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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


CHAPTER VI.
THE MILL ON THE FLOSS.

1 ADAM BEDE had not been long in the hands of readers when a new novel was begun. At the end of April 1859 George Eliot had finished a short story called "The Lifted Veil"--taken up as "a resource when her head was too stupid for more important work"--and was about to "rewrite" the first two chapters of the novel which ultimately received the name of The Mill on the Floss. The first volume was finished before October, the second on 16th January, and the third on 21st March 1860. It appeared at the beginning of April, rivalled Adam Bede in its immediate popularity, and sustained or increased her reputation with the most thoughtful readers. In one respect, as already intimated, it is clearly the most interesting of all her books. In the Scenes of Clerical Life she had made use of the stories current in the early domestic circle; in Adam Bede she had drawn a portrait of that circle itself; and she now took herself for a heroine, and the first two volumes become virtually a spiritual autobiography. The title originally suggested, "Sister Maggie," is really the most appropriate. The external circumstances have, of course, been altered. The scenery is supposed to be in Lincolnshire, and the town of St. Ogg's is said to represent Gainsborough. But her native district still supplies the details. The "round pool," to which she had gone on fishing expeditions with her brother, and the "Red Deeps," which had been a favourite haunt, are transported from Griff to Dorlcote Mill. The attic to which Maggie retires in the mill is the attic to which George Eliot had retired in her father's house. Her brother, we are told, had already detected her in her first story. She was now revealed, not only to him, but to her old neighbours, by the closeness of her descriptions. The important point, however, is her identity with the heroine. The elder Tullivers do not represent her parents; and the brother Tom, it is to be hoped, was at most vaguely suggested by the real Isaac Evans. But Maggie Tulliver, spite of certain modifications--the remarkable personal beauty, for example, which has for good reasons to be bestowed upon her--evidently represents as clearly as possible what George Eliot would have been had she been transplanted in her infancy to some slightly different family in the same district. Although many of the best novels in the language are autobiographical, there is hardly one which gives so vivid and direct a representation of the writer's most intimate characteristics. It is proper, I believe, to speak of such writing as "subjective"--an epithet which sometimes suggests an erroneous inference. Every genuine description is subjective in the sense that it must give the writer's own impressions, and is not a mere adoption of language which has recorded the impressions of others. But it need not be "subjective" in the sense of giving the individual peculiarities alone. Self-knowledge implies also knowledge of our common human nature. The novelist speaks for us because he speaks for himself. The actual "confession," of course, depends for its interest upon the interest of the character revealed; and if that character be one of great moral and intellectual power, and an impressive incarnation of an interesting type of the human species, the direct utterance of its emotions has a peculiar fascination. "To my feeling," said George Eliot, "there is more thought and a profounder veracity in The Mill than in Adam; but Adam is more complete and better balanced. My love of the childhood scenes made me linger over them, so that I could not develop as fully as I wished the concluding 'book,' in which the tragedy occurs, and which I had looked forward to with much attention and premeditation from the beginning." Bulwer had made this criticism, and had also found fault with the scene in which Maggie accepts Tom's dictation too passively. She admitted that he was right in both cases, and both remarks were, as we shall see, significant. The Mill on the Floss, indeed, considered simply as a story, obviously suffers from the disproportionate development of the earlier part; but I do not think that any reader could wish for a change which would sacrifice the revelation of character to the requirements of the plot. Taken by itself, the first part of The Mill represents to my mind the culmination of George Eliot's power. Maggie is one example of the feminine type which occurs with important modifications in most of the other stories. But George Eliot throws herself so frankly into Maggie's position, gives her "double" such reality by the wayward foibles associated with her nobler impulses, and dwells so lovingly upon all her joys and sorrows, that the character glows with a more tender and poetic charm than any of her other heroines. I suppose that Dinah Morris would be placed higher in the scale of morality; but if the test of a heroine's merits be the reader's disposition to fall in love with her (and that, I confess, is my own), I hold that Maggie is worth a wilderness of Dinahs.
2 One result of this sympathy with her heroine is conspicuous. No book, I imagine, ever set forth so clearly and touchingly the glamour with which the childish imagination invests the trivial and commonplace. There is enough poetry in all of us in our earlier years to enable us to appreciate the truth, though rare genius is required to recall so vividly the old associations and to bring out so tenderly their pathetic side. We all have enough poetry left beneath our layers of commonplace to share Maggie's emotions in the attic, with its high-pitched roof, its worm-eaten floors and shelves, and dark rafters festooned with cobwebs, where she keeps her "Fetish": the trunk of an old doll, into whose head she drives nails in emulation of Jael's feat as pictured in the Family Bible. We can understand, too, the "dim delicious awe" produced by the "resolute din, the unresting motion of the great stones" in the mill, where the meal pours down till the very spider-nets look like a fairy bulwark. Maggie speculated especially upon the "fat floury spiders," and their probable relations to spiders of the outside world. Toads and earwigs become actors in other little romances. She confides to her little cousin that Mrs. Earwig is running so fast to fetch a doctor for a small earwig that has fallen into the hot copper. Brother Tom shows his matter-of-fact character by smashing the earwig "as a superfluous yet easy means of proving the entire unreality" of such a story. The imaginative faculty transfigures toads and earwigs and invests with mystery the round pool, framed with willows and tall reeds, where she delights in the "whispers and dreamy silences," and listens to the "light dipping sounds of the rising fish and the gentle rustling as if the willows and the reeds and the water lend their happy whispering also." Her life is to change, but the old joy can never be quite lost. "Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass to-day would be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years which still live in us and transform our perception into love."
3 Meanwhile, however, imagination is a faculty which has its disadvantages when it is placed in uncongenial surroundings. Its possessor or victim has to suffer terrible raps over the knuckles from the Tom Tullivers. "Those bitter sorrows of childhood!" she exclaims, "when sorrow is all new and strange, when hope has not yet got wings to fly beyond the days and weeks, and the space from summer to summer seems measureless!" George Eliot insists upon this text, and the absurdity of telling a child that its real troubles are to come. "We have sobbed piteously, standing with tiny bare legs above our little socks, when we have lost sight of a mother or nurse," but we can no longer revive the poignancy of the moment. "Surely if we could recall that early bitterness and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh pooh the griefs of our children." I would not venture to pronounce upon the general soundness of the doctrine; in that matter we all generalize from our private experience, and are very liable to illusions; but the truth for a child of Maggie's peculiarities is undeniable and most pathetic. When she is not only snubbed by Tom, but roused to jealousy by his kindness to her cousin Lucy, "there were passions at war in her to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passion only; but the essential ti megeqoV who was present in the passion was wanting in the action; the utmost Maggie could do, with a thrust of her small brown arm, was to push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud." The remark indicates the curious power of the book. The chief actors are children, their surroundings are of the dullest and narrowest conceivable, and yet we are spectators of a drama with really tragic interest. "Not Leonore," we are told, "in that preternatural midnight excursion with her phantom lover, was more terrified than poor Maggie in her entirely natural ride on a short-paced donkey with a gipsy behind her, who considered that he was earning half-a-crown." The bray of another donkey under the setting sun becomes portentous, and the low cottages which she passes suggest a probable habitation of witches.
4 The Mill on the Floss, so far, is a singularly powerful presentation, by help of her personal memories, of the theme of Andersen's "ugly duckling"; the seed of genius cast upon barren ground and yet managing to find sufficient nurture from the most unpromising materials. It is the more effective because the tragic side is not too prominent. There is none of the brutal tyranny which crushes some children in pathetic fiction. Maggie, on the whole, in spite of all her scrapes, has a good many happy hours, and is child enough to accept the unintentional stupidities of her family circle as part of the inevitable. She is not conscious of being a misunderstood genius; she only suffers because she has vague aspirations and longings, but does not feel herself to be enslaved or bound to overt revolt. The circle, forming the prose element against which her poetic impulses are to struggle, is drawn with a force and humour which, but for the author's distinct disavowal, would convince us that it was a study from the life. Indeed, though we have to admit that there was no actual counterpart of Mrs. Glegg or the Pullets, we must suppose that some of their characteristic traits were taken from real people, though more or less modified and put into different combinations. Certainly we seem to be reading a direct transcript from early recollections when we pay a visit to the Pullets with Mrs. Tulliver and her children, when Mrs. Pullet devoutly exhibits her new bonnet, and is moved by the solemnity of the occasion to thoughts of human mortality. "Ah," she said at last, "I may never wear it twice, sister, who knows?" "Don't talk o' that, sister," answered Mrs. Tulliver; "I hope you'll have your health this summer." "Ah, but there may come a death in the family, as there did soon after I had my green satin bonnet. Cousin Abbott may go, and we can't think o' wearing crepe less nor half a year for him." "That would be unlucky," said Mrs. Tulliver, entering thoroughly into the possibility of an inopportune decease. The gloom becomes overpowering; and Mrs. Pullet, "beginning to cry," closes the scene worthily by saying, "Sister, if you should never see that bonnet again till I'm dead and gone, you'll remember I showed it you this day." And so they descend to the amiable Mr. Pullet, who solaces his mind when at a loss for conversation with lozenges and peppermint-drops, and is the proud possessor of a musical-box. His profound respect for his wife is shown by his memory of the right time for taking her doctor's stuff. "There's the pills as before every other night, and the new drops at eleven and four, and the 'fervescing mixture' when agreeable," rehearsed Mr. Pullet, with a punctuation determined by a lozenge on his tongue. "Doctor Turnbull," he adds, "hasn't got such another patient as you in this parish, now old Mrs. Sutton's gone." "Pullet," says his wife, touched by this delicate compliment, "keeps all my physic bottles--did you know, Bessy? He won't have one sold. He says it's nothing but right folks should see 'em when I'm gone. They fill two o' the long storeroom shelves already--but," she added, beginning to cry a little, "it's well if they ever fill three. I may go before I've made up the dozen o' these last sizes." The conversation runs on with such admirable naturalness, that we can but take it as the echo of such talks as were once the staple of conversation at Chilvers-Coton. We may look out upon old farms as we are hurried past them in the railway and wonder whether they still shelter Tullivers and Dodsons, and possibly ask the more inscrutable question, whether the talk of some ladies nearer home may not in its essence resemble the remarks of Mrs. Pullet.
5 The previous books were meant as revelations of the romance to be found under the most commonplace exteriors. It becomes a problem whether this bit of commonplace is not too sordid. It is "irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active self-renouncing faith, moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime--without that primitive rough simplicity of events, that hard submissive ill-paid toil, that childlike spelling out of what nature has written which gives its poetry to peasant life." George Eliot admits that she shares the sense of oppressive narrowness, but wishes to show how it acted upon the young souls immersed in it. And, after all, she holds that it had its good results. Its religion was simply blind acceptance of tradition, and its morality adherence to established customs. The religion meant going to church on proper occasions; being baptized, because otherwise one could not be buried; and taking care that there should be the "proper pall-bearers and well-cured hams at one's funeral." Mr. Tulliver took much the same view of the services as Tennyson's immortal farmer from the same region. He considered, however, that "church was one thing and common-sense another, and he wanted nobody to tell him what common-sense was." He shows a touch worthy of the "Northern Farmer" when he orders his son to record in the Family Bible a declaration that he will not forgive his enemy, and hopes that evil may befall him. There is a strain of the old Viking blood in him after all, and it is more or less shown in the morality. The Dodsons were "a very proud race"; no one should be able to tax them with a breach of traditional duty. So, even when Mrs. Glegg, the most nagging and contradictory of them all, quarrels with her sister, she feels bound to leave their fair share of her property to her sister's children. Their pride was wholesome, as it identified honour with "perfect integrity, thoroughness of work, and faithfulness to admitted rules." Mr. Glegg, like his neighbours, was "near"; he had made money very slowly, by steady parsimony, and saving had become an end in itself. He would have thought it a "mad kind of lavishness" to give away a five-pound note to save a poor widow's furniture, but he was really sorry for her; and was as anxious to save other people's money as his own. The Tullivers had warmer hearts and more impulsive characters than their neighbours, and discharge their family duties from genuine affection as well as from a sense of traditional affection. Mr. Tulliver's kindness to his ruined sister atones for his recklessness and his perverse passion for "lawing"; and his love for his "little wench" gives her main consolation under the troubles of her childhood. Her sympathy for him under his troubles and illness is a natural stage in the development of her finer qualities.
6 So far, if it be true that George Eliot's fondness for the old memories had betrayed her into some disproportionate length, no one can deny the extraordinary skill and force with which the situation is prepared. We may miss at times the more idyllic elements represented by Mrs. Poyser's circle, though the charming pedlar Bob Jakin brings some of the old wit and quaint humour into the less exhilarating surroundings. At any rate, the mine is very effectually laid, and we now have to watch the explosion. Maggie, with her pathetic attempts to snatch at any floating bits of learning that may enable her intellectual wings to expand, has gone through her creator's experience in a rather more trying form. She has had to feed upon Defoe's History of the Devil, and made attempts to draw honey from the Latin Grammar, Euclid, and Aldrich; and now that a happy chance has introduced her to à Kempis, we can see that she is fitted to receive consolation, under the dry and barren outward life, in some form of religious mysticism. When the sensitive and artistic Philip Wakem, made eager for consolation by his deformity and his own domestic difficulties, meets the beautiful young woman, we are also not surprised that her longings for sympathy should turn to a human object. On both sides there is ample opportunity for awaking love and pity. It is natural, again, that the position should bring her into collision with her brother. He has no turn for poetry and art and mysticism, but his plunge into difficulties has called out the sturdy qualities of the Tulliver race, and we sympathise with his energy in retrieving the family fortunes. The quarrel arises inevitably when he finds that his sister is in love with a youth, not only deficient in the manly qualities, but son and heir to the enemy against whom he has inscribed a vow of vengeance. That he should take a decided course of action under the circumstances is only to be expected. Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that he behaves like a brute. There is plenty of "heredity" to account for that. But here is a first difficulty. George Eliot admitted, as I have said, that the scene between brother and sister was not quite satisfactory. The young woman, with her high-wrought enthusiasm, submits too "passively," not to say, tamely, to his imperious interference. She confesses that she has done wrong, and promises not to see her lover again in private. Tom's behaviour, I fancy, makes him simply offensive to most people, though it seems to be obvious that we are intended to retain a certain regard for him. The failure seems to me to be easily explicable. I heard once from a most intelligent lady of an elder generation that the agitation for women's rights was absurd, because as a matter of fact all women like, and always will like, to be slaves. Younger ladies, it is true, have assured me that this is a complete mistake, and that women have as strong an objection as men to be objects of tyranny. I should be afraid to express any opinion upon a question in which women must be the best judges. Yet I am half inclined to guess that, along with other conservative tendencies, George Eliot had inherited some sympathy with this older view. Of course, she would be the last person to approve the tyranny of brothers or husbands, and is only trying to do justice to the moral code accepted in St. Ogg's circles, of which it was a part that the family should be under masculine supremacy. The true difficulty is again, as I take it, that she was too thoroughly feminine to be quite at home in the psychology of the male animal. Her women are--so far as a man can judge--unerringly drawn. We are convinced at every point of the insight and fidelity of the analysis; but when she draws a man, she has not the same certainty of touch. She is, I have suggested, a little too contemptuous when the Samson yields to the Delilah; and when he asserts his privileges, his strength is apt to be too like brutality. Many rustic Tom Tullivers would, no doubt, ride roughshod over sisterly sensibilities; but if we are to retain sympathy for their better nature, they should show more twinges of conscience. Tom's profound conviction that whatever he does is therefore right, is no doubt characteristic; but he might at least feel that he is doing a painful duty, and not be represented as utterly insensible to the claims of the old childish affections.
7 The comparative weakness, however, of masculine portraits has a more unpleasant result. She admits that the tragedy which follows is "not adequately prepared." She will "always regret" the want of fulness in the treatment of the third volume, due, as she says, to the epische Breite into which she was beguiled by love of her subject in its predecessors. But she defends the position itself, which many readers have condemned. "Maggie's position towards Stephen Guest--upon which the tragedy turns--is," she says, "too vital a part of my whole conception and purpose for me to be converted to the condemnation of it. If I am wrong there--if I did not really know what my heroine would feel and do under the circumstances in which I deliberately placed her--I ought not to have written this book at all, but quite a different work, if any. If the ethics of art do not admit the truthful presentation of a character essentially noble, but liable to great error--error that is anguish to its own nobleness--then it seems to me the ethics of art are too narrow, and must be widened to correspond with a widening psychology." Without discussing the "ethics of art," we may, I should think, fully agree that the critical canon thus abjured is erroneous. I am not aware, however, that any professor of aesthetics has laid down the rule that it is wrong to represent a noble character led into fatal error, and consequent remorse, by its weaknesses. I should have supposed that nothing could be a more legitimate topic. George Eliot is unintentionally changing the issue upon which a defence is really required. We have sympathized keenly with Maggie. We understand the "strange thrill of awe" which passes through her when passages from the Imitation of Christ affect her like a strain of solemn music; when she infers that "the miseries of her young life had come from fixing her heart on her own pleasure"; and saw the possibility of looking at her own life as "an insignificant part of a divinely guided whole." She forms "plans of self-humiliation and entire devotedness, and fancies that renunciation will give her" the satisfaction for which she had so long been "craving in vain." "She had not perceived--how could she until she had lived longer?--the inmost truth of the old monk's outpourings that renunciation remains sorrow, though sorrow willingly borne. Maggie was still panting for happiness, and was in ecstasy because she had found the key to it." That is beautifully said, and is followed by an admirable account of her effort to attain the true spirit. When, again, Philip Wakem urges her not to stifle human affections, and persist in a "narrow asceticism," and assures her that "poetry and art and knowledge are sacred and pure," we can quite see the force of the argument, and understand why it should be the prologue to a love-scene a little later. After an appeal from Philip, Maggie at last "smiled with glistening tears, and then stooped her tall head to kiss the pale face that was full of pleading, timid love like a woman's. She had a moment of real happiness then--a moment of belief that, if there were sacrifice in this love, it was all the richer and more satisfying." The "renunciation" and the desire for happiness may be reconciled.
8 With Tom Tulliver in the background, we have now abundant material for tragedy. But, at the opening of the third volume, we are abruptly introduced to a new character. Maggie has become a young lady, visiting her cousin. The "fine young man," snapping a pair of scissors in the face of the "King Charles" spaniel on Miss Lucy Deane's feet, "is no other than Mr. Stephen Guest, whose diamond ring, attar of roses, and air of nonchalant leisure at twelve o'clock in the day are the graceful and odoriferous result of the largest oil-mill and the most extensive wharf in St. Ogg's." In other words, Mr. Guest is a typical provincial coxcomb, with a certain taste for music, fitted no doubt to excite the admiration of young ladies at St. Ogg's. No attempt is made to suggest that he is anything but a self-satisfied commonplace young gentleman, who has condescended to accept the hand of Miss Deane. There is no difficulty in understanding him and his manners. When he dances with Maggie at a ball soon afterwards, and takes her into a conservatory, she looks very lovely as she stretches her arm to a rose. "Who has not felt the beauty of a woman's arm?--the unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled elbow, and all the varied gently lessening curves, down to the delicate wrist with its tiniest almost imperceptible nicks in the firm softness? A woman's arm touched the soul of a great sculptor two thousand years ago, so that he wrought an image of it for the Parthenon which moves us still as it clasps lovingly the timeworn marble of a headless trunk. Maggie's was such an arm as that, and it had the warm tints of life. A mad impulse seized on Stephen; he darted towards the arm and showered kisses on it, clasping the wrist." It is curious that a little later (1864) (George Elliot describes a "divine picture" by Sir F. Burton, in which a mailed knight is kissing the arm of a woman "by an uncontrollable movement." The subject, she says, is from a "Norse Legend." It "might have been made the most vulgar thing in the world--the artist has raised it to the highest pitch of refined emotion. The kiss is on the fur-lined sleeve that covers the arm, and the face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament." Mr. Stephen Guest's performance does not strike one in the sacramental light. Maggie is properly angry and astonished at the time, but she soon becomes more amenable; and though she has scruples, and goes through a "fierce battle of emotions," she presently finds herself drifting to sea with him in a boat, and is only arrested by her conscience at the last moment when she is some way towards Gretna Green. Renunciation gets the better of the longing for happiness. "We can only choose," she says, "whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us, for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives." To let this belief go would be to lose the only light in thee darkness of life. She returns; but the knot is insoluble, and has to be finally cut by the waves of the Floss. George Eliot herself, admitting the need for more development, maintained, as we have seen, that the conclusion was right, and it has been defended upon the same ground. It is right, because the "psychology" is right. Given the character and the circumstances, that is, this was the inevitable outcome. It is, no doubt, painful and disagreeable that a young woman of so many noble qualities should be guilty of such a step; but noble young women do make slips--that, I fear, is undeniable--and Maggie behaves as might be expected from her previous history. That is where I presume to doubt. Nobody, indeed, can deny that the passion of love is apt to generate illusions. Most men would probably be able to give examples from their own experience of the truth that young women who fall in love with somebody else have a singular inability for forming a correct judgment of the truly valuable qualities of masculine character. The fact has often been noticed, and is frequently turned to account by novelists. I will not deny that even Maggie's love for Stephen is conceivable. A young woman brought up in Dorlcote Mill was no doubt liable to be imposed upon by a false appearance of gentlemanlike character. But, one thing seems to be obvious. The whole theme of the book is surely the contrast between the "beautiful soul" and the commonplace surroundings. It is the awakening of the spiritual and imaginative nature and the need of finding some room for the play of the higher faculties, whether in the direction of religious mysticism or of human affection. That such a character, with little experience of life and with narrow education, should fall into error is natural, if not inevitable. But then the error should surely correspond to some impulse which we can feel to be noble. Maggie may be wrong in attributing high qualities to her hero; but we should feel that, in her eyes, he has high qualities, and that the passion, if misdirected, is itself congenial to her better impulses. Miss Brontë's heroines fall in love with men whom the reader may dislike; but it is because they take the men to be embodiments of great masculine qualities--energy, honour, and real generosity--under rather crusty outsides. Therefore, though we may doubt the perspicacity of the hero-worship, we do not feel that the sentiment is in itself degrading. But there is this difficulty with poor Maggie. Her admiration for Mr. Guest would be natural enough in the average miller's daughter suddenly brought into a rather superior social scale and introduced to a well-dressed young man scented with "attar of roses." But as Maggie, by her very definition, as one may say, is a highly exceptional young woman, she should surely have something exceptional in her love. We can understand her sympathy with Philip Wakem, who is a man of heart, and whose physical infirmity is an appeal for pity; we could have understood it if she had fallen in love with the excellent vicar of St. Ogg's, who would have been able to talk about à Kempis and religious sentimentalism; and we might even have forgiven her if, after being a little overpowered by the dandified Stephen, she had shown some power of perceiving what a very poor animal he was. The affair jars upon us, because it is not a development of her previous aspirations, but suddenly throws a fresh and unpleasant light upon her character. No one will say that the catastrophe is impossible; he, at least, who would pronounce dogmatically upon such matters must be a bolder man than I am; but neither, I think, can any one say that it was inevitable, or could have been expected, given the circumstances and the characters. The truth is, I think, different. George Eliot did not herself understand what a mere hairdresser's block she was describing in Mr. Stephen Guest. He is another instance of her incapacity for pourtraying the opposite sex. No man could have introduced such a character without perceiving what an impression must be made upon his readers. We cannot help regretting Maggie's fate; she is touching and attractive to the last; but I, at least, cannot help wishing that the third volume could have been suppressed. I am inclined to sympathies with the readers of Clarissa Harlowe when they entreated Richardson to save Lovelace's soul. Do, I mentally exclaim, save this charming Maggie from damning herself by this irrelevant and discordant degradation.

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