In an extract from the introduction to the Vintage Classics edition of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Marina Lewycka, best-selling author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, talks us through the evolution of her reading of the novel – from topographical idyll to social critique.
I was introduced early to The Mill on the Floss because as a child I lived in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, which is said to have been the model for St Ogg’s, where this novel is set. We were given selected excerpts to read at school, and told that we should be honoured and respectful that our small, nondescript town had been touched with the magic wand of Literature.
Perhaps that should have put me off for life, for as a twelve year old I struggled with George Eliot’s prose, yet in spite of that I can remember being enthralled by the story of the brother and sister who clashed bitterly yet were finally reunited in death, drowned in the fearsome river that still surged around the outskirts of our town. I identified with Maggie, the stubborn dreamy heroine, her nose always stuck in a book, desperate for approval and love. Like me, Maggie couldn’t do anything with her hair, and had ‘problem’ parents, her well-meaning suffocating mother and her kindly but obdurate father who brings the family to ruin. I say ‘like me’ for I didn’t realise at the time that this was George Eliot’s gift as a writer – to reveal the universal within the particular.
I thoroughly sympathised with Maggie’s attempt to run away from home – in fact I once tried something similar myself – and I was enchanted by Bob Jakins and his dog Mumps. But above all, it was George Eliot’s quick precise sketches of the Lincolnshire countryside, the river, the willows, the ‘delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs’, ‘the great chestnuts in blossom, and the grass all deep and daisies’ that captivated me.
It wasn’t until I revisited The Mill on the Floss, some ten years later, as a student, that I realised how much I had missed on that earlier edited reading. As school-children, George Eliot’s ‘philosophy’ had been considered too difficult for us, and we had been given only the story to read. Now I saw that, alongside the story, the novel was brimming with ideas, with wisdom, with dry humour and pearls of insight. It was the 1970s, the birth of the women’s movement, and one thing that struck me at that time was how much George Eliot had anticipated and articulated the struggles of women to be treated as the equals of men. When Maggie’s father chooses to send her dull brother to school in preference to bright bookish Maggie, he says, ‘. . . an over-‘cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep – she’ll fetch non the bigger price for that.’ And towards the end of the book the lawyer Wakem uses another ‘livestock’ metaphor: ‘We don’t ask what a woman does but to whom she belongs.’ Just as shocking to the feminist reader is the casual acceptance by both Tom and Maggie of their unequal situation. ‘I’ve got a great deal more money than you because I’m a boy,’ says Tom.
If my feminist sympathies saw Maggie as a model of a modern woman trapped in an outdated and stultified social order, my post-1968 radical sensibility warmed to George Eliot’s critique of the narrow-mindedness of provincial bourgeois society, where religious allegiance ‘appeared to run in families, like asthma’ and where ‘the worst that could happen (is) not death but disgrace.’ The scene in which Mrs Tulliver, humiliated by her husband’s bankruptcy, must face the ignominy of her more fortunate sisters poring through her linen and silverware and deciding which to buy at auction is a vivid metaphor of the way our possessions come to define us. The Dodson ladies are concerned less by their sister’s suffering than by the shame of seeing property marked with the family initials sold into the hands of strangers. Yet George Eliot’s gentle mockery of the complacent St Ogg’s society seemed fresh and relevant in the seventies not because she predicted the great social upheavals that would follow, but because her observation of enduring human foibles is so acute.
Now many years later, re-reading The Mill on the Floss a third time, this time from the perspective of an author, I am awed by the feat that George Eliot has pulled off. This is a remarkable work, which can be enjoyed on many different levels, and remains as powerful today as when it was written.
This is an extract taken from the introduction of the Vintage Classics edition of The Mill on the Floss. Marina Lewycka is the best-selling author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Various Pets Alive and Dead and We Are All Made of Glue (to name just three).
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