I don’t like to call a book a favorite until I’ve read it at least twice. But when I read Middlemarch for the first time last year I grudgingly had to admit it had taken on that status; I added it to my yearly reread list. Other than Moby Dick, there isn’t a 19th Century novel I’ve read that I like more. That was my first George Eliot novel and in my enthusiasm for it I picked up several others, including The Mill on the Floss. While I liked this less than Middlemarch, it shares that novel’s complex understanding of people, its excellent prose, fully developed minor characters and ear for dialog.
As I was deciding which Eliot to read next, I got the impression that this was a tribute of sorts to her brother who died. I think that’s true, but it is a mixed tribute. The protagonist, Maggie Tulliver who is much cuter (smarter in 19th Century parliance, short for acute) than her brother Tom, and yet he is the one their father sends off to get educated. On one level she loves and worships her brother. But even in their childhood, which comprises the first third or so of the novel, he is often cruel to her, in the way children are. Maggie does manage to sneak in a little education over Tom’s shoulder on visits to him at the home where he was being educated. There she meets Philip Wakem, her brother’s classmate, the son of her father’s greatest business rival, and an eventual suitor. As they grow older, Tom becomes part of the system that restricts Maggie’s options, in some cruel ways, using the fact that she loves him well to control her.
During the early going Eliot’s ability to create a whole cast of characters each fully formed is on display. Maggie’s father is a stubborn mill owner. He’s married to a woman from a family that is overly concerned with class and their place in it. Each of Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver’s sisters and their husbands are distinctly drawn, and in their interactions with each other Eliot demonstrates a mocking understanding of their foibles. She is often savage in her observations of them ("Mrs Glegg paused, for speaking with much energy for the good of others is naturally exhausting."). Yet she makes each one complex; they have faults but good points as well.
Philip Wakem’s father wins a lawsuit against the Tullivers that results in their having to give up their mill, and sets the two families, or at least the patriarchs thereof against each other. So Maggie’s affections for Phillip are thwarted. Tom goes to work and commits his life to clearing his father’s debt, eventually getting the Mill back, and perpetual enmity with the Wakems. Maggie gets her hands on a copy of The Imitation of Christ and devotes herself to a life of self abnegation. The characters are pulled between class, religion, work and romance. Tom and Maggie’s cousin is also friends with Phillip Wakem and has a suitor of her own, Stephen Guest, who falls for Maggie on sight. It is set up to end tragically, despite the humor of the book, but the particular tragedy that happens was not what I expected, even given the partial spoilers I had for the book.
Eliot is a master. She understands that human motivation is never simple: “"Watch your own speech, and notice how it is guided by your less conscious purposes, and you will understand that contradiction in Stephen." Maggie genuinely loves her brother and father, but chafes at their control over her life. This is one of the most interesting things about her use of a male pen name. A lot of what may have read as typical chauvinism at the time if written by a man, reads as vicious satire with the knowledge that a woman wrote it. Her commitment to self-denial and its testing once romance enters the picture is both a genuine struggle, and a comment on women’s options at the time. But they are all contained within one character and the push and pull and social commentary feel true to the character and not forced.
Despite the tragic ending, the book is often very funny. All of Eliot’s considerable skill is on display in a novel that feels very personal. I said at the beginning of this that it is not as good as Middlemarch, but only a handful of books are. I am going to eventually read all of Eliot’s work, and can heartily recommend both of the novels I’ve read to date.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 18/75
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