6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0249.06

The epigraph to chapter 44 reads as follows:

I would not creep along the coast, but steer

Out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars.

This little couplet is about Dorothea leaving behind the shore-hugging life she has had with Casaubon and charting a more adventurous and exciting (sexual) course. Or at least it is about her starting to think, obliquely, in these terms. In chapter 44, Casaubon is dying but not dead, and Dorothea, walking around the hospital grounds, is thinking about her future.

Critics assume these two lines were written by Eliot herself, which is partly correct. In fact, ‘creep along the coast’ is a phrase from John Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther (1687), and the six-line passage in which it occurs rather looks like it has been boiled down by Eliot for her two.

Why choose we, then, like Bilanders, to creep

Along the coast, and land in view to keep,

When safely we may launch into the deep?

In the same vessel which our Saviour bore,

Himself the pilot, let us leave the shore,

And with a better guide a better world explore.1

(A ‘bilander’ is a flat-bottomed masted Dutch ship, designed for coastal traffic.) This piously Christian sentiment is, at root, classical. The contrast between hugging the shore and the more dangerous but far-reaching tactic of heading out across open water defined classical navigation. The Greeks even had a particular name for the former activity. Here’s Nicholas Purcell in the Oxford Classical Dictionary:

Periploi, ‘voyages around’ (i.e. around a sea, following the coastline), were the standard basis of ancient descriptive geography. Sequences of harbours, landings, watering-places, shelters from bad weather, landmarks, or hazards could be remembered in an oral tradition as a sometimes very long list, and in written culture provided a summation of space that could be easier to intuit, and which offered much more room for detail, than cartography.2

More adventurous Greek heroes repudiate such timid periplism. Here’s Homer’s Odyssey:

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. For this star Calypso, the beautiful goddess, had bidden him to keep on the left hand as he sailed over the sea. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep.3

Might Eliot have had this Homeric moment in mind in writing her couplet she sets as the epigraph to chapter 44? One of the (if you’ll excuse me) oddities of the Odyssey is that its overarching storyline—a man travelling back through adversity to reunite with his beloved wife—is interrupted by stories of that same man pairing-off with women not his wife, and finding himself repeatedly tangled-up in the narratological logic of sexual romance. Item: Odysseus loiters with Circe. Item: he flirts with Nausicaa. Item: as the epic opens he is cohabiting with the beautiful nymph Calypso. Indeed, it is leaving Calypso’s island that occasions the passage quoted above, where Odysseus sets out, not creeping along the shore, but steering out in mid-sea by guidance of the stars.

And where is he heading? To the land of the Phaeacians, where he meets the beautiful young Phaeacian princess Nausicaa and afterwards captivates her with stories of his many adventures. It reads as the set-up to a romantic story that ought to end with Odysseus marrying Nausicaa, although (of course) it doesn’t. Instead of that romantic ending, the story makes a knight’s-move into a different denouement: the Phaeacians gift Odysseus quantities of treasure and send him on his way back to his actual wife.

One could not call Odysseus sexually faithful, certainly. There’s always seemed to me something ironic in the poem’s happy ending, predicated as it is upon his supposedly happy reunion with Penelope, who has gone to such extraordinary lengths to avoid cheating on her husband. And as Middlemarch moves into its second half it reveals itself as, amongst other things, a meditation on the nature of marital infidelity, not (of course) as actual physical adultery, but as a complication of the wedded heart. Casaubon, fretful at the prospect of Dorothea having sex with Ladislaw, decides that such a connection would constitute adultery even after his death; and so he arranges his posthumous testament to try and prevent it. We, as readers, naturally don’t see it that way—a widow should surely be allowed to marry again without acquiring the taint of adultery. And Dorothea is hardly Odysseus, jumping into bed with whomever she comes across. And yet she is conflicted. The story wouldn’t be half so interesting if she weren’t. Which is to say: it’s not about the money that she would lose if she marries Ladislaw, or not only about that. There’s something else at work in her sexual conscience.

We flatten the dramatic dilemma of the novel’s second half if we take an absolutist moral position with respect to it: as it might be, telling ourselves Casaubon is wholly irrational in demanding his widow be sexually chaste after his death; Dorothea is wholly within her rights to take another husband and should feel no scruple about desiring another man. It’s a fair enough position, but it runs the risk of missing what Eliot is doing. She is not an absolutist writer—always fonder, we might say, as per her title, of the middle line. Say Dorothea has been guilty, even self-deceiving, about her desire for Ladislaw whilst her husband was alive. Those are the kinds of feelings (the guilt, I mean) that don’t merely evaporate now that her husband is dead. In other words, I’m suggesting Eliot is saying there is something complicated in our married lives: something adulterated about our desire for our spouses even in the most untroubled of marriages (and you wouldn’t call Casaubon and Dorothea’s marriage untroubled). Odysseus and Penelope, we might say, are closer to the truth of marriage than Sir Charles Grandison and Lady Harriet. If that weren’t the case, the psychodrama of Middlemarch would be considerably less compelling than it actually is.

Rosamond has no such Dorothean scruples. Indeed, immediately before this chapter (and its Odyssean epigraph) she, newly married to Lydgate, finds herself awaking into a worldly awareness of the potency of, precisely, extra-marital sexual allure:

Rosamond felt herself beginning to know a great deal of the world, especially in discovering what when she was in her unmarried girlhood had been inconceivable to her except as a dim tragedy in by-gone costumes—that women, even after marriage, might make conquests and enslave men. At that time young ladies in the country, even when educated at Mrs. Lemon’s, read little French literature later than Racine, and public prints had not cast their present magnificent illumination over the scandals of life. Still, vanity, with a woman’s whole mind and day to work in, can construct abundantly on slight hints, especially on such a hint as the possibility of indefinite conquests. How delightful to make captives from the throne of marriage with a husband as crown-prince by your side—himself in fact a subject—while the captives look up forever hopeless, losing their rest probably, and if their appetite too, so much the better!4

‘What can a man do when he takes to adoring one of you mermaids?’ her poor husband wonders, aloud, unconsciously anticipating the nautical metaphor. What indeed? There are a great many Victorian novels about the scandal of bigamous marriage, not because bigamy was a particular problem in the nineteenth-century, but because this was one of the ways authors could navigate the conventions of nineteenth-century respectability and representation so as to talk about a more basic, universal human fact: that lines of desire do not always align themselves with the marriage bond.

It is worth saying a little more about the Homer to which Eliot alludes here. It had become well-known by the 1870s that Homer’s epics were stitched together from a variety of earlier myths and stories (although it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the full scope of the oral deep-history of ‘Homer’—and his likely non-existence—was finally established). In the case of the episode with Nausicaa what has happened, evidently, is that Homer has integrated into his epic an older ‘romance’ story, in which the beautiful princess helps the shipwrecked stranger who turns out to be a great prince who in turn wins her heart with his magnificent storytelling. Everything in this portion of the Odyssey points us in this direction—except that it doesn’t work out that way. Except that this isn’t the direction the story goes down (it can’t, because Odysseus already has a wife). Something about this implied but broken-off romantic emplotment interests me, and interests me especially with respect to Middlemarch. I am certainly not the only reader who sees, in Eliot’s twinned stories of Dorothea and Lydgate—originally planned as two separate novels, of course—an as-it-were Nausicaa/Odysseus implicit-tale of thwarted possibility, in many ways the perfect couple: both young, beautiful, idealistic, driven. Of course they can’t be together because Dorothea is married, and by the time she is free to marry again Lydgate is married. And I concede there’s nothing in the novel that explicitly reverts to any mutual attraction between them.

Indeed, my point is less about the will-they-won’t-they? clichés of love story narrative (in this case more of a might-they-could-they-have?). Rather, it is about the balance of mode: just as the Odyssey contains laminations of romance and folk-tale in its broader matrix of ‘epic’, Middlemarch accommodates pockets of melodrama, as with Lydgate’s backstory with Mme Laure, or Dorothea’s falling into blank verse, within its defining logic of scientific—I am arguing, medical and microscopic—realism.

It raises questions of how capacious the novel may be in terms of accommodating other modes. Maybe there are some things fundamentally immiscible with the form of the novel. It is a question particularly worth raising with respect to Eliot, since she was not only unusually well-read for a major Victorian novelist in the Classics, but she also had specific aesthetic interests in trying to recreate aspects of classical form in contemporary novelistic textual production. Most famously, she attempted in The Mill on the Floss (1860) to clothe in the lineaments of modern fiction the gravity, the shape and the affect of Attic tragedy. If Mill is Eliot essaying tragedy, could we describe Middlemarch as an attempt to head out, mid-sea, into classical epic?

The counter-argument is easy enough to frame. ‘Prose romance’ stretches back to the Ancient Greeks, but ‘the novel’ is a basically an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century development, and although it has now spread globally it still manifests a particular, European, bourgeois-Protestant logic. Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel is half a century old now, and while there are good reasons to be dissatisfied with it (particularly its near total neglect of female writers) its core thesis still has contemporary critical currency: namely, that ‘the distinctive literary qualities of the novel’ relate directly to ‘those of the society in which it began and flourished’, and that it’s a form that rises in step with changes in the reading public, of the rise of economic individualism, and of the ‘spread of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist or Puritan forms’.5 The novel as a mode starts, in other words, as a bourgeois mode of art pitched to a readership largely drawn from the rising middle-class, focusing on things that mattered to them and reflecting their values back upon them. So: individualied, self-reliant characters. So: detailed descriptions of material possessions (houses, furniture, clothes etc), and a particular emphasis on courtship narratives framed in terms of prosperity. So also: the mode’s hospitality to Bildungsroman, a spiritualisation of economic growth and return on investments.

If Watt’s thesis is correct then we might expect the novel, formally speaking, to work for some things better than others; and we might even argue that there are some things that the novel is just really poor at capturing. And rather than continuing to talk in windy generalisations I might ask a specific question, one with particular relevance to Eliot’s art: can the novel do tragedy?

It is clearly, of course, possible to write a novel in which characters suffer and die, and even to reproduce, should an author be so minded, the lineaments of a Sophoclean or Shakespearian play in prose. But does tragedy, as tragedy, work in the novel? This seems to me at once a question about the specific form of the novel and a question about our larger cultural addiction to happy endings and disinclination to follow the pity and the terror to its logical catharsis-end. Disney’s The Lion King is Hamlet, yes; but it’s Hamlet-With-A-Happy-Ending, which is in a very large sense to miss the point of Hamlet. Terry Eagleton agrees with Henri Peyre that the novel as a mode simply isn’t hospitable to tragedy:

A tragic theatre bound up with the despotic absolutism, courtly intrigue, traditional feuds, rigid laws of kinship, codes of honour, cosmic-world-views and faith in destiny gives way to the more rational, hopeful, realist, pragmatic ideologies of the middle class. What rules now is less fate than human agency […] The public realm of tragedy, with its high-pitched rhetoric and fateful economy, is abandoned for the privately consumed, more expansive, ironic, everyday language of prose fiction. And this […] is certainly a loss: some critics, as Henri Peyre suggests, blame the death of tragedy on the novel, which ‘captured the essentials of tragic emotion, while diluting and often cheapening it’.6

Eagleton thinks that tragedy qua tragedy depends upon precisely that public, focused, elevated authenticity that has been dissolved away by the privately consumed art of the novel, novels being more expansive, ironic, told in everyday language and concerning ordinary people.

To test his claim we might look at a specific case study, although it is part of Eagleton’s argument that proper examples are thin on the ground. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is a twisted sort of courtship novel and comic in generic terms, and although his next novel Clarissa spins a similar story into not marriage but the heroine’s death, it is difficult to make the case that it generates properly tragic momentum. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina lacks the tragic focus of, say, the Antigone, not just because Tolstoy is committed to balancing Anna’s downward path with his account of Levin’s upward one, but because its one main purpose is to create a widescreen portrait of a whole society, which necessarily diffuses the tragic focus we find in Sophocles. Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss provides a clearer example, if only because in it Eliot undertook a deliberate exercise in re-writing Greek tragedy as a contemporary English novel, and because Eliot is a great writer.

To be more specific, Eliot, the admirer of Sophocles, undertook several approaches by way of transferring, from Greek into English, from drama into this new mode of fiction, a quasi-Sophoclean heft and expressiveness. Above all she loved the Antigone, and we can intuit reasons for that in her private life: openly living with the already-married George Henry Lewes put her beyond the pale of many in polite Victorian society, and her own brother Issac, with whom she had been extremely close as a child, cut off all communication with her. After decades of happiness together, Lewes died in 1878. A couple of years later, in 1880, Eliot married a young admirer called John Cross. Only then, with priggish self-satisfaction, did her brother re-open communications with his sister.

So, yes: we can see why Sophocles’ great play, with its potent swirl of pseudo-erotic connection between sister and brother superseding the conventions of society at large (even unto death) and its portrait of a wilful individual woman following her heart rather than surrendering to the pressures of convention, spoke so directly to Eliot. She often wrote about it. In her ‘The Antigone and its Moral’, she defined the central problem in Sophocles’ play as lying between ‘reverence for the gods’ and ‘the duties of citizenship: two principles, both having their validity, are at war with each’; the conflict between ‘the strength of man’s intellect, or moral sense, or affection’ and ‘the rules which society has sanctioned’. Her essay draws a general conclusion: ‘whenever man’s moral vision collides with social convention the opposition between Antigone and Creon is renewed’.7

There is much we could say about Eliot’s preference for Sophocles over Aeschylus and Euripides, but there is one thing that’s peculiarly relevant to Eliot’s project as a novelist I think, and it goes back to Sophocles’ great innovation in the drama itself. Aeschylus, we’re told, was the first writer to introduce a second actor on stage (before him dramas consisted of a single actor interacting with the chorus). But Sophocles is the first dramatist to introduce a third actor and suddenly, we might say, things start to get interesting. George Eliot, certainly, was fascinated by the dramatic, ethical and expressive possibilities of this triangulation, and it is the fundamental interpersonal structure of The Mill on the Floss: Maggie Tulliver, her older brother Tom and their father; Maggie, Tom and little Lucy (whom, in a fit of childish jealousy, Maggie pushes in the mud); Maggie, Tom and sensitive, hunchback Philip Wakem, at least until their father’s ruination at the hands (as Tom sees it) of Philip’s lawyer father makes him put an end to Maggie and Philip’s burgeoning relationship. Then, as the novel moves into its final straight, the story focuses on Maggie, cousin Lucy and Lucy’s fiancé Stephen Guest, a more conventional love-triangle.

This final situation brings to the fore the main (as it were) triangulation of the novel: one, Maggie; two, the object of her love—the sexual connection she has with Stephen, the spiritual and intellectual connection she has with Philip—and three, her larger familial and social context;, powerful represented by the blood connection she has with Tom. The main theme of the novel, of course, is that Maggie comes into conflict with larger, impersonal but restrictive forces, of economic necessity, gender oppression and, when she runs away with Stephen, of moral disapprobation. This latter is most forcefully manifested in Tom’s individual disapproval, just as the worst aspect of Eliot’s (patchy, in truth) social ostracism was the way her beloved brother Isaac cut her:

At the centre of The Mill on the Floss lies the human dilemma from SophoclesAntigone that George Eliot believed to be permanent: the conflict between the conventions of society and individual judgment. An honourable but conventional person, Tom Tulliver, clashes with his more imaginative sister Maggie over these opposing claims […] Tom seeks conventional honour in exacting middle-class conventionalism; but Maggie seeks honor in her ideals of love and charity. In many ways Tom symbolises the Old Law, Maggie the New.8

Eliot also works structurally, as it were: setting out in this novel formally to reproduce the structure of a Greek drama. What I mean by this that Attic tragedy follows a particular formal pattern. In any given Greek tragedy there’s an opening speech by a character or a god, that sets the scene: this is called the parodos. The bulk of the play consists of stasima (a stasimon is a choral ode) alternating with episodes (epei(s)-odia, ‘between the odes’) in which two, or later three, actors interact with each other and with the chorus. Things end with an exodos. How many episodes should there be? In Greek drama there could be as few as three, or as many as six. In Seneca and Roman tragedy, which largely adopted its formal conventions from the Greek, the number of episodes was mostly five, which is where Renaissance theatre derives its convention that a play should have five acts. Eliot, however, is very particularly not copying Shakespeare or even Seneca in her tragic novel, but instead going back to the Sophoclean source. What this means is that Floss has a parodos in its first chapter, whose narrator (‘I remember those large dipping willows, I remember the stone bridge…’) takes on the role of chorus. The episodes of the story are interspersed with stasimon-like commentary by the narrator and number, I would argue, six: [1] Maggie’s youth; [2] the family’s loss of the Mill; [3] Maggie’s friendship with Philip; [4] Tom’s recovery of the fortune, Tulliver horsewhipping Wakem and dying of an apoplexy; [5] Maggie’s affair with Stephen; [6] the Flood. In each case Eliot interposes narrative with observation, commentary and sections of what amount, almost, to prose poetry in describing the world she has created. The exodos is Eliot’s ‘Conclusion’.

The Greek element exists beneath the surface, as it were, of a thoroughly and minutely realised English idiom—the same idiom that Eliot would refine and hone, without such specific Classical underpinning, ten years later for Middlemarch. In this earlier novel Eliot does sophisticated things with the Greek mode of externalising interior states and the novelistic mode of internalising them. So, for example: Philip Wakem is physically deformed, but Mr. Tulliver is emotionally or psychologically deformed, a fact reflected in his surname, since the Greek τυλιος, tulios, from τυλη, means ‘lumpy or hunchbacked’. Eliot plays many such Greek games in her novel: whilst ‘St Oggs’ is a perfectly English sounding name, perhaps related (we might think) to the Gaelic ‘Ogham’ we can also note that the Greek ὄγκος, ogkos, means ‘pride, self-importance, pretension’, as well as ‘swelling, tumour’. ‘The Floss’ is another very English sounding name, from the Old-English for ‘flow’ [cf. the German flosz, river]. But then we turn to the Greek verb φλύω to find that it means ‘to boil over, to bubble up, to overrun’, but also ‘to babble, to fill up with words’, both of which are peculiarly appropriate to this work.

That said, not every critic has seen Maggie as a straightforward Antigone.

Clearly Maggie shares Antigone’s strong-minded rebellious spirit, and her ‘sisterly piety’, and she too is torn by opposing principles ‘at war with each other.’ But when we consider Maggie’s case she seems to be divided by principles of a very different kind to those exerting their contrary influence on Antigone. Opposing Maggie’s version of ‘sisterly piety’ and ‘reverence for the gods’ […] are not the ‘duties of citizenship’ as for Antigone, but rather other forms of feeling, or in Eliot’s vocabulary, varieties of sympathy: her compassion for Philip Wakem and her passion for Stephen Guest.9

‘Maggie’s dilemma’, argues McDonagh, in a point to which I’ll return in a moment, ‘seems reducible to a conflict not of laws or duties but of feelings, and indeed feelings for opposing men; the father and brother versus the friend and the lover’. It is interesting, and may or may not be significant, that Mill on the Floss contains no explicit references at all to the Antigone. Maybe Eliot felt she didn’t need to spell out explicitly what was so obvious; but that doesn’t seem to have been her practice elsewhere. Take Philip Wakem, the intelligent, sensitive crippled boy whom Maggie rejects (because he’s ugly, and then because her brother tells her to) but whose quiet, empathetic intellect proves essential to Maggie’s own spiritual growth. It seems clear to me that he is called Philip in allusion to Sophocles’ magic cripple Philoctetes; and it seems that way in part because Eliot all but lays it out. When they are still children, Tom injures his foot, and during his convalescence he, Maggie and Philip become close (although after his recovery Tom distances himself from Philip again):

After that, Philip spent all his time out of school-hours with Tom and Maggie. Tom listened with great interest to a new story of Philip’s about a man who had a very bad wound in his foot, and cried out so dreadfully with the pain that his friends could bear with him no longer, but put him ashore on a desert island, with nothing but some wonderful poisoned arrows to kill animals with for food.
‘I didn’t roar out a bit, you know,’ Tom said, ‘and I dare say my foot was as bad as his. It’s cowardly to roar.’
But Maggie would have it that when anything hurt you very much, it was quite permissible to cry out, and it was cruel of people not to bear it. She wanted to know if Philoctetes had a sister, and why she didn’t go with him on the desert island and take care of him.One day, soon after Philip had told this story, he and Maggie were in the study alone together while Tom’s foot was being dressed […] ‘What are you reading about in Greek?’ [Maggie] said. ‘It’s poetry, I can see that, because the lines are so short.’ ‘It’s about Philoctetes, the lame man I was telling you of yesterday,’ he answered, resting his head on his hand, and looking at her as if he were not at all sorry to be interrupted. Maggie, in her absent way, continued to lean forward, resting on her arms and moving her feet about, while her dark eyes got more and more fixed and vacant, as if she had quite forgotten Philip and his book.‘Maggie,’ said Philip, after a minute or two, still leaning on his elbow and looking at her, ‘if you had had a brother like me, do you think you should have loved him as well as Tom?’ Maggie started a little on being roused from her reverie, and said, ‘What?’ Philip repeated his question.‘Oh, yes, better,’ she answered immediately. ‘No, not better; because I don’t think I could love you better than Tom. But I should be so sorry,—so sorry for you.’ Philip coloured; he had meant to imply, would she love him as well in spite of his deformity, and yet when she alluded to it so plainly, he winced under her pity.10

This sort of textual specificity, though, is not something carried systematically through the novel. Indeed elsewhere Eliot pokes mild fun at Tom’s tutor, the Rev. Mr. Stelling, who ‘was so broad-chested and resolute that he felt equal to anything’ and who was certain he ‘would by and by edit a Greek play, and invent several new readings. He had not yet selected the play, for having been married little more than two years, his leisure time had been much occupied with attentions to Mrs. Stelling; but he had told that fine woman what he meant to do some day, and she felt great confidence in her husband, as a man who understood everything of that sort’.11 This is a mild poke at scholarship, of course, rather than tragedy as such, but it stages the larger issue: the Rev. Stelling’s domestic duties, insofar as they come into conflict with his Attic ambition, take precedence. The novel, it turns out, is much more a domestic, private mode than it is a tragic, public one.

Early in Mill Eliot is explicit on precisely this matter. Young Tom and Maggie are entertaining their younger cousin, pretty little Lucy (who will go on, when grown-up, to plight her troth with handsome Stephen Guest). The kids are supposed to stay in the garden, but Tom wants to look at the pond and leads the two girls astray to see if they can find any water-snakes.

‘Here, Lucy!’ he said in a loud whisper. Lucy came carefully as she was bidden, and bent down to look at what seemed a golden arrow-head darting through the water. It was a water-snake, Tom told her; and Lucy at last could see the serpentine wave of its body, very much wondering that a snake could swim. Maggie had drawn nearer and nearer; she must see it too, though it was bitter to her, like everything else, since Tom did not care about her seeing it. At last she was close by Lucy; and Tom, who had been aware of her approach, but would not notice it till he was obliged, turned round and said,–
‘Now, get away, Maggie; there’s no room for you on the grass here. Nobody asked you to come.’ There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passion only; but the essential τι μέγεθoς which was present in the passion was wanting to the action; the utmost Maggie could do, with a fierce thrust of her small brown arm, was to push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud.12

The Greek, τι μέγεθoς, means ‘that greatness, magnitude’ or ‘necessary sublimity’. Eliot’s point is that though little children may feel with heroic, or tragic, intensity, they can’t do anything very much, and that means that their little dramas can never be properly tragic. And what Eliot considers true of children, scales in her telling to adults as well. We are not heroes, she says; we are ordinary, middling people. Tragedy does not describe our sorrow, even when that sorrow is very acute. Here is Mill’s narrator on the plight of Tom and Maggie’s father, whose pride and obstinacy bring him to financial ruin, and takes somatic form in an apoplexy that leaves him bedridden.

Mr. Tulliver, you perceive, though nothing more than a superior miller and maltster, was as proud and obstinate as if he had been a very lofty personage, in whom such dispositions might be a source of that conspicuous, far-echoing tragedy, which sweeps the stage in regal robes, and makes the dullest chronicler sublime. The pride and obstinacy of millers and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record,—such tragedy, perhaps, as lies in the conflicts of young souls, hungry for joy, under a lot made suddenly hard to them, under the dreariness of a home where the morning brings no promise with it, and where the unexpectant discontent of worn and disappointed parents weighs on the children like a damp, thick air, in which all the functions of life are depressed; or such tragedy as lies in the slow or sudden death that follows on a bruised passion, though it may be a death that finds only a parish funeral.13

Poor old Mr. Tulliver, who evokes in us neither pity nor any sort of terror. Perhaps it’s not that Thomas Gray’s ‘mute inglorious Milton’ (to quote his famous ‘Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard’) is denied his public eloquence and glory by the mere happenstance of being born into ordinary parochial life, but rather that ordinary parochialism ontologically contradicts greatness as such—not that Gray’s villager might have written Paradise Lost if only things had gone a little different for him, but rather that a Milton who doesn’t speak gloriously isn’t Milton in any meaningful sense at all. Indeed, isn’t it within the bounds of possibility that Gray is celebrating, rather than lamenting, this silent ingloriousness? The next line in his poem talks of Gray’s parochial Cromwell as guiltless of his country’s blood. Surely it’s better to be laid in a country graveyard without blood on your hands than with? (Pericles on his deathbed declared his proudest boast was that ‘no Athenian ever had to put on mourning because of me’.) Maybe it’s not the novel form, or even the larger social ethos, that makes tragedy such an ill fit to Eliot’s art. Maybe it’s that the lines of force of her ethical imagination are always tugging her out of drama as such, away from the conflict, and towards something neither comic nor tragic but rather a sense of the fundamental undisclosure of life as it is lived, and the spiritual benefits of that state. Adam Mars-Jones says that ‘mourning is a wound that is also somehow an achievement’.14 He wasn’t talking about tragedy when he said so, but he might as well have been. Tragic drama stages mourning as a mode of ritualised social-religious sublimity, parsing its shattering absences and ruptures into a sort of transcendent achievement. But Eliot, however hard she tried to capture a Sophoclean grandeur and depth in The Mill on the Floss, was working against the grain of her genius. At her best she understands not that grief is not an achievement, but rather that achievement itself is a kind of chimera, that the best things we can do as human beings, things to do with kindness and connection and unobtrusiveness, are actually pointed, forceful, marvellous unachievements. When she writes novels—even when, as in this case, she writes a tragic novel—her aim is to capture the wisdom of the sort of being-in-the-world that evades the drama of tragedy and the melodramatic eventfulness of fiction.

At the end it is the river that is the uncertain quantity, flowing through a pastoral landscape for most of this novel only to rise up, a deus ex machina (or deus ex fluvio) to wrap-up the plot with preternatural abruptness. By the time she came to writing her greatest novel, Middlemarch, she knew better, and specified breaking the power of the river as a precondition for her heroine’s happy blankness: Dorothea’s energy ‘like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’.15 It’s neither the first nor the last time this present study shall revert to these final lines of Middlemarch.


1 John Dryden, The Hind and the Panther: A Poem, in Three Parts (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1687), part 1, ll. 128–33, http://www.online-literature.com/dryden/poetical-works-vol1/15/

2 Nicholas Purcell, ‘Periploi: Voyages around’, Oxford Classical Dictionary (2015), https://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-4872

3 Homer, Odyssey, trans. by A. T. Murray (London: William Heinemann, 1919), book 5, ll. 270–82, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0136%3Abook%3D5%3Acard%3D262

4 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 43.

5 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), pp. 7, 60.

6 Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), p. 178.

7 George Eliot, ‘The Antigone and its Moral’, Leader, 7 (March 29, 1856), 306.

8 David Moldstad, ‘The Mill on the Floss and Antigone’, PMLA, 85.3 (1970), 527–31 (p.527), https://doi.org/10.2307/1261454

9 Josephine McDonagh, ‘The Early Novels’, in The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot, ed. by George Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 38–56 (53–54), https://doi.org/10.1017/ccol0521662672.003

10 George Eliot, Mill on the Floss (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1860), book 2, ch. 6, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6688/6688-h/6688-h.htm

11 Ibid., book 2, ch. 1.

12 Ibid., book 1, ch. 10.

13 Ibid., book 3, ch. 1.

14 Adam Mars-Jones, ‘Chop, Chop, Chop’, London Review of Books, 38.2 (2016), https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v38/n02/adam-mars-jones/chop-chop-chop

15 Eliot, Middlemarch, ‘Finale’.

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