When Marian Evans began writing The Mill on the Floss during the first few months of 1859, the world did not yet know her as the famously cerebral George Eliot. Up until around June of that year, Evans was “in the closet,” as it were, hiding behind a male pseudonym, and private supporters like her agent/lover, George Henry Lewes, and her devoted Scottish publisher, John Blackwood. (Dickens, incidentally, was also an early supporter, and one of the few who knew about Eliot’s true identity early on.) Eliot’s “incognito,” as she called it, was a complicating factor in her rise to fame, for if the public found out that a woman had written her popular books (and even worse, a woman who was living, unmarried, with another married man), would readers boycott her works? Would libraries? Would other publishers? And would the gossip of the literati ruin what was promising to be an extremely lucrative career? These questions plagued Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and the publishing firm of William Blackwood & Sons right up until the 1860 release—and enormous success—of Eliot’s third triumphant novel.
The Mill on the Floss is the story of Maggie Tulliver and her brother Tom, of a family in ruin, of gossip and heartbreak, of sexual impulse, and of a world without real choices for women. Well, that last bit might be heavy-handed and over-simplified, but for Maggie at least, there do not seem to be any “good” choices, and that is what is so heartbreaking about her story. Nearly every choice she makes is met with some sort of condemnation, despite her good intentions, though of course Eliot’s subtlety of language often makes it difficult to interpret intentionality with any real certainty. But we love Maggie and we side with her. She is the classic heroine whom we want to embrace, comfort, and congratulate. Unfortunately, however, the sinister nature of this novel makes it impossible to dole out congratulatory remarks. It is a novel about how making a simple choice between left or right can change the course of one’s life forever. There is something deeply sinister in that, something deeply disturbing. Despite that idea, I do still “love” this book, but I can only do so with a great deal of caution.
Perhaps Eliot’s own anxieties around choice—as strong as the currents of the River Floss itself—made their way into this novel too easily. Whatever the case, Maggie’s fate in the literary marketplace, as well as Eliot’s own coming out, proved anything but tragic. Less than two months after the publication of The Mill on the Floss, Blackwood had sold all 6,000 copies of the initial run, with a plan to print an additional 500 copies before the end of May 1860. “This is highly satisfactory,” he wrote to Eliot with his characteristic grace. (Indeed, two months later, John Blackwood’s brother, William Blackwood, told Lewes that “more than 6,000 copies of a guinea and a half novel sold is a success which I am pretty confident has not been attained since the days of [Sir Walter Scott’s] Waverley Novels.” That was a very big deal, since after Dickens, Scott was the benchmark for superstardom.) By the end of that year, Eliot had received a total of £3,550 for Mill from Blackwood, and in addition to those profits, Lewes’s expert negotiations had brought in even more money from American and European publishers. (Her income for Mill during that first year alone wound up totaling £3,985.) It was not a bad year for a woman who was rejected as scandalous by nearly every social circle in Victorian London, and simultaneously praised as one of the greatest writers of her day.
Photo credit: Gary Simmons