There has been some discussion circulating around book blogs recently concerning abandoning books, and whether people prefer to persevere with reading in spite of not enjoying a book or to put it aside because life is too short to read things that aren’t appealing. I’ve spoken before about how I subscribe to what I term the Mastermind method of reading: I’ve started so I’ll finish. I don’t like to leave a book unfinished, partly because I’m an eternal optimist and continue hoping that a book might improve right till the bitter end, and partly because I often find even reading books I don’t enjoy can be a valuable experience, if only because it helps me to clarify what I don’t like. Sometimes however, books get started and then forgotten about, through no fault of their own or deliberate intention on my part. This has happened to my poor copy of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss twice now, so I figured I owed it to the book to get to the end this time, come hell or high water. Abandon it a third time and it would no doubt start to develop a complex. The two accidental discardings of this book had somehow given me the unreasonable impression that it was going to be unduly difficult or tiresome, but I was determined to make it past the bookmark lodged ominously after page 139. It turns out that I needn’t have worried, as George Eliot’s writing is lovely, the characters are interesting and the story is engaging.
Maggie Tulliver is an intelligent, impetuous little girl who lives in the Mill of the title. She plagues her mother with her unwillingness to behave in a neat, respectable way; she adores her straightforward but proud and litigious father; and she worships her older brother Tom, living for the times when he comes home from school. As she grows up, the Tulliver’s fall on hard times and she is forced into more subdued behaviour, although her passionate nature and readiness to love remain simmering beneath the surface. Slow and forthright Tom finds his place in his sister’s affections challenged by other men and Maggie faces difficult decisions.
Instead of focussing on romance as I expected, The Mill on the Floss is a book which explores relationships of all different kinds. It examines the ties that bind an extended family network of aunts, uncles and cousins together through thick and thin, so that the relatives who scold and tut and say “I told you so” can nonetheless always be relied upon to provide support and lend a helping hand where necessary. There are people drawn together out of pity, duty, friendship and tolerance. The romantic relationships depicted in the book vary widely in their nature, their causes and their means of expression; some arise out of kindness and mutual loneliness rather than love, while others are due to restlessness and adventure. Some relationships are easy and others are difficult and these are not always the ones that the reader might expect. And of course, there is never any doubt that the two most important men in Maggie’s life are her brother Tom and her father Mr Tulliver.
Maggie herself is a fascinating character. As a quick-witted, volatile little girl of violent passions she is utterly believeable. Her emotionally charged decisions to cut off her hair or to run away with the gypsies are shown as being perfectly logical through Maggie’s childliek reasoning, though her repentence following these irrevocable decisions is swift and easily anticipated by the reader. Her growth into a quieter, more mature and subdued figure is equally believeable, although it is not a little disappointing to see her spirit being crushed by circumstances. She is not the sort of character that is always likeable, but she is constantly fascinating and the reader genuinely wants her to find happiness.
The best aspect of the book, for me, was George Eliot’s prose which is always insightful and heartfelt. For example, when she talks about Tom returning home from a term away at school:
But it was worth purchasing, even at the heavy price of the Latin Grammar — the happiness of seeing the bright light in the parlour at home, as the gig passed noiselessly over the snow-covered bridge: the happiness of passing from the cold air into the warmth and the kisses and smiles of that familiar hearth, where the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticize than the solidity and extension of matter. There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects become dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality: we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs. Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction; an improved taste in upholstery scorns it; and is not the striving after something better and better in our surroundings the grand characteristic that distinguishes man from the brute — or, to satisfy a scrupulous accuracy of definition, that distinguishes the British man from the foreign brute? But Heaven knows where that striving might lead us, if our affection had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things — if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory.
Unfortunately, just as I keep reading books I don’t enjoy in the hope that they will improve, so a book can deteriorate as it progresses, and I found myself loving The Mill on the Floss right up until the ending, which I loathed. I’m desperately trying not to give anything away, but it is overly sentimental and completely out of keeping with the rest of the novel up to that point both in content and tone. I really wish that it had ended differently, but I remain pleased to have finally made it to the end of this book.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. Published by Fontana, 1979, pp. 507. Originally published in 1860.