Justice for Maggie: On George Eliot’s Most Underrated Heroine
Maggie Tulliver Deserves Our Praise Just as Much as Dorothea Brooke
In the first half of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871), perhaps one of the most illustrious novels of the modern era, the narrator opens a chapter by reporting the the goings-on of heroine Dorothea Brooke—and yet, they stop abruptly, midsentence. “But why always Dorothea?” the narrator wonders. Why is her perspective privileged above all others? The moment illuminates an effort by Eliot to engender empathy through reading, to remind us that every person possesses a consciousness as loud and knotted as our own. But here’s the irony: this passage, in its attempt to decenter the novel’s primary protagonist, has thrust Dorothea into the limelight again. She’s the most famous heroine in Eliot’s oeuvre, and perhaps one of the most celebrated in Victorian literature.
I have no quibbles with Dorothea’s celebrity; in fact, I love her. However, there is another Eliot heroine, one even dearer to me, who often receives short shrift in the face of Middlemarch mania: Maggie Tulliver, from the 1860 novel The Mill On the Floss.
I was first introduced to Maggie in a high school English class, and after numerous rereads in college and in graduate school, I’ve come to cherish her as a kindred spirit—precariously passionate, eager to love and be loved in kind, and brimful of incandescent, competing emotion. She is, as one might say, particularly her relatives, too much.
I’m always on the watch for Too Much Heroines—women who, in the face of patriarchal dictates, cannot or will not contain themselves emotionally, sexually, physically, or intellectually. A heroine like Maggie Tulliver, one who, over the course of her life, is considered too clever and impetuous and exuberant, commits the gravest of crimes: she occupies space explicitly denied to her. Maggie emotes with lavish immoderation; reads everything her brother does, and exponentially more; and, as a child, thwarts attempts to render her a dainty specimen of girlhood. In other words, she demonstrates a fundamental aversion to gender conventions. You might reasonably compare her to Catherine Earnshaw, minus the sociopathy, or to Anne Shirley, sans the preoccupation with storybook romance, or even call her a Victorian Ramona Quimby.
As a child, Maggie embodies Too Much little girlhood par excellence: she is rash and petulant and prone to bouts of violent sobbing. She is no less passionate as a young woman, but her loyalties to kin and friends—as well as her own moral convictions—run deep. Yet Victorian society, like contemporary society, readily finds blame in a heterodox woman. Early in adulthood, despite her strenuous efforts to withstand temptation, Maggie becomes entangled in a sex scandal. Although innocent, circumstances effect the appearance of guilt, and poor optics are sufficient to catalyze the town’s gossip mill. St. Ogg, a community both provincial and petty, eagerly supplies both Maggie’s motive for the supposed crime, and her diagnosis: “unwomanly boldness.” Maggie, the townspeople conclude, cannot be trusted to demonstrate fidelity because she is the passive servant of her desire: like an automaton with a sex drive, she is “actuated” by “unbridled passion.” To possess unwomanly traits thus emphasizes the Too Much heroine’s degeneracy. If women prioritize the safeguarding of their purity and honor the codes that structure home and the larger social web, someone like Maggie—someone wired to be sinful—is fundamentally incapable of choosing righteousness instead.
“A heroine like Maggie Tulliver, one who is considered too clever and impetuous and exuberant, commits the gravest of crimes: she occupies space explicitly denied to her.”
Because The Mill On the Floss is a Victorian novel, it spoils nothing if I tell you Maggie’s story is a tragic one. Perhaps you’ve already assumed as much. (After all, without its cabal of beautiful, unfortunate women, 19th-century literature would suffer a grievous character shortage.) Her life begins at Dorlcote Mill, with loving, simple parents who fret over her precocity. “A woman’s no business wi’ being so clever,” her father worries, “it’ll turn to trouble, I doubt.” Her older brother Tom is, from childhood, the novel’s foremost exemplar of patriarchal duty and intractability. He relishes his sister’s abundant affection—and returns it—but pride and rigidity often render him cruel. Throughout the novel, Tom weaponizes Maggie’s love for him in order to force her obedience. He chastises her rashness and passion with regularity, his narrow-mindedness precluding empathy and, at times, reason. Eventually, at Tom’s behest, Maggie abandons her only friend and intellectual equal, Philip Wakem, because he demands that they honor their father’s grudge against the family. What’s more, Philip’s physical disability—he has a humpback from an early accident—disgusts Tom, whose natural antipathy towards masculine weakness collides with Maggie’s tendency to dote on what or whomever inspires her pity.
Maggie’s capacity for sympathy, and to conceive of experiences alien to her, stems from her own precarious position within her extended family. Although her father’s pet, Mrs. Tulliver’s meddlesome siblings peer at their wild, voraciously bookish niece with suspicion and disapproval. She has thick, dark, glossy hair—symbolically, this attribute rarely bodes well for a Victorian female character—and olive skin: not only is Maggie’s performance of docile femininity subpar, but her appearance obscures her Englishness. As if they’re unsure how to catalogue such a rambunctious, exotic creature, Eliot’s narrator resorts to animalization: Maggie is a “Shetland pony” or a “Skye Terrier”—to wit, her exuberance exceeds what can be quantified in terms of human emotion.
And even as a child, Maggie might not disagree. Aware that she cannot exhibit the full extent of her temper, she resorts to a private, doll-bashing ritual, which in turn serves as an adequate pressure valve:
This attic was Maggie’s favourite retreat on a wet day, when the weather was not too cold; here she fretted out all her ill-humours and talked aloud to the worm-eaten floors and the worm-eaten shelves, and the dark rafters festooned with cobwebs; and here she kept a Fetish which she punished for all her misfortunes. This was the trunk of a large wooden doll, which once stared with the roundest of eyes above the reddest of cheeks; but was now entirely defaced by a long career of vicarious suffering. Three nails driven into the head commemorated as many crises in Maggie’s nine years of earthly struggle; that luxury of vengeance having been suggested to her by the picture of Jael destroying Sisera in the old Bible.
Maggie’s Fetish—an object, like an amulet, believed to house the essence of a spirit—enables her to imagine torturing another entity instead of, say, her aggravating Aunt Glegg. It’s a mightily violent pastime, but Eliot is clear: Maggie is not a peaceful child. She’s besieged with spells of second-guessing, jealousy, and guilt—often engendered by Tom’s bullying—and though she perceives the world’s many contradictions and injustices, she’s too often barred from expressing her consternation. Neither her parents nor Tom possess her facility with abstract thought; until she befriends Philip Wakem, she must puzzle alone.
But ultimately, Maggie is undone by her love for Philip, and the other men who hover about her: Tom and her cousin Lucy’s suitor, Stephen Guest. After a disastrous lawsuit through which Philip’s father acquires the titular Mill, Mr. Tulliver dies in misery, leaving Tom to reestablish the family in name and finances. Against her brother’s wishes, Maggie takes positions at boarding schools throughout England—work that amounts to little more than drudgery and that severely circumscribes her cultural horizon. When she visits Lucy on holiday, she is reacquainted with Philip, whose ardent love for her she can only return with friendly tenderness. Through Stephen, however, Maggie encounters one of the signature predicaments of the sexy Victorian lass: mutual, forbidden attraction that her beloved pursues, regardless of its ramifications for her.
Of course, we only learn of Maggie’s burgeoning erotic interest and, ultimately, her sexual indiscretion in evasive terms. But she is aghast to acknowledge this love, and guilt-stricken by her pleasure in the face of Stephen’s fervent reciprocation. He pledges his devotion on multiple occasions, though Maggie, beating back her own desires, tells him that any romance is impossible.
For many Victorian heroines, their strenuous efforts to be loyal and virtuous are thwarted by their systemic powerlessness. As a woman without money or influence, Maggie lacks the resources to circumvent the advances of a wealthy, well positioned man-about-town like Stephen Guest. Determined that he will not be denied, Stephen orchestrates a clandestine outing for the two of them, luring Maggie into a rowboat with him and then begging her to elope. She refuses, but as the boat careens further down the river and into unfamiliar waters, the pair is forced to seek shelter on a larger vessel overnight. Alone on that darkened poop deck, anything may have happened between Maggie and Stephen. Or perhaps nothing did. But at this point Maggie’s reputation can only be preserved, somewhat, by marrying her admirer and, out of loyalty to her cousin and to Philip, she refuses. Her name is thus irrevocably besmirched while the community gently chastens Stephen for being rather too flirtatious:
Mr. Stephen Guest had certainly not behaved well; but then, young men were liable to those sudden infatuated attachments…Maggie had returned without a trousseau, without a husband—in that degraded and outcast condition to which error is well known to lead…[her] conduct had been of the most aggravated kind. Could anything be more detestable?…Winning his affections? That was not the phrase for such a girl as Miss Tulliver: it would have been more correct to say that she had been actuated by mere unwomanly boldness and unbridled passion (emphasis mine).
The Too Much Victorian heroine is always condemned through an erotic double bind. Her beauty renders her, in common parlance, irresistible, which is to say that men pursue her—even force themselves on her—regardless of her own feelings and consent. And if she is poor, like Maggie, her wishes are doubly ignored. Sexual fallenness, the condition of having lost one’s virtue (and often one’s virginity), is not only a gendered peril, but also a socioeconomic one. But a woman’s vulnerability or lack of choice does not factor into her social salvation. If a man has ravished her, it was her beauty that tempted him. A woman that inspires lust is always already guilty, just as a man is always already exonerated precisely because he is a man. The myth of “irresistibility” is sustained in order to excuse the follies and crimes of men. Maggie Tulliver is an uncommonly attractive woman, and men like Stephen are “liable to…sudden infatuated attachments.” We know how this story unravels.
“Sexual fallenness, the condition of having lost one’s virtue (and often one’s virginity), is not only a gendered peril, but also a socioeconomic one.”
The Mill On the Floss is a title that directs our attention to place, rather than person, and for many reasons this is appropriate. For Maggie Tulliver, Dorlcote Mill signifies hearth and home, and familial calamity; it is a specter of bygone childhood wonder and misfortune, both of which haunt Maggie through adulthood. The Floss weaves a serpentine trail throughout the text: a quiet warning that what is most idyllic and tranquil in nature can become treacherous. Finally, at the end of the novel, threat comes to fruition in the form of a vast flood: it overtakes the riverside, and Maggie and Tom are swept along in a small boat as they seek safety. As Tom rows, he discerns his sister’s face—“eyes of intense life looking out from a weary, beaten face.”
Since childhood Maggie has resisted passivity in a society that has always ground against her, a stonewall against flesh and bone. Dorothea Brooke beams with serene luminescence, but Maggie—she burns. We need their light, both the gentle and the fierce. Illumination cannot always be a joyous phenomenon, pain sublimated into the ecstatic transcendence Dorothea ultimately achieves in Middlemarch. We need Maggie who, like so many of us, thrashes against a tide of banal misogyny—and often loses. But though battered, her edges are never trimmed, and her eyes always see, with crystalline clarity, what the world seeks to hide from women.