Rachel Reckitt’s wood-engravings for The Mill on the Floss
On 5 March 1860, the scientist and journalist GH Lewes reported to the publisher John Blackwood that "Mrs Lewes is getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story. But there is such a strain of poetry to relieve the tragedy that the more she cries, and the readers cry, the better say I."
"Mrs Lewes" was, of course, George Eliot, and "the tragic story" on which she was working so damply was The Mill on the Floss, published by Blackwood 150 years ago next week. What was making Eliot cry was having to write the last few pages of her novel in which the heroine Maggie Tulliver and her estranged brother Tom drown in the swollen River Floss, locked together "in an embrace never to be parted".
More than mere melodrama, the watery hug represented a wishful reworking of Eliot's fractured relationship with her own adored brother, with whom she had grown up on the Warwickshire family farm in the 1820s. Ever since she had written to Isaac Evans three years before to explain that she was now cohabiting in London with the married Lewes – "Mrs Lewes" was a term of social convenience, her legal name remained Mary Ann Evans – the rigidly respectable Isaac had refused to have anything to do with her. Even more hurtfully, he had instructed their sister to break off contact too. This silence was to stretch bleakly over the coming quarter of a century. The brother and sister who, like Tom and Maggie, had once "roamed the daisied fields together" in loving childhood, would never meet again.
Unusually for such an intensely autobiographical novel, The Mill on the Floss was not Eliot's first work of fiction, but her third. Shortly before it came out she explained to a friend that my "mind works with most freedom and the keenest sense of poetry in my remotest past", and her first two novels had indeed truffled her own prehistory. Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) was drawn from stories circulating around her childhood community about a series of mild scandals that had taken place several decades earlier. Adam Bede (1859) was based on the young adulthood of her father, her uncle and her uncle's wife. It was as if Eliot had been working through what she called the "many strata" of collective memory before she was ready, finally, to confront her own past.
Literary theorists tend not to approve of reading novels as if they were fictionalised autobiography. Still, it is a stern critic who would deny readers the pleasure of spotting which parts of her own childhood George Eliot transferred to Tom and Maggie. The dynamics and personalities of the Tulliver family are remarkably similar to what we know of the Evanses. Mr Tulliver, the hot-headed miller, is described as finding "the relation between spoken and written language, briefly known as spelling, one of the most puzzling things in this puzzling world", and you only have to glance at the diaries of Eliot's father, Robert Evans, to realise that he too was an uncertain penman.
Evans, like Tulliver, was a fond father, who doted on "his little wench", born when he was already middle aged. And while he was far too astute to follow Tulliver's example of mounting ruinous law suits, Evans often found himself called into court to give expert witness on matters of land management.
Then there is Tom Tulliver, whose rigid respectability and lack of capacity for original thought makes him a ringer for Isaac. Some of the best scenes in the book show Tom struggling over schoolboy Latin while the younger Maggie races ahead, exhibiting a cleverness that upsets the gender expectations of her highly conventional family. Isaac, like Tom, grew up to be a practical man of business. Mary Ann, by contrast, followed Maggie into a self-punishing adolescence marked by an intense longing for the kind of intellectual and artistic life not generally available to girls in the muddy backwaters of late-Hanoverian England.
But it is the Dodson aunts who are the real stars of The Mill on the Floss. This bustling trio of self-regarding matrons is one of the great comic creations of 19th-century fiction, as good as anything Dickens ever did. The Dodsons are Mrs Tulliver's married sisters, and regularly descend on the mill in a disapproving chorus, ready to dispense home truths beginning with, "It's for your own good I say this." Devoid of culture or curiosity about lives other than their own, the Dodsons nonetheless know themselves to be experts in everything that really matters, including "obedience to parents, faithfulness to kindred, industry, rigid honesty, thrift, the thorough scouring of wooden and copper utensils".
Behind Eliot's comedy there is, as ever, a more serious intent. As a careful reader of all the new scientific theories, including Darwin's, Eliot wants to show us the Dodsons in their larger historical context. Thirty years ago, she explains, this is how rich Protestant peasants lived in middle England. Fussing over butter-making and swollen ankles, household linen and fashionable bonnets may strike her readers as tiresome and vulgar, but it is important to realise that this way of being represents a particular moment in human development. Now that moment has passed, and, for all their ant-like vitality, the Dodsons and their ilk are as dead as dodos. ...