As my ‘Victorian Woman Question’ seminar makes its way through The Mill on the Floss, I am very much missing the opportunity to engage in face to face discussion with everyone. It’s a novel that provokes delight, frustration, sorrow, and thought in so many ways–that raises so many complications for us, thematically and formally: it feels more difficult to choose topics and shape conversations for our online version of the class for The Mill on the Floss than it has felt for some of the other novels I have taught this way in the last few months, including (perhaps surprisingly) Middlemarch. But of course the novel itself is as wonderful as usual, and our readings for this past week included one of my favorite incidents: Mrs. Tulliver’s poignant attempt to hang on to her “chany.” It moved me even more this time: as the one-year anniversary of our COVID-inflicted isolation approaches, the things that connect us to each other and to our histories seem to me to be carrying more and more emotional weight. Here’s a post I wrote about Mrs. Tulliver’s “teraphim” almost a decade ago.
One of the many things that make reading George Eliot at once so challenging and so satisfying is her resistance to simplicity–especially moral simplicity. It’s difficult to sit in judgment on her characters. For one thing, she’s usually not just one but two or three steps ahead: she’s seen and analyzed their flaws with emphatic clarity, but she’s also put them in context, explaining their histories and causes and effects and pointing out to us that we aren’t really that different ourselves. Often the characters themselves are in conflict over their failings (think Bulstrode), and when they’re not, at least they can be shaken out of them temporarily, swept into the stream of the novel’s moral current (think Rosamond, or in a different way, Hetty). But these are the more grandiose examples, the ones we know we have to struggle to understand and embrace with our moral theories. Her novels also feature pettier and often more comically imperfect characters who are more ineffectual than damaging, or whose flaws turn out, under the right circumstances, to be strengths. In The Mill on the Floss, Mrs Glegg is a good example of someone who comes through in the end, the staunch family pride that makes her annoyingly funny early on ultimately putting her on the right side in the conflict that tears the novel apart.
Then there’s her sister Bessy, Mrs Tulliver, who is easy to dismiss as foolish and weak, but to whom I have become increasingly sympathetic over the years. Mrs Tulliver is foolish and weak, but in her own way she cleaves to the same values as the novel overall: family and memory, the “twining” of our affections “round those old inferior things.” In class tomorrow we are moving through Books III and IV, in which the Tulliver family fortunes collapse, along with Mr Tulliver himself, and the relatives gather to see what’s to be done. The way the prosperous sisters patronize poor Bessy is as devastatingly revealing about them as it is crushing to her hopes that they’ll pitch in to keep some of her household goods from being put up to auction:
“O dear, O dear,” said Mrs Tulliver, “to think o’ my chany being sold in that way — and I bought it when I was married, just as you did yours, Jane and Sophy. . . . You wouldn’t like your chany to go for an old song and be broke to pieces, though yours has got no colour in it, Jane–it’s all white and fluted, and didn’t cost so much as mine. . . . “
“Well, I’ve no objection to buy some of the best things,” said Mrs Deane, rather loftily; “we can do with extra things in our house.”
“Best things!” exclaimed Mrs Glegg with severity, which had gathered intensity from her long silence. “It drives me past patience to hear you all talking o’ best things, and buying in this, that, and the other, such as silver and chany. You must bring your mind to your circumstances, Bessy, and not be thinking of silver and chany; but whether you shall get so much as a flock bed to lie on, and a blanket to cover you, and a stool to sit on. You must remember, if you get ’em, it’ll be because your friends have bought ’em for you, for you’re dependent upon them for everything; for your husband lies there helpless, and hasn’t got a penny i’ the world to call his own. And it’s for your own good I say this…”
Unable to believe she will be parted from her things, poor Mrs Tulliver brings before them “a small tray, on which she had placed her silver teapot, a specimen teacup and saucer, the castors, and sugar-tongs.” “‘I should be so loath for ’em to buy [the teapot] at the Golden Lion,’” she says, “her heart swelling and the tears coming, ‘my teapot as I bought when I was married…’”
Early in these scenes Maggie finds that her mother’s “reproaches against her father…neutralized all her pity for griefs about table-cloths and china”; the aunts and uncles are pitiless in their indifference to Bessy’s misplaced priorities. I used to find her pathetic clinging to these domestic trifles in the face of much graver difficulties just more evidence that she belonged to the “narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate”–the environment that surrounds Tom and Maggie, but especially Maggie, with “oppressive narrowness,” with eventually catastrophic results. She also seemed a specimen of the kind of shallow-minded, materialistic woman George Eliot’s heroines aspire not to be. But she’s not really materialistic and shallow. She doesn’t want the teapot because it’s silver: she wants it because it’s tangible evidence of her ties to her past, of the choices and commitments and loves and hopes that have made up her life and identity. She’s not really mourning the loss of her “chany” and table linens; she’s mourning her severance from her history.
I think I understand her better than I used to, and feel more tolerant of her bewildered grief, because I have “teraphim,” or “household gods,” of my own, things that I would grieve the loss of quite out of proportion to their actual value. They are things that tie me, too, to my history, as well as to memories of people in my life. I have a teapot, for instance, that was my grandmother’s; every time I use it, or the small array of cups and saucers and plates that remain from the same set (my grandmother was hard on her dishes!) I think of her and feel more like my old self. I have a pair of Denby mugs that were gifts from my parents many years ago, tributes to my childhood fascination with English history: one has Hampton Court on it, the other, the Tower–these, too, have become talismanic, having survived multiple moves. If I dropped one, I’d be devastated, and not just because as far as we’ve ever been able to find out, they would be impossible to replace. “Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction,” remarks the narrator with typical prescience, shortly before financial calamity hits the Tullivers, but there’s no special merit in “striving after something better and better” at the expense of “the loves and sanctities of our life,” with their “deep immovable roots in memory.” Sometimes a teapot is not just a teapot.
Originally published on Novel Readings November 11, 2011.