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.

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24 thoughts on “The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

  1. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    I loved some of George Eliot’s books – Middlemarch being probably my favourite, but I really didn’t like Mill on the Floss. I couldn’t empathise with the characters – I seriously wanted to take Maggie and love interest no 2 and knock their heads together. I’m afraid I couldn’t believe that they would act as they did, I found Tom very annoying and the ending seemed to me such a waste. – Sorry! This was one of those books that I wanted to throw against the wall.

    • Helen says:

      Well, we can’t always like the same books. 🙂 I do understand your reasons for not enjoying this one – and I agree with you about the second love interest!

  2. Lark says:

    This was the first George Eliot book I ever read, and I must have read it at exactly the right time in my life, because I loved it, and quickly went on to read several other of Eliot’s books. I think Middlemarch is probably my favorite of her novels now, followed by Silas Marner, but I have a soft spot in my heart for The Mill on the Floss. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Eliot so far, but I prefer Middlemarch to this one. I can’t remember much about Silas Marner, so I think I need to read it again at some point.

  3. Novels And Nonfiction says:

    You know, Middlemarch is one of my Top 5 favorite books but for some reason I have yet to read anything else by George Eliot. Out of the three other novels by her you’ve read, which one would you recommend the most?

    • Helen says:

      I would recommend this one, I think. I did enjoy Romola but it wasn’t easy to read as it’s set in Renaissance Florence and contains a huge amount of historical and political detail. Silas Marner was good too, but it’s been a long time since I read it and I’ve forgotten most of it – I really need to read it again!

  4. Sandra says:

    I’m like you, Helen – somehow George Eliot never springs immediately to mind. I have Middlemarch on my classics club list though, so I’ll finally get started on her work before too much longer. And hopefully once I’ve started I’ll move swiftly on to Mill on the Floss 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I loved Middlemarch, so I think that will be a good one for you to start with. I hope you like it enough to want to read The Mill on the Floss too. 🙂

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    This has been a year of reading long books that I have had to take my time with and I had George Eliot on the list. Haven’t gotten to her yet. But your excellent review has resulted in her rise up in the queue.

  6. Catherine says:

    I have no doubt I will read it one day but as you say it is a big one that deserve some time given to it.
    I heard so much about it, it is on my bookshelf. One day….!!!!

  7. Gubbinal says:

    I loved reading your review and it brought back splendid memories of reading the novel, which is due a reread. Lately the book has been on my mind–and I’ve taken to calling two of my cats Tom and Maggie Tulliver.
    Don’t you love those Dodson Aunts?

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