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The Mill on the Floss

River

Author:
George Eliot (Marian Evans)
First published: 1860, by William Blackwood & Sons

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

All the King’s Men

Huey Long

Author: Robert Penn Warren
First published: 1946, by Harcourt, Brace, and Company

WARNING: Plot spoiler

This book might just deserve the recognition of being considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It is a masterpiece in every way—masterful in its style, execution, breadth, depth, “realism,” and even plot—conceived and bequeathed to us in the form of a novel by one of America’s master poets. It is a historical novel, not just in the sense of its having taken place in the past, but in the sense that one feels like one is living history—both grand, sweeping history, as well as intimate, personal history—when one is reading it.

All the King’s Men was famously inspired by the life of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, though Robert Penn Warren was clear in his assertion that he did not consider his fictional creation and the real-life governor one and the same. The story follows the political rise of Willie Stark, a back-country lawyer turned powerful demagogue whose oratorical skills earn him the love of the people. His administration, however, is notoriously corrupt—blackmail and bribery are the common business of the day—and the machine runs along, in part smoothly oiled by one Jack Burden, the narrator of the story and the man who digs up the dirt on Willie’s opponents. It is a brilliant move on Warren’s part to have Willie’s “shadow” narrate this book. Jack is privy to more information than any other character—he’s the thread that binds them all together—and the effect is one of virtual omniscience, even when Jack Burden isn’t or couldn’t have been present. He is also, more formally, a student of history, though he literally walks out on his Ph.D dissertation one day, and never files for his degree.

The writing is nothing short of magnificent, the language sultry and delicious.

But the Millet place wasn’t like the hospital. It didn’t look at all like a hospital, I discovered when I turned off the highway twenty-five miles out of the city and tooled gently up the drive under the magnificent groining of the century-old live oaks whose boughs met above the avenue and dripped stalactites of moss to make a green, aqueous gloom like a cavern. Between the regularly spaced oaks stood pedestals on which classical marbles—draped and undraped, male and female, stained by weathers and leaf acid and encroaching lichen, looking as though they had, in fact, sprouted dully out of the clinging black-green humus below them—stared out at the passer-by with the faintly pained, heavy, incurious unamazement of cattle. The gaze of those marble eyes must have been the first stage in the treatment the neurotic got when he came out to the sanitorium. It must have been like smearing a cool unguent of time on the hot pustule and dry itch of the soul.

That excerpt partially describes the entrance to the Millet Sanitorium, where Sadie Burke has sent herself to recuperate after everything has gone down. It is emblematic of the power of Warren’s language; his words ooze the inevitable slow pace of time, the towering power of history and its many muscular branches. It is poetry describing everyone’s march towards death—the poetry of history, by which we resurrect things.

In the end, this long, gorgeous poem is really a tragedy. The stage is covered with bloody bodies by its conclusion, discoveries are made, lives are ruined, babies are born into new lives already ruined by the past. The stories (for really, there are many) gallop toward their horrible end points all along, but after Judge Irwin’s suicide, the words transport characters in an avalanche toward their doom. Something changes at that point; text and characters unravel. There is no other way—people will pay for history, their own as well as others’. Mrs. Burden is the one who sums it all up so nicely at the end, in a pronouncement that’s deceptively simple.

“I couldn’t,” she said. “Because everything was a mess. Everything had always been a mess.” Her hands twisted and tore the handkerchief she held before her at the level of her waist. “Oh, Jack,” she cried out, “it had always been a mess.”

The Woman in White

grimshaw

Author: Wilkie Collins
First Published: 1859-60, in All the Year Round

The below is adapted  from an essay I wrote for The Guardian UK online.

Often singled out as the foundation text of “sensation fiction”—a genre distinguished by its electrifying, suspenseful, and sometimes horrific plots, as well as its unsavoury themes of intrigue, jealousy, murder, adultery, and the like—The Woman in White was an immediate sensation in its own right when it began appearing in Dickens’s weekly journal All the Year Round. Margaret Oliphant hailed it as “a new beginning in fiction”, while at the same time Edward Bulwer-Lytton dismissed it as “great trash.” And while Henry James disliked the “ponderosity” of The Woman in White (calling it “a kind of 19th-century version of Clarissa Harlowe”), he acknowledged that the book had “introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.”

Despite such drastically mixed reviews, The Woman in White was a mad success with the public, and made no less of a sensation out of its 35-year-old author, Wilkie Collins. In middle-class dining rooms everywhere, discussion turned to the intriguing cast of characters Mr. Collins had invented—mannish, eloquent Marian Halcombe; faithful and angelic Laura Fairlie; sinister, secretive Percival Glyde; and of course Count Fosco, seductive and cunning, with his cockatoo, his canary-birds, and his white mice running over his immense body. Two months in, Dickens was calling the novel “masterly”, and Prince Albert admired it so much that he later sent off copies as gifts.

During its serialisation in All the Year Round (from 26 November 1859 to 25 August 1860), and upon its publication in book form, The Woman in White inspired not only a series of imitators (chief among them Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne [1861] and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret [1862]), but also what John Sutherland has described as a “sales mania and a franchise boom.” Manufacturers produced Woman in White perfume, Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, and music-shops displayed Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. The poet Edward FitzGerald named his herring-lugger “Marian Halcombe”; cats were named Fosco and thought to look more sinister; and Walter became a fashionable name for babies. As Kenneth Robinson, one of Collins’s earliest biographers, pointed out, “even Dickens had not known such incidental publicity.”

Collins’s storytelling talents were utterly mesmerising for Victorian readers—and they are no less captivating for readers today. He was the master of the “cliff-hanger,” and given the 40 or so of them that strategically punctuate The Woman in White, it’s not difficult to see why this Victorian novel continues to thrill us. Our flesh creeps when Anne Catherick places her hand on Walter’s shoulder; our hearts ache when Marian Halcombe falls ill and Count Fosco violates her diary; our blood curdles when Walter Hartright stands next to his beloved’s tombstone, only to look up and find her standing there. The apparitions that Collins conjures are the ghosts that ensured not just his success but his longevity. They are what have kept readers going back for more during the last 150 years, and they bear testament to the value of Collins’s self-professed, “old-fashioned” opinion that “the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story …”