The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

the-mill-on-the-floss Whenever I think about my favourite Victorian authors, George Eliot never seems to be a name that comes to mind – and yet I’ve liked everything I’ve read by her…Middlemarch, Romola and, years ago, Silas Marner. The Mill on the Floss is another one I can now add to this list; it was one of the titles on my Classics Club list I had been putting off reading and I really don’t know why. I didn’t love it as much as Middlemarch but I did enjoy it. It’s a beautifully written novel, though I wouldn’t expect anything less from George Eliot.

The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860, but set several decades earlier, beginning before the Reform Act of 1832. The story takes place in the fictional English town of St Ogg’s and at Dorlcote Mill which stands on the banks of the River Floss. The mill is owned by Mr Tulliver who lives there with his wife and two children, Tom and Maggie. He is keen for his son to receive a good education, so Tom is sent to school, but it’s nine-year-old Maggie who shows the most interest and aptitude for books and learning.

Remembering how much I loved reading myself when I was Maggie’s age and how much I value my 20th century education, I had a lot of sympathy for her when Tom’s tutor tells her that girls have a “great deal of superficial cleverness, but couldn’t go far into anything; they’re quick and shallow” or when she finds herself having a conversation like this one with her brother:

“Why, you couldn’t read one of ’em,” said Tom, triumphantly. “They’re all Latin.”

“No, they aren’t,” said Maggie. “I can read the back of this, – ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'”

“Well, what does that mean? You don’t know,” said Tom, wagging his head.

“But I could soon find out,” said Maggie, scornfully.

“Why, how?”

“I should look inside, and see what it was about.”

Although they don’t always see eye to eye (and despite Tom’s sense of superiority) Maggie and Tom do care about each other and their relationship is quite a strong one – until the day Philip Wakem, a lawyer’s son, joins Tom at Mr Stelling’s school. Tom dislikes Philip from the start, but Maggie grows very close to him and as the years go by they begin to have feelings for each other. Unfortunately for Maggie and Philip, their fathers have become sworn enemies following a lawsuit which has resulted in Mr Tulliver losing Dorlcote Mill. Maggie is forbidden to see any more of Philip, but when Tom discovers that they are still meeting in secret, she is forced to choose between her family and the man she is beginning to love.

There’s more to the story than this – a second love interest appears later in the novel and we also get to know several of Maggie’s aunts, uncles and cousins – but I’m not going to describe the plot in any more detail. I do want to mention the ending, though. It’s one of those endings which, when you first read it, is shocking, unexpected and not very satisfactory – but after you’ve had time to think about it, you decide it was perfect after all. That’s how I felt about it, anyway; I imagine other readers would have had a different reaction.

I don’t know very much about George Eliot as a person, but she writes so convincingly about Maggie’s childhood and about the ups and downs of sibling relationships that I wonder how much of it was autobiographical. These were my favourite sections of the book, but I liked, and had some sympathy for, the older Maggie too.

The Mill on the Floss is not a fast-paced novel and not a short one either, so it’s not the sort of book you can read quickly. I took my time with it, enjoying the beautiful writing, the descriptions of the town, the mill and the river, and the insights into life. And now I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Eliot’s books; I think Daniel Deronda will probably be next.

My Commonplace Book: September 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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york-minster

Another high wall appeared ahead of us; York seemed a city of walls. Behind it the Minster loomed. Ahead was a large open space crowded with market stalls under brightly striped awnings that flapped in the cool damp breeze. Heavy-skirted goodwives argued with stallholders while artisans in the bright livery of their guilds looked down their noses at the stalls’ contents, and dogs and ragged children dived for scraps. I saw most of the people had patched clothes and worn-looking clogs. Watchmen in livery bearing the city arms stood about, observing the crowds.

Sovereign by CJ Sansom (2006)

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But whereas the planets are serene in their separateness, knowing any collision with one another likely to destroy them and return them to dust, Fogg remarks that he, along with very many of his race, finds his Separateness the most entirely sad fact of his existence and is every moment hopeful of colliding with someone who will obscure it from his mind.

Restoration by Rose Tremain (1989)

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elizabeth-of-york

“Do you like history?” he enquired.

“Oh, yes.” She turned eagerly to him, forgetting momentarily the splendour of the pageant. “It is about people, you see. The deeds they performed. The way they thought.”

Elizabeth the Beloved by Maureen Peters (1972)

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Writing is a kind of magic. One person sits in a room alone and makes marks on a page that represent the images in her mind. Another person looks at those marks, weeks or months or a hundred years later, and similar images appear in that person’s mind. Magic. Plays and choreography hold yet another level of magic and meaning: the marks on the page leap to action in another person’s body, to be seen by thousands of others. The ability to weave that kind of magic paid well in Las Vegas.

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan (2014)

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He was a good husband. He had comforted her when she’d sobbed violently against his plump chest, then rested dry-eyed against it and tried not to remember all the things she no longer knew about her son. How tall was he now? Had the colour of his hair changed? Did he still wake sometimes in the middle of the night unable to breathe? Did he still like to find beetles in the cracks in a stone wall, or to look for hidden things beneath a rock?
Did he remember her at all?

Rebellion by Livi Michael (2015)

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king-david

But the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)

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Three telephones kept ringing like demented things, and by post, telegram, wireless, and personal appearance the information poured in. Nine-tenths of it quite useless, but all of it requiring a hearing: some of it requiring much investigation before its uselessness became apparent. Grant looked at the massed pile of reports, and his self-control deserted him for a little.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (1936)

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“It is the only thing I know of to his advantage,” Judith said. “I will admit him to be an excellent whip. But for the rest I find him a mere fop, a creature of affectations, tricked out in modish clothes, thinking snuff to be of more moment than events of real importance. He is proud, he can be insolent. There is a reserve, a lack of openness—I must not say any more: I shall put myself in a rage, and that will not do.”

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935)

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courbette

I heard the fanfare and recognised it; it was the entrance of Annalisa and her white stallion. The trumpets cut through the air, silver, clear and commanding. Old Piebald stopped grazing and lifted his head, with his ears cocked as one imagines a war horse might at the smell of battle and the trumpets. Then the music changed, sweet, lilting and golden, as the orchestra stole into the waltz from The Rosenkavalier.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

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In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)

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“I might be wrong, but I fancy that however much a girl may admire, or envy, the heroine of some romance, who finds herself in the most extraordinary situations; and however much she may picture herself in those situations, she knows it is nothing more than a child’s game of make-believe, and that she would not, in fact, behave at all like her heroine.”

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer (1966)

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nondescript

“You’re not shy, Julia,” he said. “It’s what I noticed first about you. How calmly you faced the world with that stupendous, utterly unnatural face of yours, and of course – you know the spirit in which I say that, it’s merely a stated fact – I knew then you were a natural. No no, there’s no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, but that you’ll thrive.”

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch (2016)

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It happens this way sometimes, we can discover truths about ourselves in a moment, sometimes in the midst of drama, sometimes quietly. A sunset wind can be blowing off the sea, we might be alone in bed on a winter night, or grieving by a grave among leaves. We are drunk at a tavern, dealing with desperate pain, waiting to confront enemies on a battlefield. We are bearing a child, falling in love, reading by candlelight, watching the sun rise, a star set, we are dying…

But there is something else to all of this, because of how the world is for us, how we are within it. Something can be true of our deepest nature and the running tide of days and years might let it reach the shore, be made real there — or not.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

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Favourite books read in September: Sovereign, Airs Above the Ground and Black Sheep

Romola by George Eliot

Romola I’ll admit that I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about starting to read Romola. I had added it to my Classics Club list because I loved Middlemarch and because the Italian Renaissance setting sounded appealing to me. Then I came across some reviews that said it was very difficult to read, overly detailed and boring, and I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. Luckily, now that I’ve read the book, I can say that none of these things were big problems for me. Yes, it was challenging, and yes, the amount of historical and political detail was overwhelming, but none of that mattered because I was so caught up in the story and the lives of the characters.

Romola is set in Florence in the final years of the 15th century and I wonder if this could be one of the reasons it’s not more widely read as it isn’t what you would typically expect from a Victorian novel. There’s no doubt that Eliot must have thoroughly researched the setting and the historical background, although it sometimes seemed that she had been determined to include every little fact and detail she uncovered during that research. Apparently Anthony Trollope wrote to Eliot after reading the first instalment and praised her for her descriptions of Florence, ‘wonderful in their energy and in their accuracy’, but warned her not to ‘fire too much over the heads of your readers’. Well, a lot of it did go over my head, and although I loved the book overall I won’t pretend that I understood everything I read.

The title character, Romola, is the daughter of an elderly scholar, Bardo de’ Bardi. Romola’s brother has left home to join the church and Romola is doing her best to take his place in helping their father with his classical studies. This work does not really interest Romola, however, so when they are introduced to a young man called Tito Melema who agrees to become Bardi’s assistant, this seems to be the perfect solution.

Tito, a Greek scholar, has just arrived in Florence after surviving a shipwreck and is looking forward to building a new life and career for himself. When he learns that his adoptive father, Baldassarre, has been sold into slavery in Antioch and needs his assistance, Tito must decide whether to put his own comfort above his duty to his father. Meanwhile Romola is beginning to fall in love with Tito, but knows nothing of his relationship with Baldassarre – or of his entanglement with a pretty young Florentine girl called Tessa.

The story of Romola and Tito unfolds against the backdrop of a very important period in Florentine history. Piero de’ Medici has been driven from Florence as the French prepare to invade and religious fervour is sweeping through the city under the leadership of the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola is an important character in Romola – along with Niccolò Machiavelli he is one of several real historical figures to appear in the novel – and is portrayed here as a complex human being with both good points and bad.

The fictional characters are even more interesting than the historical ones; the villain in this novel is the equal of almost any in Victorian fiction. He is particularly fascinating because when we first meet him he doesn’t appear to be villainous at all; his character undergoes a slow descent into deceit and treachery so that I went from liking him to loathing him. Romola sometimes feels more like a typical virtuous and dutiful Victorian heroine than a 15th century one (she reminded me of Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch) but I liked her and enjoyed watching her character develop.

I think how much you take away from Romola depends on how much effort you put in. You can look up every reference if you want to, or you can just be swept along by the story – like a lot of classics it works on more than one level. I certainly didn’t understand it all and I got very confused by the political intrigue towards the end of the book but as long as I could keep track of who was on which side, who was being betrayed and who was doing the betraying I was happy.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic but it’s one of the best I’ve read for a while. I was gripped by the plot, fascinated by the characters and loved the portrayal of Florence, its buildings, its art and culture and its people. Having only read Middlemarch, Silas Marner and now Romola so far, I’m looking forward to reading George Eliot’s other novels!

Readalong: Middlemarch by George Eliot

I have had two previous attempts at reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch but both times abandoned the book after a few chapters. When I saw that Nymeth was planning a readalong this summer, I thought this might give me the motivation to persevere and actually finish the book. I think part of the problem with my past attempts was that I found the book so long and slow-moving it didn’t hold my attention and I ended up being tempted by other books on my shelf. This time round I decided to do things differently. I started reading the book at the end of June alongside other books (something I don’t usually do – I prefer to concentrate on one book at a time) and worked slowly through it, interspersing it with an occasional shorter book. As it turned out, this was the perfect way for me to read Middlemarch, as it meant I could take my time and give it the attention it deserved. And this is a book that really benefits from being read slowly.

The plot is so layered, every sentence filled with so much meaning, that I’m sure there are a lot of things that I’ve missed and will have to pick up on a subsequent reading. It certainly is a book that you need to concentrate on. There are so many characters, who all seem to be related by marriage in some way, that I had to make notes as I was reading and would never have kept all the characters straight otherwise.  I highly recommend you do the same as I found my amateurish family trees became invaluable as I progressed through the book!

So what is Middlemarch about? Well, even after finishing the book I don’t really know how to describe the plot.  Middlemarch is the story, not just of one or two people, but of an entire town and its inhabitants. It portrays the atmosphere of life in a small community where everybody knows everybody else’s business and most people’s biggest concern is what their neighbours will think of them. The relationships and interactions between the characters are wonderfully complex and Eliot cleverly weaves their storylines together, so that the actions of one person may have unforeseen consequences on the life of another.

The prologue certainly seems to refer to Dorothea Brooke and at first it appears that the book is going to be about Dorothea and her marriage to the dry and scholarly Edward Casaubon.  Dorothea is an intelligent, sincere, idealistic girl who despite the warnings of her friends and family becomes determined to marry Mr Casaubon, insisting that he has a “great soul” and that nothing will give her greater happiness in life than assisting him with his studies.

“In this latter end of autumn, with a sparse remnant of yellow leaves falling slowly athwart the dark evergreens in a stillness without sunshine, the house too had an air of autumnal decline, and Mr. Casaubon, when he presented himself, had no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background.”

Just as we’re becoming absorbed in her story, however, Dorothea disappears for several chapters and we are introduced to some new characters.  The first is a newcomer to Middlemarch: Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor with some new and radical ideas.  Soon after his arrival, Lydgate enters into a relationship with Rosamond Vincy, which proves to be just as difficult and disappointing as Dorothea’s marriage to Mr Casaubon.

“Lydgate could only say, “Poor, poor darling!” – but he secretly wondered over the terrible tenacity of this mild creature. There was gathering within him an amazed sense of his powerlessness over Rosamond. His superior knowledge and mental force, instead of being, as he had imagined, a shrine to consult on all occasions, was simply set aside on every practical question.”

We also follow Rosamond’s brother Fred Vincy as he tries to find his true vocation in life and to earn the respect of Mary Garth, the woman he loves.  These three storylines (and several other subplots) all run alongside each other, meeting and intersecting from time to time.

There are many things that make this book so impressive and so notable but the most striking, in my opinion, is the incredibly detailed characterisation. Every character Eliot introduces us to is interesting, nuanced and believable. She even gives her characters distinctive voices (literally!) – we are repeatedly told that Celia speaks “with a quiet staccato” and that Mr Brooke has a habit of repeating himself (“I thought you had more of your own opinion than most girls. I thought you liked your own opinion – liked it, you know”).

We see almost every conceivable personality type; we experience almost every imaginable human emotion. And most importantly, the characters develop throughout the book – they mature, they learn from their mistakes, they become better people.  I could find something to admire in almost all of the characters. They all have their own flaws and faults but also have some good qualities – this makes even less likeable people such as Mr Bulstrode interesting to read about and allows us to empathise with them.  There are plenty of characters who are very likeable, though.  I particularly loved Mary Garth and her father Caleb.

“Mary was fond of her own thoughts, and could amuse herself well sitting in twilight with her hands in her lap; for, having early had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact. And she had already come to take life very much as a comedy in which she had a proud, nay, a generous resolution not to act the mean or treacherous part. Mary might have become cynical if she had not had parents whom she honored, and a well of affectionate gratitude within her, which was all the fuller because she had learned to make no unreasonable claims.”

I am not usually very good at spotting themes in books, but I could find several in Middlemarch. The most obvious is marriage and how it often fails to live up to our expectations (i.e. Dorothea Brooke and Mr Casaubon; Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate). In her portrayals of these marriages, George Eliot never places the blame entirely on either the husband or the wife.  Instead, she shows how an unhappy or problematic marriage can be caused by personality differences, unrealistic idealism and a failure to understand the person we are married to.

“All these are crushing questions; but whatever else remained the same, the light had changed, and you cannot find the pearly dawn at noonday. The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same.”

Another theme is change: we should remember that although Middlemarch was published in the 1870s, it was set around forty years earlier at a time of great change: there were changes in politics (the Reform Bill of 1832); changes in transport (the arrival of the railway) and changes in medicine (as portrayed through Tertius Lydgate’s new ideas and theories).

There are so many other aspects of this book that I wanted to discuss here, but I have to stop somewhere!  I haven’t even mentioned Will Ladislaw, who is made to feel unwelcome in Middlemarch by his relative, Mr Casaubon; or Mr Farebrother, who is in love with Mary Garth; or Raffles, who is as close to a villain as we get in Middlemarch.

After reaching the final page I can now see why so many people love this book so much. I would recommend Middlemarch to all lovers of Victorian fiction who are prepared to invest the time it takes to read such a long and complex novel. I don’t think this book would be for everyone though. If you prefer faster-paced stories you may have trouble getting into it, as I did on my earlier attempts. My advice to you would be to stick with it, take your time and savour every word, and the story does become more compelling as it goes on.

If I’m going to be completely honest, there are a lot of classics that I’ve enjoyed a lot more than this one, but I can’t think of any that are greater in scope, more insightful or offer a more penetrating study of humanity. After spending the summer with Dorothea and Will, Tertius and Rosamond, Fred and Mary, and the others, I’m really going to miss them all.

I’ll leave you with some more quotes from the book:

“But indefinite visions of ambition are weak against the ease of doing what is habitual or beguilingly agreeable; and we all know the difficulty of carrying out a resolve when we secretly long that it may turn out to be unnecessary.”

“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”

Please see this post at Things Mean a Lot for other bloggers’ thoughts on Middlemarch

After the Sunday Papers #5

Last month was a great reading month for me – I read ten books, which I know is not many for a lot of other bloggers, but for me it’s more than I usually manage to read. And as well as reading those ten books, I was also slowly working my way through Middlemarch by George Eliot, which I finished last weekend. Considering this was my third attempt at reading it, I felt a real sense of achievement when I reached the final page! As I’ve finished it a few weeks ahead of schedule for Ana’s readalong, I won’t post my thoughts on the book just yet, but will wait until later in the month. Who else has been reading Middlemarch for the readalong? Are you enjoying it?

Another readalong I’ve signed up for is Bleak House by Charles Dickens, which is being hosted by Amanda of The Zen Leaf. Bleak House, like Middlemarch, is a book that I started reading once before but stopped because I wasn’t in the right mood for it. I can be a very moody reader sometimes! Hopefully this time I’m going to enjoy it. If you’d like to participate too, see Amanda’s post to sign up.

This week I’ve been reading The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory which I was sent by Simon & Schuster UK for their Red Queen blog tour. The Red Queen is the second book in Philippa Gregory’s new Wars of the Roses series, which was a fascinating time in English history. I would welcome any recommendations of good non-fiction books about this period as I’d really like to learn more about it.

I’ll be posting my review of The Red Queen soon, but in the meantime why not enter this competition to win a signed copy of the UK hardback – it’s open worldwide until September 30th.

I also received two more books for review this week, which is exciting for me as I don’t usually get very many.

After You by Julie Buxbaum is the third book I’ve received from Transworld for their Summer Reading Challenge (the first two that I’ve read and reviewed were Second Hand Heart and If I Stay). I also had a nice surprise when Rosy Thornton contacted me to offer me a copy of her new novel, The Tapestry of Love. I’m looking forward to reading both of these books.

What will you be reading this week?