George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss: book of a lifetime by Sara Paretsky

 

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

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick