To while away the miles on the road that I travel each weekday between Queensborough and Belleville, going to and from work, I like to listen to audio books. I have decided that this is a prime opportunity to catch up on all those fat Victorian novels that I should have read many years ago but didn’t get around to: all the Dickenses that are left after David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol; much of Jane Austen; the minor Brontës (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the like), and most of all the works of George Eliot, universally admired – if Wikipedia is to be believed, both Julian Barnes and Martin Amis have called Middlemarch the greatest novel in the English language – and, until this point in time, untouched by me.
At the moment I am listening to my first Eliot, The Mill on the Floss. To my delight, I have discovered that the opening chapters of the book are utterly charming and very funny as they introduce us to the main character, a smart little girl named Maggie Tulliver, whom many have likened to the young George Eliot (real name: Mary Ann Evans) herself.
Maggie’s father is the owner of the titular mill on the River Floss, and one of the great joys of the novel is Eliot’s descriptions of the beauties of the English countryside where that fictional river and mill are located.
This afternoon as I was driving home I was particularly struck, and moved, by a passage that is about how precious the things of childhood seem to us all our lives long, even if those things in and of themselves, viewed by a critical outsider’s eye, are not precious at all. And I thought I’d share the passage with you, because it’s lovely and because it explains better than I ever could how attached I am to the Manse and to Queensborough – where I spent the happy years of my childhood, and where I am now returned once again.
The passage occurs fairly early in the novel, when Maggie Tulliver’s slightly older brother, Tom, who is away at school and having a horrid time with Euclidean geometry and Latin, is finally transported home at the Christmas holidays:
But it was worth purchasing, even at the heavy price of the Latin Grammar, the happiness of seeing the bright light in the parlour at home, as the gig passed noiselessly over the snow-covered bridge; the happiness of passing from the cold air to the warmth and the kisses and the smiles of that familiar hearth, where the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were “first ideas” that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter. There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs. Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction; an improved taste in upholstery scorns it; and is not the striving after something better and better in our surroundings the grand characteristic that distinguishes man from the brute, or, to satisfy a scrupulous accuracy of definition, that distinguishes the British man from the foreign brute? [Note from Katherine: keep in mind that Eliot is mocking her own society in that last bit.] But heaven knows where that striving might lead us, if our affections had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things; if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory. One’s delight in an elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank, as a more gladdening sight than the finest cistus or fuchsia spreading itself on the softest undulating turf, is an entirely unjustifiable preference to a nursery-gardener, or to any of those regulated minds who are free from the weakness of any attachment that does not rest on a demonstrable superiority of qualities. And there is no better reason for preferring this elderberry bush than that it stirs an early memory; that it is no novelty in my life, speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and colour, but the long companion of my existence, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.
“The long companion of my life, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid” – is that not one of the best descriptions you have ever heard of the lifelong attachment, and love, that we have for the simple things we remember from our earliest days?
Perhaps I am particularly taken with this novel because Queensborough too sports a mill, the Mill on the Black (River). This historic building, erected as a grist (flour) mill in the middle of the 19th century – and a companion to a sawmill that once stood beside it – is the very reason there is a Queensborough today; like so many rural villages the world over, ours grew up around a mill on a river. And I think that Queensborough’s mill is every bit as pretty as the one I imagine on the Floss, in my mind’s eye, when I am listening to George Eliot’s novel.
And when Tom Tulliver is overjoyed to be once again among the beloved scenes of his childhood on his return home – well, that is my story too, isn’t it?