history that bears the Tullivers along, but also the waters that turn Mr Tulliver's mill. These rivers may have turned Mr Tulliver's mill for generations but they too are caught up in the process of change for it is their use in a modern irrigation scheme that brings about Mr Tulliver's downfall.  In the rescue scene at the end, roles are reversed as Maggie rows energetically to rescue Tom trapped in the Mill. Casting off her earlier passivity and dependence in the sexually charged episode on the river with Stephen, the brother and sister unite in a final embrace, a form of Liebestod. 

Rich in ambiguity, conflict and contradiction, but humorous and tender too, this novel is an example of women's writing challenging both the conventions of Victorian culture and the conventions of realist fiction.

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The George Eliot Fellowship