The Premise: Maggie and Tom Tulliver are brother and sister; Maggie is smart and spirited and wild-haired, while Tom could just as easily be named Patriarchal Society and the story would be exactly the same. Maggie gets told off all the time because she wants to learn but she’s not allowed because of 19th century sexism, while Tom gets to go to school even though he’s clearly quite stupid. Then their dad loses the mill and all the family’s cash, so everyone gets really stressed out.
Thoughts: here’s some background to my poorly thought-out decision to read (or possibly reread – I thought I’d read it before but now I’m not so sure) this book. I always thought I hated Thomas Hardy, then I read all his books and realised I was wrong and stupid and that, actually, he’s a genius. I wondered if my not-unrelated belief that George Eliot was boring too was also incorrect. I think maybe I was right about this one.
The thing is, I love Victorian novels. Give me Hardy, the Brontës, Thackeray or Gaskell any day of the week. I don’t mind when they’re a bit wordy or when it takes ages for something to happen. I don’t even get that annoyed when they spend chapters and chapters over-sentimentalising orphans. But The Mill on the Floss is 588 pages long and for at least the first 250 pages, it’s very boring and nothing really happens. Mrs Tulliver goes on about how great her sisters are; her sisters appear and are annoying, but in an entertaining way. Maggie gets told off every 3 pages for having a personality, which gets a bit dull. There’s loads of really dull legal stuff about Mr Tulliver and his loans and the mill. It takes literally 300 pages for anything interesting to happen and then, in fairness, the last almost-half of the book is much better, with romance and melodrama and less Mr Tulliver because he’s dead. By that point, however, I was already so irritated at having spent so many hours on this book that I didn’t even enjoy it.
Just to further decrease my motivation for reading The Mill on the Floss, the ending was a question on University Challenge a few months ago, so the ending was spoiled for me before I’d even got going. Yes, this probably does mean I hadn’t read it before. It turns out Eliot hints at this ending about 80 times during the book, which is probably meant to be clever but actually just annoyed me even more. Obviously, she’s an excellent writer, but so’s Anne Brontë and it never seems to take her a whole chapter for someone to decide what to do with a table cloth.
In Conclusion: my plan was to read The Mill on the Floss as helpful build-up to tackling Middlemarch, but, in reality, I think it’s put me off altogether, in no small part because Middlemarch is about 800 pages long and I just don’t think I can be bothered. I think I’ll head back to my good pal Jane Austen for the next few classics rereads, with Mansfield Park looking at me seductively from my bookshelf.
Have you read The Mill on the Floss? Have I just completely missed the point?