This is the first in a series of catch-up posts, as I review the classics I’ve read in the last year and not discussed yet (i.e. all of them). These will be shorter and less in-depth than usual, both so that I can get through my backlog quickly and because it’s been a while since I’ve read these books!
The Mill on the Floss was my fourth George Eliot novel, and my least favorite so far. According to Goodreads, I finished it 31 August 2019. I gave it three stars.
Mill follows siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the children of a small-town mill owner. There are several time jumps, so in all we cover about ten years of their young lives, as they move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. When they are adolescents, their father loses the mill and they teeter on the edge of poverty. Tom and Maggie both do their parts to keep the family afloat, relying on their mother’s several sisters and their more prosperous husbands for help. The Goodreads review, with its talk of “Maggie being torn between three men” makes it sound rather dramatic and even melodramatic, but the focus is actually on Tom and Maggie’s relationship, and on the community in which they live (although there are some dramatic moments towards the end, but spoilers). As with all Eliot novels, the plot is quiet and slow-paced (not a bad thing!), and the focus is on the character and thoughts of each person. Maggie and Tom are both incredibly vivid, as are their parents and aunts and uncles. This was Eliot’s second book, and you can see her improvement in developing incredibly life-like characters and group dynamics.
While I consider Mill to be an objectively masterful work, I didn’t love it. My biggest problem was Tom, and his relationship with Maggie. Tom is one of those people who can only see the world in black and white, and I find that kind of rigidity generally drives me crazy. And, of course, as it was so well portrayed, it bothered me even more. I spent a lot of the book wanting to slap Tom a couple of times and give him a talking-to. Maggie is a precious darling, who is much more creative and flexible in her thinking, but this leads her and Tom to be rather constantly in conflict. Poor Maggie just wants someone to love her, but Tom makes his love always conditional on her behavior, which doesn’t often meet his exacting standards. Like I said, this dynamic is SO well done, and Eliot certainly doesn’t condone Tom’s behavior, but it just happens to be one that I dislike reading, so that diminished the enjoyment for me.
That said, I have friends who LOVE Mill, so I would encourage you to give it a try, at least. And I’m eager to pick up the next Eliot novel (Romola!).