Life is not all about speed, slow down or miss the thrill, and the wit between your life’s cover pages.
To call her brilliant will be an understatement. Her writings were set in another age and time, but the insights and lessons from this towering writer’s work areas pertinent as when they were first published. It is on record that at the height of her career; she was as famous as the reigning queen of the Victoria England in which she lived.
Mary Ann Evans (1819–1880), in order to escape the prejudices against her gender in early 19th century England wrote under the male pseudonym, George Eliot. I stumbled upon and purchased an old copy in 1984. On the back cover of my hard-copy version is a lovely painting of a watermill on an old English countryside house. Not very appealing unless you love classic paintings. Do well to always remember the old advice, “Do to not judge a book by its cover.“
It was the book that launched my lifelong love for the classics. From The Mill on The Floss, I proceeded to her even more voluminous Middlemarch. But the story told The Mill on The Floss is the one that sticks to me most.
I used to make stopovers at Odusote Books and The Nigerian Baptist Convention bookshops anytime I visited Ibadan, the home cities of those historic shops. That was in the early 1980s. The last time I visited, eight years ago, these bookshops were still carrying on but not as busy as they were in their heydays. No thanks to the internet and e-book readers.
Much as I love classics, these days I hardly have the time to read or reread some of these old goodies. But The Mill on The Floss is a novel I can read again and again without getting bored. And I read slowly. Deliberately.
Starting late in January, I finally finished the volume in the middle of April, I completed my third reading of this 993 pages volume. In life as in literature, some of life’s offerings are best appreciated when we slowly peruse them.
In an outstanding review of this book, The Mill on The Floss has been described as articulating “the tension between circumstances and the spiritual energies of individual characters struggling against those circumstances.”
In it, we see the protagonist, Maggie selflessly betrothed herself to Philip Wakem, the hunchback son of her father’s presumed enemy. Her father, Mr. Tulliver, before his death would have been vehemently opposed to any union between his daughter (Maggie) and the deformed son of the man whom he felt was responsible for his ruin.
Also, Maggie’s only brother, Tom whom she lovingly dotes on, in his unrelenting determination to restore her late father’s honor, was intensely antagonistic to any prospect of her union with Philip in marriage.
Tom, judging the worse of her loving sister banished her from his home at the moment she needed him most. This happened when Maggie wisely returned home to her brother from the snare of elopement with her niece, Lucy’s suitor — the dashing Mr. Stephen Guest.
The triumph of freewill
Wikipedia’s review aptly described, “Maggie’s ultimate choice not to marry Stephen, and to suffer both the privation of his love and the ignominy of their botched elopement demonstrates a final triumph of free will.”
Towards the end of the book, a deluge of destructive flood swept the city with devastation and death in its wake. All alone in a boat, Maggie struggled through the flood to rescue her brother from his house. Having rescued her brother, brother and sister now set out in the swift flood to rescue their niece Lucy from whom she has received forgiveness and reconciliation.
The most endearing moment was when Tom’s eyes got opened to her sister’s unblemished love and nobility of character — braving the dangers of imminent death to rescue her brother that never requited her love up till that day — their last day together and alive.
That was when we saw “Tom pale, with a certain awe and humiliation” his head bowed and with tears of rectitude, Tom reunited with his loving sister — all past differences and bitterness gone. Unfortunately, (or, as ordained by the author), their boat capsized in the raging flood. Brother and sister got drowned in a loving embrace.
Reading and musing over the classics provokes one to think deeply and helps in understanding the philosophies and social dynamics that drive human interactions throughout the ages. Aspiring and experienced writers can no more do without reading classics than William Shakespeare and other influential writers (ancient and modern) could have written their works without first learning the alphabet.
The novel is resplendent with timeless prose of:
How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving.
Mr. Tulliver took a draught, swallowed it slowly, and shook his head in a melancholy manner, conscious of exemplifying the truth that a perfectly sane intellect is hardly at home in this insane world.
From Mr. Tulliver, rang a witty quote that has stuck with me ever since my first reading, “I can’t do wi’ knowin’ so many things besides my work. That’s what brings folks to the gallows, — knowin’ everything but what they’n got to get their bread by.”
And then this,
The problem these gentlemen had to solve was to readjust the proportion between their wants and their income; and since wants are not easily starved to death, the simpler method appeared to be to raise their income.
Many things are difficult and dark to me; but I see one thing quite clearly, — that I must not, cannot, seek my own happiness by sacrificing others.
I cannot take a good for myself that has been wrung out of their misery.
It is not the force that ought to rule us, — this that we feel for each other; it would rend me away from all that my past life has made dear and holy to me. I can’t set out on a fresh life, and forget that; I must go back to it, and cling to it, else I shall feel as if there were nothing firm beneath my feet.
Tom, like every one of us, was imprisoned within the limits of his own nature, and his education had simply glided over him, leaving a slight deposit of polish; if you are inclined to be severe on his severity, remember that the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.
God comfort you, my loving, large-souled Maggie. If every one else has misconceived you, remember that you have never been doubted by him whose heart recognized you ten years ago.
I will not believe unproved evil of you; my lips shall not utter it; my ears shall be closed against it; I, too, am an erring mortal, liable to stumble, apt to come short of my most earnest efforts; your lot has been harder than mine, your temptation greater; let us help each other to stand and walk without more falling.
O God, if my life is to be long, let me live to bless and comfort.
I underlined both my hard and e-copy of The Mill on The Floss heavily. Sharing all of my impressions from that book will be like writing a toylike novel about such a magnificent novel.
The Mill on The Floss launched my lifelong love for the classics. The wit and wisdom — loyalty, true affection, and the unchanging character of human nature through the ages described in the novel are as true now as when the novel was first penned.
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I published another version of this review here. Please click here and share your thoughts on some of the book or books that has affected you the most in your own reading explorations.