Kathryn Hughes on The Mill on the Floss

At the Guardian, Kathryn Hughes (author of this excellent biography of George Eliot) writes about the autobiographical resonance of The Mill on the Floss:

Unusually for such an intensely autobiographical novel, The Mill on the Floss was not Eliot’s first work of fiction, but her third. Shortly before it came out she explained to a friend that my “mind works with most freedom and the keenest sense of poetry in my remotest past”, and her first two novels had indeed truffled her own prehistory. Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) was drawn from stories circulating around her childhood community about a series of mild scandals that had taken place several decades earlier. Adam Bede (1859) was based on the young adulthood of her father, her uncle and her uncle’s wife. It was as if Eliot had been working through what she called the “many strata” of collective memory before she was ready, finally, to confront her own past. . . . (read the rest here)

As Hughes notes, “[l]iterary theorists tend not to approve of reading novels as if they were fictionalised autobiography,” though I don’t know any critical accounts of The Mill on the Floss that overlook the kinds of parallels Hughes draws attention to in her account. It’s not that they don’t exist–it’s just that ultimately, they aren’t that critically interesting, as I think Hughes’s own piece shows. Once you’ve done the mix-and-match exercise (“[Robert] Evans, like Tulliver, was a fond father, who doted on “his little wench”, born when he was already middle aged,”  “the Dodson aunts derive much of their grotesque energy from Eliot’s close observations of her own mother’s sisters, the Pearsons,” and so forth) you still won’t have said much about the novel’s internal energies and motivations.

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