"Wanderin' like a wild thing": women walking in Eliot's The Mill on the Floss
As part of my work re-writing my thesis this summer (in preparation for submission next term) I'm re-reading all of the novels that have provided the basis for my discussions; most of my work focuses on shorter passages from the texts -always trying to keep the wider context in mind, but it's easy to get absorbed in the details of fragments and the themes of the thesis, and lose sight of what else is going on. It's useful to take a step back from the detail, read the novels in their entirety again, as well as taking a fresh look at how the themes of travel, space, movement work in the wider scope of the novels. As I progress through the novels (about 20 in total), I'll blog a short piece on each novel, summarising the notes I've made on the central themes. First up, for no reason other than I was looking forward to reading it again and it's relevant for the earlier chapters of the thesis, is George Eliot's 1860 The Mill on the Floss.
From the opening passage of the novel, the river Floss is established as central to the text: it passes alongside the Tullivers' home at Dorlcote Mill and connects several of the main places, including the town of St Oggs and the Deane's house. The river has an important function in terms of the everyday space of this local setting: the novel rarely moves beyond the close proximity of a few key settings, but the river operates as a reminder of the wider circuits with which the locality of place is connected, suggesting the possibility of a wider spatiality beyond, within which the events are situated. The river is significant in the development of key narrative moments too: most notably for the gender/travel theme, Stephen's attempt to seduce Maggie into eloping with him, carrying her off miles downstream; there is also repeated mention of the river having flooded in the past, and at the end of the novel this possibility is realised, with the great flood in which Maggie and Tom are drowned.
Walking is an equally, if not more, important form of movement, particularly significant in how it functions in the development of Maggie's character. As a young girl, Maggie is fond of playing out doors and somewhat prone to wandering off, "wanderin' up an' down by the water like a wild thing" as her mother says; the epitome of this is when she runs off to join the gypsies. Maggie is of a passionate nature, walking just one element of her "wildness", her non-conformity to the social expectations of femininity as defined by her mother and aunts: her habit of wandering is part of this straying, uncontainable character and so, from an early point in the novel, this sets up the theme of women's walking as having negative associations as an act which goes against conventional feminine propriety.
The novel skips to a few years later, and Maggie at 17 years old is equally fond of walking in the "Red Deeps"; notably the first time we encounter Maggie having developed into "the mould of early womanhood" is out walking here. But now Maggie's walking is no longer expressive of her wild, passionate nature but has a slightly different resonance; for Maggie is no longer the girl she once was, now passive and accepting of her fate, preventing herself from engaging with anything that would "make her long to see and know many things", and walking seems here to be a way of coping with the narrow proximity that characterises her life. It is, as she says, her "one indulgence" that makes the rest of her life bearable; no longer a wild running, then, but a quiet form of release or escape from the narrow boundaries of her life.
But these walks swiftly take a different turn. The negativity surrounding Maggie's walking (she is again scolded at this older age for walking) is connected to wider discourses about women walking, which has highly sexualised associations: women walking alone in the street risk being regarded as sexually promiscuous, and to walk alone with a man that is not one's husband is entirely unrespectable. Maggie's walks in the Red Deeps turn into meetings with Philip Wakem, who she is otherwise banned from meeting; their love for one another develops through these encounters in the woods, and the entire of their secret relationship is conducted through such meetings: following the first meeting, it is implied that they have continued to meet out walking in the woods regularly for a year (p. 344-50). Unlike Eliot's previous Adam Bede, the relationship between Maggie and Philip remains sexually innocent, but nonetheless the impropriety of their meetings is made quite clear in Tom’s accusations of Maggie's behaviour, which specifically focuses on the throwing away of her respectability to her "walking out" in the woods with Philip (p. 356).
However, Maggie is, it seems, somewhat prone to such illicit meetings, and when Stephen Guest goes to meet Maggie at her aunt Moss’ they too walk out in the lane: and again, Tom’s later criticisms of this behaviour is that she “walked alone with him in the lanes”, something that “no modest girl would have done”- at the time, too, Maggie is worried about how this behaviour will be construed by her aunt. But the pivotal point for Stephen and Maggie is the boat trip down the river. Here the typical gendered discourses of travel space are played out: Maggie is moved by Stephen who rows her miles downstream, and she expresses that she does not consent to this, yet still it is she that faces the censure and accusations of impropriety for this, her movement which takes her out of the bounds of local place and transgresses the lines of social respectability, regardless of whether it is she moving herself or being moved by another. Notably, too, Maggie must return home if she is to have any hope of restoring her propriety; here she must face the censure of the society around her, with no possibility of freedom to escape from this (her options are limited and not entirely within her own control). Meanwhile, Stephen travels to Holland, free to move as he wishes and escape from any blame or implications of his actions, even though he is the one who has facilitated and enforced her movement.
It's all for nothing, though, when the flood comes and sweeps away Tom and Maggie, re-uniting them in a final embrace as they are drowned together. The novel's close asserts both the inevitability of the continual changes to place, with the town repaired and renewed after the flood, life carrying on and spaces evolving accordingly, whilst memorialising Tom and Maggie in the tomb that stands to hold onto the continuity of the past.