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Places to Go: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Written by Rachael Norris, 22nd May 2020

Places to Go is a special feature that The Reader is bringing to you in the hope that it may provide some inspiration on how we can spend our time at home during lockdown. We will be posting extracts from stories which highlight special moments of travel and adventure for you to enjoy. This week PIPES Reader Leader Sally Baker shares a reading of The Mill no the Floss by George Eliot. 

This story transports us to rural Lincolnshire early in the nineteenth century, to Dorlcote Mill on the River Floss. I love the introduction, where the narrator travels back in time to describe the arable landscape and industry of cargo boats on the river. It takes me back to a country childhood in East Anglia and my enduring love of woods, rivers and the sea. In lockdown, although I’m lucky enough to have both a garden and allotment, it’s still wonderful to be transported to another rural location, to this tranquil spot with a waterwheel by the river Floss.

The description of the farmland and the boats on the river reminds me of the fishing port where I grew up, and I love the image of the red sails on the treeline. The ducks enjoying their dip, and the sound of the rushing water ‘like a great curtain of sound, shutting one out from the world beyond’ is evocative of being beside water, conjuring up memories of times spent beside ponds, lakes and waterfalls. Even the sound of water is restful.

The Mill’s inhabitants, Maggie and her brother Tom and their parents, Mr and Mrs Tulliver, live such a different life to us in the twentieth century. In this excerpt, the Tullivers are discussing schooling for Tom. This may resonate with parents of younger children who are perhaps having similar discussions; getting to grips with home schooling, or waiting to find out when and if their children’s schools will reopen. Maggie, described as high-spirited and clever, does not have the same educational opportunities as her brother Tom, and this difference becomes clear in the story. Mr Tulliver’s comment about a long tailed sheep not making a better price demonstrates that he doesn’t feel Maggie’s cleverness will increase her value as a wife; the most likely option for young women of the time being to marry, rather than to become educated.

Maggie’s love of the river and the natural world are apparent in the novel. She can often be found ‘wandering up and down by the water, like a wild thing’. I think many of us can identify with this and enjoy being by water, particularly in the warmer weather. This might be a paddle or swim in the sea or a meander along a river bank. In these times I know many of us are finding comfort and inspiration in nature and the countryside. Bluer skies and more birdsong have been reported by many people. Walking on the moors recently I was transported out of the everyday worries and constant news reports, to a place where everything is continuing to unfold; bilberries are growing, young silver birch trees have new bright green leaves, lambs are playing in the fields, lanes are full of cow parsley and hawthorn blossom.

In these difficult and strange times, perhaps one positive is a renewed appreciation of the natural world as a place of much needed calm and regeneration. Many people have found their daily walks have opened up a new world where even in parks and on city streets, nature is thriving. I’m growing a lot more of my own vegetables this year, as well as annual flowers. With so much uncertainty and many thing beyond our control, sowing seeds is an act of hope and there is great pleasure to be had by watching seedlings grow.

Whether it’s listening to birdsong, sowing sunflower seeds, walking along a river or just enjoying the feel of the sun on your face, I hope you are finding ways to connect with the natural world.

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