Gainsborough: The Mill on the Floss

Place explored through a personal selection of the lives, novels, art, architecture, poetry and history inspired by England's industrial era.​

John Bromley

Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, actually Mary Anne Evans, was published in 1860. The main action is at Dorlcote Mill, likely based on Arbury Mill, Warwickshire where she played as a child. St Oggs, a nearby town, is thought to be Gainsborough on the River Trent which Eliot visited when researching a riverside setting for scenes in the novel. 
Eliot’s mother died when she was 17 years of age. She then spent some years as housekeeper to her father; on occasions accompanying him in his role as manager of a large estate, Arbury Hall, from which it is likely she gained models for characters and agricultural settings for several novels.   

Maggie and Tom, the central characters, are children of Mr and Mrs Tulliver of Dorlcote Mill. On several occasions Mr Tulliver ‘goes to law’ because he perceives threats to the water supply for the corn mill from other land owners. He does this once too often and loses the property much to the consternation of his in-laws, the Dodson family. Close attention is given to this extended family particularly as they come together to ruminate on the woes of the mill family. Their approach to offering limited assistance is based on a rather harsh morality. After his ‘edication’ (Mr Tulliver’s word), Tom struggles at first to gain a foothold in an occupation.

Maggie’s early life is largely bound to the domestic life of the mill. In the absence of other reading she is sustained by a simple spirituality based on a text by Thomas a’ Kempis, a medieval ascetic. Maggie’s life has a temporary blooming partly through friendship with her cousin Lucy, whose father is a prominent local businessman. After a brief elopement with Lucy’s fiancée, Stephen, the social advancement of Maggie is curtailed and she is ostracized by St Oggs ‘society’. 

‘I must stand a minute or two here on the bridge and look at it….it is pleasant to look at – perhaps the chill damp season adds a charm to the trimly-kept, comfortable dwelling house, as old as the elms and chestnuts that shelter it from the northern blast….The rush of the water and the booming of the mill bring a dreamy deafness which seems to heighten the peacefulness of the scene. They are like a great curtain of sound, shutting one out from the world beyond’. (p.9-10, Penguin Classics, 2003)
The Mill featured in the photograph is in Pocklington in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and is typical of the era. Devonshire Mil, Pocklington (Permission by S & C. Bond, Pocklington’).

Water is a constant feature within the novel. It is power source to the mill. It is used for recreation by the children and by local people. It is the means of transport for local commerce. Ultimately, a concerted period of heavy rain brings widespread flooding to the area. Bravely, Maggie seeks to rescue Tom from the flooded mill but their boat is swept away and they are drowned. As in childhood they are portrayed as inseparable in death. 

George Eliot was committed to realism in describing locations, people and customs with some of her characters speaking in local dialect. She was an admirer of John Ruskin who sought a realistic representation of nature and landscapes in his art. Spirituality and gender were also deep concerns, as well as for some of the women in her novels. Adoption of the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ was partly to divert public attention from a personal relationship that Mary Anne Evans had with a married man. In time, however, this became irrelevant as the brilliant creativity of her writing gained wide recognition. A recognition that has strongly endured.

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