The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 25. The Mill on the Floss
Adam Bede had been finished little more than three months when a new story, “a sort of comparison picture of provincial life,” was already in George Eliot’s mind; and, within a year from that date, the story in question was already completed (March, 1860). The Mill on the Floss may not be the greatest of its author’s novels; but it was that into which she poured most abundantly the experiences of her own life when it had still been one of youth and hope; so that none of her books appeal with the same directness to the personal sympathies of her readers, at least in its earlier and more simply developed parts; it is the David Copperfield or the Pendennis among the products of her literary genius. Although she was fain to acknowledge the truth of Bulwer Lytton’s criticism, that “the epic breadth into which she was beguiled by love of her subject in the first two volumes” caused a want of fulness in the preparation of the tragedy reached in the third, yet, the nobility and beauty of Maggie’s personality has to be made fully manifest before we can absolve her for giving way, even momentarily, to her passion for Stephen; and a long ending, such as goes far to mar the effect of certain other of George Eliot’s works, would hardly have enhanced the expiatory solemnity of its perfect close. Maggie is the earliest in the sequence of George Eliot’s heroines par excellence—Romola, Dorothea, Gwendolen being the others. None of them brings home to us with more intense force than Maggie Tulliver the conflict waged by the great imaginative aspirations of the soul, which never abandons them though it cannot command their fulfilment, and the purifying influence of these aspirations. For, with her, as with the rest, of whom, though with features wholly her own, she is a sort of prototype, the escape from hopeless battling or prostrating collapse lies one way only—that to which she is, as it were, accidentally led—the way of self-sacrifice. If she stumbles on the threshold of her better life, it is that she may fully learn the truth of Philip’s saying that there can be no renunciation without pain, and she has to pass through a struggle far harder than her early yearnings and strivings before she conquers. After this, she can await the end, whatever judgment may be passed upon her by her brother, who cannot go beyond knowing that he is in the right, or by all the gossips of St. Ogg’s, who cannot rise above the certainty that she is in the wrong. When the end comes, it finds her in the midst of tempest and destruction as a bringer of reconciliation and peace, and the novel closes, in perfect harmony with its opening, as a story of trusting love.
In The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot had already displayed an amplitude of exposition—both in the delineation of manners and in the analysis of their significance—which could not but, from time to time, seem exacting even to the warmest admirers of her genius. Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver, in some ways, are a kind of inversion of the Poysers, and, though of a feebler personal texture, not less true to nature and nature’s humorousness. But Mrs. Tulliver’s sisters must be pronounced frequently tedious, and the enquiry into the motives of ordinary doings by ordinary people is, at times, trying. Still, in The Mill on the Floss, the background remains a background only, and there is no dissipation of the interest which never ceases to centre in “sister Maggie”—as the whole story was intended to have been called, till its present name, breathing the very spirit of English romance, and hinting vaguely at the tragic course of the homely story, was, in a happy moment, substituted.