The Mill on the Floss as bildungsroman
The conventional pattern of the bildungsroman is greatly complicated when the main character is female. As Eliot was only too aware from her own experience, a girl’s journey to adulthood — especially if she aspired to anything beyond a typically domestic female role — was likely to be less a triumphant journey than a series of collisions with society’s restrictions. This is what we see, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): Jane’s development is marked (as one contemporary critic observed) by ‘hunger, rebellion and rage’ – as one contemporary critic said disapprovingly of Brontë herself. ‘Women feel just as men do,’ Jane exclaims as she reflects on her own enforced passivity:
they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts… they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; … It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (ch. 12)
I cannot choose but think upon the time
When our two lives grew like two buds that kiss
At lightest thrill from the bee's swinging chime,
Because the one so near the other is. (Sonnet 1)
By the time Eliot was in her mid-30s, the siblings were no longer speaking: Isaac had broken off all contact with his sister when she chose to live openly as a married woman with the already-married George Henry Lewes in 1854. The breach between them was healed only when in 1880, after Lewes’s death, Eliot married another man — this time legally.
Brother and Sister: sonnet sequence by George Eliot
Manuscript of Brother and Sister, a sonnet sequence by George Eliot. The poems are autobiographical, recalling the close relationship Eliot had with her brother Isaac when she was a young girl.View images from this item (11)
Letter from Isaac Evans to George Eliot, congratulating her on her marriage
George Eliot’s brother sent her this letter in 1880, congratulating her on her recent marriage. It ended the silence between them that had lasted more than 25 years.View images from this item (4)
EducationAs appropriate in a novel of development, education is a central theme of The Mill on the Floss. Thanks to the support of free-thinking friends and to her own intelligence and determination, Eliot herself triumphed over the limits usually set on women’s education in the 19th century. She become one of Victorian England’s foremost intellectuals: she read multiple languages, including German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; she translated works of history and philosophy; she edited and contributed to a prestigious journal, the Westminster Review, where she was responsible for overseeing work by notable figures including philosopher John Stuart Mill and historian James Anthony Froude.
Eliot understood only too well, however, that her own path was not an easy one to follow, and she knew better than to tell an uplifting story that would obscure the need for radical change. Instead, in The Mill on the Floss she dramatises the tragedy of a girl chafing against sexist restrictions while her less able brother has all the opportunities she craves. The thwarting of Maggie’s intellectual potential makes it doubly ironic that Tom’s privileges are wasted on him: he has neither interest in nor capacity for the expensive gentleman’s education his father fondly believes will guarantee his upward mobility. Nothing could be duller for Tom than puzzling over his volume of Euclid’s geometry or, even more mysterious, the pages of his Latin grammar.
Maggie, though, would love to immerse herself in his academic studies instead of the polite trivialities considered sufficient for her. When she comes to visit Tom at school, her bright curiosity makes Tom’s dullness all the more apparent; she asks Mr Stelling, ‘so many questions about the Roman empire’ that for the first time, Tom realises ‘there had once been people upon the earth who were so fortunate as to know Latin without learning it through the medium of the Latin grammar’. Maggie even yearns to try the dreaded Euclid — but she is put in her place by Mr Stelling, who pronounces that girls may have ‘a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn’t go far into anything. They’re quick and shallow.’ For her own formal education, ‘this small apparatus of shallow quickness’ must make do with Miss Firniss’s boarding-school, where the emphasis is less on the expansion of her mind than the perfection of her manners (Book 2, ch. 1).
Books and ReadingInevitably, in this context, Maggie’s most valuable lessons are learned outside of school. As a child, she reads avidly, feeding her imagination with books that let her vicariously explore a wider world and meet exotic ‘fellow-creatures’ like the Dutchmen in Pug’s Tour Through Europe, ‘very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel’, or the Animated Nature in which she discovers ‘elephants and kangaroos, and the civet-cat, and the sunfish, and a bird sitting on its tail’ (Book 1, ch. 4).
In her world, a bookish girl is an anomaly; even her fond father, who’s proud of his smart ‘little wench’, acknowledges that ‘an over-’cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep — she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that’ (Book 1, ch. 2). Making matters worse, Maggie doesn’t always take from her reading quite the wholesome lessons the adults around her would like her to. Explaining Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil to her father’s startled guest Mr Riley, she astutely notes the double-bind of an accused witch:
‘That old woman in the water’s a witch — they’ve put her in to find out whether she’s a witch or no; and if she swims she’s a witch, and if she’s drowned — and killed, you know — she’s innocent, and not a witch, but only a poor silly old woman. But what good would it do her then, you know, when she was drowned?’ (Book 1, ch. 3)
When Mr Riley patronisingly tells her to ‘put by the “History of the Devil” and read some prettier book’, Maggie pulls out her copy of John Bunyan’s morally uplifting The Pilgrim’s Progress, only to disconcert Mr Riley further with its lurid pictures of devils, which Tom has coloured in for her.
The ending of The Mill on the Floss has been controversial since the novel’s first publication. It has been interpreted as both triumphant and tragic, as celebrating both death and love, as calling for revenge or for mourning. Whatever it means, it does not offer the satisfying resolution expected from a bildungsroman. If anything, it defies our wish for satisfaction, along with the novelistic conventions that usually provide it, and thus provokes us to imagine — and maybe even work for — the changes that would have made Maggie’s novel of development into the kind of story she wishes for: one in which ‘the dark woman triumphs’ (Book 4, ch. 4).
 Letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. by George W E Russell, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan,1896), i, p.34.
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