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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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George Eliot | Biography


Early Life and Education

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans, born in the Midlands of England on November 22, 1819, on the estate of her father's employer, where Mr. Evans worked as the land agent (manager). She was the youngest of three children by her father's second wife, who died in 1836 when Eliot was still in her teens.

The author was first sent to day school as an infant and toddler and then to boarding school at age five, primarily because her mother could not care for her children at home; Eliot spent most of her early life separated from her mother. The keen pain of children with absent or missing mothers is a key theme in The Mill on the Floss, and no doubt Eliot tapped the memory of her own childhood to portray that suffering. In her preteen years, under the influence of a charismatic Evangelical teacher, she became extremely religious. When her mother died she returned home to keep house for her father. She and her father moved to Coventry in 1841, after her brother and his new wife took over Griff House, the family home. In Coventry she made friends with religious freethinkers and began turning away from traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Eliot was a gifted linguist, fluent in several languages. Upon reading the works of secular biblical scholars and translating two such important works from the German (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined by D.F. Strauss and Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach) that examined historically the life of Jesus and called biblical miracles into question, she gave up religion for good.

Personal Life

After her father died in 1849, Eliot spent time abroad with friends and then moved to London in 1851 to become a freelance writer. She first worked as subeditor (person who prepares text for print) of the Westminster Review, a prestigious literary journal, and she met George Henry Lewes, a journalist, critic, and philosopher. The two became friends and eventually lovers and literary partners. Lewes could not easily divorce his estranged wife Agnes, who had given birth to her lover's children, although all of those children legally belonged to Henry Lewes. Lewes became Eliot's common-law husband in 1854. The author's beloved brother Isaac cut off all ties with her in 1857 after she informed him of her status, and he did not resume contact until the last year of Eliot's life. He also demanded that his sister Chrissey cut off relations with Eliot. Chrissey finally ignored her brother's orders because she was dying. Unfortunately, she relented too late; Chrissey died in March 1859, before Eliot could travel to see her.

Writing Career

Lewes suggested that Eliot begin writing fiction and provided her with moral support to become a novelist. In addition to translations (including Ethics, the primary philosophical treatise of Baruch Spinoza), essays, and criticism, Eliot wrote short fiction, poetry, and seven novels: Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–63), Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871–72), Daniel Deronda (1876).

The Mill on the Floss is highly regarded for its vivid portrayal of childhood and considered to be the most autobiographical of Eliot's novels. Most critics agree the relationship between Tom and Maggie in Eliot's second novel, The Mill on the Floss, is patterned after her real childhood relationship with Isaac. It reflects the pain she felt in being rejected by him—first, after her father died and there was no place for her in the family home (Griff House) after Isaac married, and second, when he cut her off from himself and the family for living outside the bounds of matrimony.

Death and Legacy

Lewes died in 1878 and shortly afterward Eliot married a family friend, John Cross. Eliot died two years later, on December 22, 1880, at age 61. The Mill on the Floss was enormously successful, as were all of Eliot's works, and she was one of those fortunate writers to have been financially rewarded and praised by the critics and literati in her own lifetime. That early assessment of Eliot only grew after she died, and she continues to be considered among the best of the English novelists of the 19th century; her masterpiece Middlemarch is deemed by some to be the best novel written in English. The Mill on the Floss is perhaps her first breakout performance, in which she portrays with sometimes shocking clarity the depth of childhood rage and the effects of maternal indifference and familial rejection on the child who doesn't fit into the family paradigm. Not surprisingly, The Mill on the Floss has been subjected to classical Freudian readings that help illuminate the plight of the main protagonist, Maggie Tulliver, and her tragic end.

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