When I was four, my parents gave my older brother a 45 of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”. I was so jealous of his listening to the record instead of to me that I broke it and then broke its replacement. The third survived because I was told I couldn’t play with Jeremy again if I destroyed it.
Jeremy was the lodestar of my childhood universe. He dressed me in the morning, cut my food for me at dinner, taught me to read and write. We wrote plays together, read aloud together. Whatever games he suggested were the ones we played; his approval mattered more to me than any other person’s. His engagement with friends or other siblings made me feel abandoned and angry.
When I met Maggie Tulliver, I felt that George Eliot understood that relationship in a way no other writer ever has. Like Maggie waiting for her older brother Tom, I used to wait on the porch for Jeremy’s return from school; our dog Jeff, like Tom and Maggie’s “queer dog” Yap, would wait with me.
Maggie Tulliver’s childhood is spent in a series of misadventures brought about by her inability to weigh the consequences of her actions. When her aunts and her mother criticize her thick black hair, eight-year-old Maggie recklessly chops it off—only to endure more criticism for her strange appearance from Tom and her censorious aunts.
Maggie’s adoration of Tom includes jealousy of his relations with others. When he turns to their cousin Lucy after he and Maggie have been quarreling, Maggie can’t bear it, and pushes the sweet, pretty Lucy into the mud.
As Maggie matures, she becomes more thoughtful and more capable of controlling her impulses, but she is still an intense, passionate woman. Although she continues to love her brother deeply, Tom is often critical of her behavior and her choices and ultimately estranges himself from her. It is only in the last two pages of the novel that brother and sister are reconciled: Maggie rescues Tom from the mill when the Floss River has flooded it. Tom is awed and overwhelmed by his sister risking her life to save his, but the river sweeps them under and they die in each other’s arms.
The sibling bond isn’t written about often in English or American fiction. We’re more engaged by the loner hero, by Pip or Huck Finn’s voyage of self-discovery. Even the heroes of the close-knit Bronte sisters are for the most part women on their own.
Although Mill on the Floss centers on Maggie and Tom, they aren’t the only siblings in the book. Their mother and her three sisters are one of the great comic achievements in English writing. They form a croaking chorus that lightens the serious scenes of Maggie’s struggle.
Eliot wrote The Mill of the Floss against the backdrop of her own adored older brother’s harshness toward her for living with George Henry Lewes. It is not a roman à cléf, however, but an exploration of the issues that always permeate Eliot’s work: how does one become a moral person, how does the intelligent, sensitive person make her or his way in the world—Philip Wakem, the artist to whom Maggie is engaged, Maggie herself, Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooks and Dr. Lydgate are all characters who struggle with the issues that also consumed Eliot.
Mill on the Floss deals particularly with the struggle Eliot experienced as a brilliant, intense woman knocking up against a world that judges such women harshly. Both the book and Eliot’s life resonated with me strongly, coming of age as I did in a time and place that placed severe constraints on women.
My own older brother is the furthest possible creature from Tom Tulliver: unlike Tom, Jeremy is an erudite and deep-thinking scholar. However, I confess that his judgment of me and my work still matters more to me than that of most people. I hope, if the need arose, that I’d push a boat into the Hudson River and attempt to row to his rescue.
Sara Paretsky's latest novel, 'Critical Mass', is published in paperback by Hodder