Books I’m Reading: Anthony Trollope Biography and Mill on the Floss

Dear Reader:

I’ve been focusing on writing posts once I get done with a book, but I’m in the middle of a couple of good ones and not sure when I’ll be done, so I figured I’d tell you what I’m reading.

#141) The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (hard copy)

I’m about a third of the way through this 500+ page book, still using Susan Wise Bauer’s reading and note taking techniques discussed a bit in my last post.  This is the story of Maggie and Tom Tulliver, brother and sister, and the children of Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver, he owner of the flour mill on the River Floss.

The story starts when Tom is around 12 and Maggie is nine.  Eliot was writing the book in the late 1850’s and set it about 40 years prior (Tom seems to be the narrator).  Tom is a boy’s boy, hating books and school, brilliant at fishing and fighting and anything mechanical, so long as he doesn’t have to use Latin or Euclid to figure it out.

Maggie is a wonderful character, particularly to women of our era with at least a somewhat feminist perspective, not to mention for former tomboys (like myself).  I suspect she was a pretty unusual character for her time and that she is partly based on Eliot herself who surely received a lot of patronizing from men who didn’t take her seriously (as Maggie does).  She will remind you of Jo in Alcott’s Little Women (of about the same era, I think).

As the cover of the edition of the book above suggests, she has wild hair due to infrequent brushing (although I think it was smooth, and therefore not fashionable, and her mother was always fighting her to allow her to curl it, so the picture may refer to one of those times when her mother won), loves her brother Tom fiercely, and is very “book learning” smart and a voracious reader, no matter how difficult the book.  She is obstinate and hates many girlish things.

The Tullivers are related to the Dodson’s by marriage (Mrs. Tulliver’s maiden name) and the Dodson’s are a pretty awful bunch.  They have a strong sense of family and propriety and are VERY judgmental and not very fun.  They tend to produce pretty fierce women who find fairly docile men.

Tom is undergoing the torment of school away from home, first at an academy, which was alright in his eyes because it taught him little, and then with Pastor Stelling, as a single student (now joined by a second) learning geometry and Latin (the first semester, now he’s on to drawing and other classes).  Mr Tulliver wants Tom to be an arbitrator because an arbitrator helped Mr. Tulliver win his case against a neighbor withdrawing water from the Floss before it reached his mill.  He doesn’t want Tom to move into the family business because he fears this will cause bad blood between them as Tom awaits his death with bated breath.  But, sadly, Mr. Tulliver doesn’t have a lot of ability to choose a good school for Tom, not being particularly educated himself.

Rest assured, there is lots of drama, as Mr. Tulliver fights to hold onto his water rights and argues violently with Mrs. Glegg, the most awful of Mrs. Tulliver’s sisters.  Maggie and Tom are always fighting and making up and, at one point, Maggie, in a fit of pique after one of their fights, runs away to live with gypsies – of course, when she finds actual gypsies who take her in, she realizes that their lives are not as romantic as she thought.

It’s a wonderful book.  And it is an edition from probably around 1890 that I got for $3 at a great used book shop (Artis Books) – it was printed by AL Burt Company of New York as part of their home library series – 500 hard cover books for $500, again from what I could learn, probably offered around 1890.  The books in the home library series are listed at the back – lots of well-known names (Duma, Browning, Wilkie Collins) but a lot I’ve never heard of as well.  The book is in good condition (shocking it was so cheap) but it is a cheap edition – there are poorly printed pages with a few missing letters here and there and some pages that were printed a bit cock-eyed.  It is a fine reading copy, though.

So, reading this 150 year old story in a 120 year old book made me wonder about the people who owned the book over the years.  Mrs. A Tamhellini? (a bit hard to make out the handwriting) signed the frontispiece – this seems to have been the habit of the era.  I have lots of older used books with people’s names (I know I don’t sign my books – do you?).  I wonder if she had the whole home library series (sounds lovely!)?  And did she read The Mill on the Floss?

I also was thinking a lot about my grandfather as I was reading – he was born in Preston, England around 1902 or so and emigrated to the US as a young man with his mother just after WWI (his father was killed in the war).  He used to tell me tales about working in a store in Preston – measuring out the things people bought, wrapping their purchases in brown paper…  and I saw the house (apartment, really) where he lived.  I was thinking that Eliot would have been writing during the lifetime of my grandfather’s grandparents (I’m not sure that he knew them).

And then that George Eliot’s sensibilities were, in many ways, so modern – and that I wonder if she ever dreamed people would be reading her work in 2011 (almost 2012).  It is so interesting to read her work and think about what well-off middle class business people and their children of this era cared about, what they studied and read, how they played and celebrated Christmas (holly and pine boughs and a lovely dinner with great puddings)…  To think that their loves, worries, and humor still resonate with us today!

#137) Anthony Trollope by Victoria Glendinnning (hard copy) (#19 of my 20 book allotment!)

I read Victoria’s great biography of Elizabeth Bowen while I was reading Bowen last summer.  It was very helpful – she did a good job with it.  Anthony Trollope is about four times as long, much more detailed – he’s a much better recognized writer (there were three other biographies being written about him at the time that she was writing hers) – there certainly seems to be a wealth of material about his life available in other books and archives (Anthony’s brother Tom wrote a memoir and Anthony wrote an autobiography – and he was a famous writer during his lifetime).

Anthony Trollope

As I was reading this biography, I kept mixing up Eliot and Trollope and thinking that Mill on the Floss was written by Trollope…  This is mostly because they lived in exactly the same time period (Trollope lived 1815-1882 and Eliot lived 1819-1880) but also because they share the same sly wit and insightful dissection of awful (and good) characters.  In many other ways, their books are pretty different, for instance, so far I have not seen Trollope write convincingly and deeply about anyone in poverty – he mentions them, but so far his books are very much from the point of view of pretty well-to-do clergy.  Whereas, in a book like Silas Marner, told from Silas’s view, Eliot is much more down and dirty with ordinary people – Silas is a miser and a hermit and saves a lot of money, but he is by no means well-to-do.  Trollope was also much more prolific – Eliot wrote seven novels, Trollope wrote 47.

So far, I’m reading about his childhood.  Trollope came from quite accomplished family with a bit of royalty, LOTS of clergy and some lawyers, and lots of Oxford graduates.  His father, Thomas, was a pretty unsuccessful and unhappy barrister with great ambitions and little ability to fulfill them.  He expected to inherit his uncle Adolphus’s wealth due to being his only heir and lived a lifestyle grounded in this expectation, but sadly, Adolphus lost his wife and remarried a rather fertile woman who produced an alternate heir causing Thomas’s expectations to crumble (but only after he’d built a grand house on land he was RENTING).

Anthony’s mother, Frances, was quite different.  Very loving, bohemian, and active.  She moved in artistic and intellectual circles (they lived outside London in small towns) and befriended radicals who came to live with the family (one for 10 years).  When Anthony was a teenager, she chose to move to an anti-slavery commune in Tennessee (in the United States) leaving behind Anthony and his older brothers (he had five siblings but his next oldest brother died as a teenager).  Anthony spend much of his childhood in the absolute hell of British public school, even though his older brother was with him (Tom) – Tom tortured him worse than anyone.

Even just a few chapters into this book, you can easily see where Trollope got his inspiration for his novels – his family WAS a Trollope novel.  Lots of drama, lots of fortunes lost, lots of clergy, and lots of dreams.

The Weather Here

We’re still in an odd December, usually by now we’ve gotten about 100 inches of snow, but I bet the total is more like 20 inches.  We’ve been getting an inch or two every other day or so – nothing to mention for us.  The temperatures have been bouncing between the teens and thirties.  I spend a couple hours a day walking my dogs (in four different walks – long and short with different dog “combos”) and I have not yet mastered the trick of dressing exactly right so I don’t come back so sweaty I have to change or I get cold in the house.  I think we’ll have some good cross country skiing soon – it has been pretty marginal so far.

Gus in one of his day-glo outfits – easy to see off in the woods!

Happy Reading!  Ruby

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4 Comments

  1. Jillian ♣

    I really cannot wait to read The Mill on the Floss. And I LOVE a writer biography. (I’ve never read Trollope.)

  2. Your review reminded me how much I love TMotF. I remember how Eliot described the snow settling on the house at Christmas. Great writing.

    • Hi Nicola: thanks for writing – yes, her descriptions are absolutely lovely. And her plots are great – they keep you on the edge of your seat eager to find out what happens next…. Happy New Year, Ruby

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