The Mill on the Floss is George Eliot's the third major work of fiction and her second novel published in 1860. Before this novel, Eliot had published a book of short stories, the excitingly titled Scenes From a Clerical Life, and the novel Adam Bede. The Mill on the Floss was very successful and helped George Eliot achieve even greater fame.
Of course, George Eliot wasn’t actually the one achieving all this success and fame, since George Eliot didn’t actually exist. See, George Eliot is the pen-name of one Mary Anne Evans. Who is obviously a woman. What’s up with the masculine pen-name? Well, a lot of nineteenth-century female authors used male pen-names, since it was harder for women to get published and be taken seriously as writers. The Brontë sisters did this too actually – Charlotte Brontë published her first works, including Jane Eyre, under the name "Curer Bell" for instance.
By the time The Mill on the Floss was published, George Eliot’s real identity was quickly becoming known. Success tends to cancel out anonymity after all. Actually, Mary Anne Evans had to come forward and claim authorship of Adam Bede after some random guy tried to say he wrote it. So, Mary Anne Evans, who used a pen-name to preserve some privacy, ended up with a spotlight on her after all.
Where did Mary Anne Evans get her pen-name in the first place, though? Well, she picked "George" in honor of her long-time romantic partner, George Henry Lewes, and "Eliot" because she liked the way it sounded. If you noticed the "romantic partner" bit, you certainly aren’t alone. George Eliot wasn’t actually married to George Henry Lewes. In fact, Lewes was already married, but was in an "open" marriage with his wife, who had other lovers. This was really scandalous for Victorian England. While Eliot and Lewes never married, they were in a committed relationship for many years, until Lewes’s death. Eliot’s scandalous private life didn’t impact sales of her novels for the most part, though. But not everyone was down with her behavior. Her older brother Isaac actually refused to speak to her when she moved in with Lewes and even forbade Eliot’s sister from writing to her.
If Isaac sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because he is pretty much the basis for the character Tom Tulliver, just as Maggie is the rough equivalent of Eliot herself, and Mr. Tulliver is based on Eliot’s own father. The Mill on the Floss is definitely Eliot’s most autobiographical novel, something that helps to set it apart from her other works. In fact, The Mill on the Floss is often compared to Charles Dickens’s autobiographical David Copperfield.
But, while The Mill on the Floss is highly autobiographical, it isn’t just a regurgitation of Eliot’s life. Maggie, after all, never runs off (permanently) with the man she loves. In a lot of ways, Maggie is sort of the alternate-universe Eliot. She’s the version of Eliot that didn’t break off with her family and strike out on her own. So while The Mill on the Floss provides some really cool insight into Eliot’s own life, it may be more interesting for the ways that is doesn’t directly reflect Eliot’s actual life.
We’re not going to lie: The Mill on the Floss is pretty melodramatic. Seriously – it ends with a monstrous flash flood with lots of Biblical symbolism. And that only comes after hundreds of pages intense drama. There are lawsuits and family feuds and a guy gets horsewhipped and people die and there’s a super-scandalous elopement and...on and on. So this all sounds entertaining at least, but is it relatable?
When you look past all the fun melodrama you are left with a family drama. The families in this book fight a lot. Family members wish they weren’t related to one another, and sometimes can’t stand to be around one another. But they also stick up for each other, love each other, and try to support each other when times are tough. In a lot of ways, families haven’t changed all that much since the Victorian era. And pretty much everyone has had some of the family experiences depicted in this book. Ever been to a super-awkward family dinner party? We've got one here. Had a huge fight with your brother/sister that resulted in someone getting slapped? Got that here too. Wished you could run away and hide when your overly-critical aunt/uncle came to visit? OK, you get the picture.
All of this family drama (and wacky family antics too) largely centers around Maggie Tulliver, family black-sheep. The Mill on the Floss is all about dealing with the family that you’ve got and learning how to balance out the independent adult you’re becoming with the family member that you are and always will be (like it or not). Melodrama aside, Maggie Tulliver’s struggle to deal with her family, and all the little family triumphs and sorrows and insanities she encounters along the way, are pretty relatable after all.