George Eliot (Blind 1883)/Chapter 9

George Eliot  (1883)  by Mathilde Blind
Chapter IX. The Mill on the Floss



While the public had been trying to discover who the mysterious George Eliot could possibly be, one person there was who immediately penetrated the disguise, and felt positive as to the identity of the author. On reading the 'Scenes,' and especially 'Adam Bede,' he was convinced that no one but a member of his own family could have written these stories. He recognised incidents, touches, a saying here or there, just the things that no one outside his own home could by any chance have come upon. But George Eliot's brother kept this discovery closely locked within his own breast. He trembled lest any one else should discover the secret, fearing the outcry of neighbours who might not always feel that the author had represented them in colours sufficiently flattering.

When the 'Mill on the Floss' appeared, however, the veil was lifted, and people heard that George Eliot had once been a Miss Marian Evans, who came from the neighbourhood of Nuneaton in Warwickshire. To her brother Isaac alone this was no news, as he had detected his sister in the first of the 'Scenes,' The child-life of Tom and Maggie Tuliiver was in many respects an autobiography; and no biographer can ever hope to describe the early history of George Eliot as she herself has done in the 'Mill on the Floss.' How many joys and griefs of those happy careless days must have been recalled to her brother—those days when little Mary Ann had sat poring over Daniel Defoe's 'History of the Devil'—or sought refuge in the attic at Griff house, after a quarrel with him: "This attic was Maggie's favourite retreat on a wet day, when the weather was not too cold; here she fretted out all her ill-humours, and talked aloud to the worm-eaten floors and the worm-eaten shelves, and the dark rafters festooned with cobwebs; and here she kept a Fetish which she punished for all her misfortunes. This was the trunk of a large wooden doll, which once stared with the roundest of eyes above the reddest of cheeks, but was now entirely defaced by a long career of vicarious suffering. Three nails driven into the head commemorated as many crises in Maggie's nine years of earthly struggle, that luxury of vengeance having been suggested to her by the picture of Jael destroying Sisera in the old Bible."

Again, at some fields' distance from their old home there had been a "Round Pool" called "The Moat," "almost a perfect round, framed in with willows and tall reeds, so that the water was only to be seen when you got close to the brink." This was a favourite resort of Isaac and Mary Ann, as also of Tom and his sister when they went fishing together, and "Maggie thought it probable that the small fish would come to her hook and the large ones to Tom's." The "Red Deeps," too, where Maggie loved to walk in June, when the "dog-roses were in their glory," and where she lived through many phases of her shifting inner life was in the same vicinity, and at one time a beloved haunt of the future novelist.

But although some of the spots mentioned in the 'Mill on the Floss' have been easily identified as connected with George Eliot's early home, the scenery of that novel is mainly laid in Lincolnshire. St. Oggs, with "its red-fluted roofs and broad warehouse gables," is the ancient town of Gainsborough. The Floss is a tidal river like the Trent, and in each case the spring-tide, rushing up the river with its terrific wave and flooding the land for miles round, is known as the Eagre, a name not a little descriptive of the thing itself.

The 'Mill on the Floss' (a title adopted by the author at the suggestion of Mr. Blackwood in preference to 'Sister Maggie') is the most poetical of George Eliot's novels. The great Floss, hurrying between green pastures to the sea, gives a unity of its own to this story, which opens to the roar of waters, the weltering waters which accompany it at the close. It forms the elemental background which rounds the little lives of the ill-starred family group nurtured on its banks. The childhood of Tom and Maggie Tulliver is inextricably blended with this swift river, the traditions of which have been to them as fairy tales; its haunting presence is more or less with them throughout their chequered existence; and when pride and passion, when shame and sorrow have divided the brother and sister, pursued as by some tragic fate, the Floss seems to rise in sympathy, and submerges them in its mighty waters to unite them once more "in an embrace never to be parted." It cannot fail to strike the reader that in almost every one of George Eliot's novels there occurs a death by drowning: as in the instance of Thias Bede, of Dunstan Cass, of Henleigh Grandcourt, and nearly in that of Tito. This may be accounted for by the fact that as a child the novelist became acquainted with the sudden death of a near relative who had accidentally fallen into a stream: an incident which sunk deeply into her retentive mind.

Fate plays a very conspicuous part in this as in most of George Eliot's novels. But it is not the Fate of the Greeks, it is not a power that affects human existence from without: it rather lies at the root of it, more or less shaping that existence according to obscure inherited tendencies, and in the collision between character and circumstance, between passion and law, potent only in proportion as the individual finally issues conquered or a conqueror from the struggle of life. This action of character on circumstance, and of circumstance on character is an ever-recurring motif with George Eliot. We constantly see adverse circumstances modifying and moulding the lives of the actors in her stories. She has hardly, if ever, therefore, drawn a hero or heroine, for these, instead of yielding, make circumstances yield to them. Dorothea and Lydgate in abandoning their striving after the highest kind of life; Tito in invariably yielding to the most pleasurable prompting of the moment; Gwendolen in being mainly influenced by circumstances acting on her, without her reacting on them, are all types of this kind.

Maggie belongs, on the whole, to the same type. She, too, is what Goethe calls a problematic nature, a nature which, along with vast possibilities and lofty aspirations, lacks a certain fixity of purpose, and drifting helplessly from one extreme to another, is shattered almost as soon as it has put out of port. In Maggie's case this evil springs from the very fulness of her nature; from the acuteness of an imagination which the many-sidedness of life attracts by turns in the most opposite directions. Tom, on the other hand, with his narrow practical understanding, entirely concentrated on the business in hand, swerves neither to right nor left, because he may be said to resemble a horse with blinkers, in that he sees only the road straight ahead. Maggie, with all her palpable weaknesses and startling inconsistencies, is the most adorable of George Eliot's women. In all poetry and fiction there is no child more delicious than the "little wench" with her loving heart and dreamy ways, her rash impulses and wild regrets, her fine susceptibilities and fiery jets of temper—in a word, her singularly fresh and vital nature. The same charm pervades every phase of her life. In her case the child, if I may so far modify Wordsworth's famous saying, is eminently the mother of the woman.

Profoundly affectionate by nature, and sympathising as she does with her father in his calamity, she cannot help rebelling at the sordid narrowness of her daily life, passionately craving for a wider field wherein to develop her inborn faculties. In this state of yearning and wild unrest, her accidental reading of Thomas à Kempis forms a crisis in her life, by bringing about a spiritual awakening in which Christianity, for the first time, becomes a living truth to her. Intense as she is, Maggie now throws all the ardour of her nature into renunciation and self-conquest. She seeks her highest satisfaction in abnegation of all personal desire, and in entire devotion to others. In her young asceticism she relinquishes a world of which she is ignorant, stifling every impulse, however innocent, that seems opposed to her new faith.

But Maggie has more actual affinity with poets and artists than with saints and martyrs. Her soul thrills like a finely-touched instrument to the beauty of the world around her, and though she doubts whether there may not even be a sinfulness in the indulgence of this enjoyment, yet the summer flowers and the summer sunshine put her scruples to flight. And then, when, through the intervention of Philip Wakem, the enchantments of romance and poetry are brought within her reach, the glory of the world again lays hold of her imagination, and a fresh conflict is begun in her soul. Thus she drifts from one state into another most opposed to it, and to an outside observer, such as Tom, her abrupt transitions are a sign that she is utterly wanting in moral stamina.

Not only Tom, but many eminent critics, who have descanted with fond partiality on Maggie's early life, seem to be shocked by that part of her story in which she allows herself to fall passionately in love with such an ordinary specimen of manhood as Stephen Guest. The author has even been accused of violating the truth of Nature, inasmuch as such a high-minded woman as Maggie could never have inclined to so vulgar, so commonplace a man as her lover. Others, while not questioning the truth of the character, find fault with the poor heroine herself, whom they pronounce an ineffective nature revealing its innate unsoundness by the crowning error of an abject passion for so poor a creature as the dandy of St. Oggs. This contention only proves the singular vitality of the character itself, and nothing is more psychologically true in George Eliot's studies of character than this love of the high-souled heroine for a man who has no corresponding fineness of fibre in his nature, his attraction lying entirely in the magnetism of mutual passion. This vitality places Maggie Tulliver by the side of the Juliets, the Mignons, the Consuelos, the Becky Sharps and other airy inheritors of immortality. It is curious that Mr. Swinburne, in view of such a character as this, or, indeed, bearing in mind a Silas Marner, a Dolly Winthrop, a Tito, and other intrinsically living reproductions of human nature, should describe George Eliot's as intellectually constructed characters in contrast to Charlotte Brontë's creations, the former, according to him, being the result of intellect, the latter of genius. If ever character came simply dropped out of the mould of Nature it is that of Maggie. His assumption, that the 'Mill on the Floss' can in any sense have been suggested by, or partially based upon, Mrs. Gaskell's story of 'The Moorland Cottage,' seems equally baseless. There is certainly the identity of name in the heroines, and some resemblance of situation as regards portions of the story, but both the name and the situation are sufficiently common not to excite astonishment at such a coincidence. Had George Eliot really known of this tale—a tale feebly executed at the best—she would obviously have altered the name so as not to make her obligation too patent to the world. As it is, she was not a little astonished and even indignant, on accidentally seeing this opinion stated in some review, and positively denied ever having seen the story in question.

Indeed when one knows how this story grew out of her own experience, how its earlier portions especially are a record of her own and her brother's childhood—how even Mrs. Glegg and Mrs. Pullet were only too faithfully done from the aunts of real life, one need not go far afield to seek for its origin. Every author usually writes one book, which he might more or less justly entitle 'My Confessions,' into which he pours an intimate part of his life under a thin disguise of fiction, a book invariably exciting a unique kind of interest in the reader be he conscious or not of the presence of this autobiographical element. Fielding's 'Amelia,' Thackeray's 'Pendennis,' Dickens's 'David Copperfield,' Charlotte Brontë's 'Villette,' are cases in point. The 'Mill on the Floss' is a work of similar nature. Maggie Tulliver is George Eliot herself, but only one side, one portion, one phase of George Eliot's many-sided, vastly complex nature. It is George Eliot's inner life in childhood and youth as it appeared to her own consciousness. We recognise in it her mental acuteness, her clinging affectionateness, her ambition, her outlook beyond the present, her religious and moral preoccupations, even her genius is not so much omitted as left in an undeveloped, rudimentary state. While her make-believe stories, her thirst for knowledge, her spiritual wrestlings, and the passionate response of her soul to high thinking, noble music, and the beautiful in all its forms, show that the making of genius was there in germ. Much in the same manner Goethe was fond of partitioning his nature, and of giving only the weaker side to his fictitious representatives. Conscious in himself of fluctuations of purpose which he only got the better of by his indomitable will, he usually endowed these characters with his more impulsive, pliant self, as manifested in Werther, in Tasso, in Edward of the 'Elective Affinities.' In this sense also Maggie Tulliver resembles George Eliot. She is her potential self, such as she might have been had there not been counterbalancing tendencies of unusual force, sufficient to hold in check all erratic impulses contrary to the main direction of her life.

While tempted to dwell largely on Maggie Tulliver, the central figure of 'The Mill on the Floss,' it would be very unfair to slur over the other admirably drawn characters of this novel. Her brother Tom, already repeatedly alluded to, is in every sense the counterpart of "Sister Maggie." Hard and narrow-minded he was from a boy, "particularly clear and positive on one point, namely, that he would punish everybody who deserved it: why, he wouldn't have minded being punished himself, if he deserved it; but, then, he never did deserve it." This strikes the key-note of a character whose stern inflexibility, combined with much practical insight and dogged persistence of effort, is at the same time dignified by a high, if somewhat narrow, sense of family honour. Conventional respectability, in fact, is Tom Tulliver's religion. He is not in any sense bad, or mean, or sordid; he is only so circumscribed in his perceptive faculties, that he has no standard by which to measure thoughts or feelings that transcend his own very limited conception of life.

Both by his good and his bad qualities, by his excellencies and his negations, Tom Tulliver proves himself what he is—a genuine sprig of the Dodson family, a chip of the old block! And the Dodson sisters are, in their way, among the most amazingly living portraitures that George Eliot ever achieved. Realism in art can go no further in this direction. These women, if present in the flesh, would not be so distinctively vivid as when beheld through the transfixing medium of George Eliot's genius. For here we have the personages, with all their quaintnesses, their eccentricities, their odd, old-fashioned twists and ways—only observed by fragments in actual life—successfully brought to a focus for the delight and amusement of generations of readers. There is nothing grotesque, nothing exaggerated, in these humorous figures. The comic effect is not produced, as is often the case with the inventions of Dickens, by some set peculiarity of manner or trick of speech, more in the spirit of caricature. On the contrary, it is by a strict adherence to the just mean of nature, by a conscientious care not to overstep her probabilities, that we owe these matchless types of English provincial life. And the genuine humour of these types verges on the pathetic, in that the infinitely little of their lives is so magnified by them out of all proportion to its real importance. Mrs. Glegg, with her dictatorial ways, her small economies, her anxiety to make a handsome figure in her will, and her invariable reference to what was "the way in our family," as a criterion of right behaviour on all occasions: Mrs. Pullet, the wife of the well-to-do yeoman-farmer, bent on proving her gentility and wealth by the delicacy of her health, and the quantity of doctor's stuff she can afford to imbibe: Mrs. Tulliver, the good, muddle-headed woman, whose husband "picked her from her sisters o' purpose, 'cause she was a bit weak, like," and for whom the climax of misery in bankruptcy is the loss of her china and table-linen: these, as well as the hen-pecked Mr. Glegg, and the old-maidish Mr. Pullet, are worthy pendants to Mrs. Poyser and Dolly Winthrop.

Whether too great a predominance may not be given to the narrow, trivial views of these people, with their prosaic respectability, is a nice question, which one is inclined to answer in the negative on reading such a conjugal scene as that between Mr. and Mrs. Glegg, after the latter's quarrel with Mr. Tulliver:

"It was a hard case that a vigorous mood for quarrelling, so highly capable of using any opportunity, should not meet with a single remark from Mr. Glegg on which to exercise itself. But by-and-by it appeared that his silence would answer the purpose, for he heard himself apostrophised at last in that tone peculiar to the wife of one's bosom.

"'Well, Mr. Glegg! it's a poor return I get for making you the wife I've made you all these years. If this is the way I'm to be treated, I'd better ha' known it before my poor father died, and then when I'd wanted a home, I should ha' gone elsewhere—as the choice was offered me.'

"Mr. Glegg paused from his porridge and looked up, not with any new amazement, but simply with that quiet, habitual wonder with which we regard constant mysteries.

"'Why, Mrs. G., what have I done now?'

"'Done now, Mr. Glegg? done now? . . . I'm sorry for you.'

"Not seeing his way to any pertinent answer, Mr. Glegg reverted to his porridge.

"'There's husbands in the world,' continued Mrs. Glegg, after a pause, 'as 'ud have known how to do something different to siding with everybody else against their own wives. Perhaps I'm wrong, and you can teach me better. But I've allays heard as it's the husband's place to stand by the wife, instead of rejoicing and triumphing when folks insult her."

"'Now what call have you to say that?' said Mr. Glegg rather warmly, for, though a kind man, he was not as meek as Moses. 'When did I rejoice or triumph over you?'

"'There's ways o' doing things worse than speaking out plain, Mr. Glegg. I'd sooner you'd tell me to my face as you make light of me, than try to make as everybody's in the right but me, and come to your breakfast in the morning, as I've hardly slept an hour this night, and sulk at me as if I was the dirt under your feet.'

"'Sulk at you?' said Mr. Glegg, in a tone of angry facetiousness. 'You're like a tipsy man as thinks everybody's had too much but himself.'

"'Don't lower yourself with using coarse language to me, Mr. Glegg! It makes you look very small, though you can't see yourself.' said Mrs. Glegg, in a tone of energetic compassion. 'A man in your place should set an example, and talk more sensible.'"

After a good deal of sparring in the same tone, Mr. Glegg at last bursts forth: "'Did ever anybody hear the like i' this parish? A woman with everything provided for her, and allowed to keep her own money the same as if it was settled on her, and with a gig new stuffed and lined at no end o' expense, and provided for when I die beyond anything she could expect . . . to go on i' this way, biting and snapping like a mad dog! It's beyond everything, as God A'mighty should ha' made women so.' (These last words were uttered in a tone of sorrowful agitation. Mr. Glegg pushed his tea from him, and tapped the table with both his hands.)

"'Well, Mr. Glegg! if those are your feelings, it's best they should be known,' said Mrs. Glegg, taking off her napkin, and folding it in an excited manner. 'But if you talk o' my being provided for beyond what I could expect, I beg leave to tell you as I'd a right to expect a many things as I don't find. And as to my being like a mad dog, it's well if you're not cried shame on by the country for your treatment of me, for it's what I can't bear, and I won't bear.' . . .

"Here Mrs. Glegg's voice intimated that she was going to cry, and, breaking off from speech, she rang the bell violently.

"'Sally,' she said, rising from her chair, and speaking in rather a choked voice, 'light a fire upstairs, and put the blinds down. Mr. Glegg, you'll please order what you like for dinner. I shall have gruel.'"

Equally well drawn in their way, though belonging to a different class of character, are Maggie's cousin, the lovely, gentle, and refined Lucy; Philip Wakem, whose physical malformation is compensated by exceptional culture and nobility of nature; Mr. Tulliver, the headstrong, violent, but withal generous, father of Maggie, and his sister Mrs. Moss, whose motherliness and carelessness of appearances form a striking foil to the Dodson sisters. Indeed, 'The Mill on the Floss' is so rich in minor characters that it is impossible to do more than mention such capital sketches as that of Bob Jakin and his dog Mumps, or of Luke, the head miller, who has no opinion of reading, considering that "There's fools enoo—an' rogues enoo—wi'out lookin' i' books for 'em."

The distinguishing feature of this novel, however, lies not so much in its wealth of portraiture or freshness of humour as in a certain passionate glow of youth, which emanates from the heroine, and seems to warm the story through and through. For passion, pathos, and poetic beauty of description, 'The Mill on the Floss' is certainly unique among George Eliot's works.