The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

The Mill on the Floss is George Eliot's second novel, first published in 1860 following Adam Bede (1859). It's one I've read before, and I wrote briefly about it on my old blog, but even a second read doesn't make it easier to write a post about this novel! It is excellent and one of the most powerful novels I've come across, but this means rather than being able to order my thoughts into a coherent post I'm left reeling, even though a week or so has passed since I finished it. Nevertheless I'll give it a go.

The "Mill" of the title is Dorlcote Mill (a flour mill), the home and business of the Tullivers - Maggie (our heroine) and her brother Tom, and their parents Jeremy and Elizabeth. The "Floss" is the River Floss, a fictional river set in Lincolnshire, which is in the East Midlands region. These Midlands (and of course the north of England) were the geographical heart of the Industrial Revolution.

Eliot begins the novel with a description of the Mill and the Floss:
A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace. On this mighty tide the black ships–laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal–are borne along to the town of St. Ogg's, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river-brink, tingeing the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of this February sun. Far away on each hand stretch the rich pastures, and the patches of dark earth made ready for the seed of broad-leaved green crops, or touched already with the tint of the tender-bladed autumn-sown corn. There is a remnant still of last year's golden clusters of beehive-ricks rising at intervals beyond the hedgerows; and everywhere the hedgerows are studded with trees; the distant ships seem to be lifting their masts and stretching their red-brown sails close among the branches of the spreading ash. Just by the red-roofed town the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the Floss. How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving. I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge.  
And this is Dorlcote Mill. I must stand a minute or two here on the bridge and look at it, though the clouds are threatening, and it is far on in the afternoon. Even in this leafless time of departing February it is pleasant to look at,–perhaps the chill, damp season adds a charm to the trimly kept, comfortable dwelling-house, as old as the elms and chestnuts that shelter it from the northern blast. The stream is brimful now, and lies high in this little withy plantation, and half drowns the grassy fringe of the croft in front of the house. As I look at the full stream, the vivid grass, the delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs, I am in love with moistness, and envy the white ducks that are dipping their heads far into the water here among the withes, unmindful of the awkward appearance they make in the drier world above.
The novel in one sense is a kind of bildungsroman - we begin with Maggie Tulliver's childhood and follow her progression to early adulthood. She is intelligent, somewhat wild, passionate, and, dare I say, slightly unstable. Her happiness depends on others - as Eliot writes,
It is a wonderful subduer, this need of love - this hunger of the heart - as peremptory as that other hunger by which Nature forces us to submit to the yoke, and change the face of the world.
Her need for love and stability is her guiding force and she seeks to please, however she is too impetuous to always be successful. Her close relationship with her brother Tom, Maggie's opposite in personality terms, is her downfall. Her mood is directly related to his; if he is kind then she is happy, if not then she is thrown in to despair. This does make for an exhausting read at times, but it isn't hard to feel compassion for poor Maggie.

Sadly for Maggie, stability for her is sorely lacking. Her brother leaves home to go to school, one of her earliest blows, her father suffers bankruptcy, and she is caught in an intensely difficult love-triangle that threatens to ruin both her and her family. It's a novel that begins slowly; it meanders through in a charming, witty, and picturesque way, but as those metaphorical clouds begin to gather it picks up its pace. The final part is as swift as the Floss itself...

This is, as I said, a very difficult book for me to review because one does get carried away with it and it did leave me absolutely spinning at the end. Like all good novels it has its themes and motifs, but the plot is so intense I think I just focused on that! It is truly a remarkable book and one of Eliot's finest works. I loved Maggie despite being frustrated and occasionally annoyed with her, and it was often crushing to see her desperate attempts to grow as an individual within a society that seemed quite often to want to crush her. It begins with that dreamy opening sequence and ends with a nightmare. Both a disappointing and exhilarating read, and one I would recommend to everyone!

Finally, some illustrations. Unfortunately I can't work out the signature so I'm not sure exactly who the illustrator was, but they can be found in volumes 3 and 4 of The Works of George Eliot, published in 1910 by the Jenson Society.

Further reading


  1. I recently learned that the The Mill on the Floss is considered Eliot's most autobiographical novel. Maggie being the character who represents Eliot herself, of course. This book is on my Classics Club list and I'm very anxious to read it. Lovely post. And the illustrations make your site beautiful!

    1. Yes, I read that somewhere. I'd love to read an Eliot biography. I think Virginia Woolf's father Leslie Stephen wrote one so I'll have to look out for it!

      Glad you liked the illustrations, and I hope you love Mill on the Floss when you come to read it :)


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