The second book of The Mill on the Floss is much shorter than the first. It covers Tom’s time at the school Mr. Tulliver chose for him, wanting his son to have a better education and to become a match for such lawyers as the “scoundrel” Wakem. Tom doesn’t like school. He is no good at Latin and Euclid, and, since he is the only pupil, he no longer has the relief of playing games with boys and excelling in that way. His first Christmas holiday isn’t as cheery as he expected, either. His father is sure that lawyer Wakem is egging on Mr. Pivart, who has land higher up the river and is infringing his “legitimate share of water-power”. The frequent loud, angry quarreling makes for a less happy holiday.
George Eliot liked to drop into sarcasm against society. So, in speaking of Tom’s indifferent education, she points out, “All this, you remember, happened in those dark ages when there were no schools of design; before schoolmasters were invariably men of scrupulous integrity, and before the clergy were all men of enlarged minds and varied culture. In those less favored days, it is no fable that there were other clergymen besides Mr. Stelling who had narrow intellects and large wants…” (Ch. 4). I think passages such as this detract from the craft of Eliot’s novels, but they are not many.
When Tom goes back to school, he is no longer Mr. Stelling’s only pupil. Lawyer Wakem’s hunchbacked son Philip is there. Philip is a couple of years older than Tom and is very sensitive about his deformity. Tom, for his part, is suspicious of Philip because of his deformity and because he is the son of lawyer Wakem. It is a relief to him to have another young person around, however, and they get along tolerably though they never become friends. Tom is very happy to have a visit from his sister Maggie. While she is with him, Tom injures himself and Philip is very kind to him while he is laid up. In the process, Philip and Maggie become good friends.
Afterwards, Maggie goes to a boarding school with her cousin Lucy. She and Tom are at school for a few years. Then Mr. Tulliver loses his lawsuit and calls Maggie home again. The ruin at home is greater than just losing the lawsuit. Mr. Tulliver’s debts are so great that they will lose their furniture, the mill, and all. He loses his memory after a fall from his horse, recognizing no one but Maggie. Maggie goes to fetch Tom home. She is thirteen years old and he is sixteen.
Tom had so often thought how joyful he should be the day he left school “for good”! And now his school years seemed like a holiday that had come to an end.
The two slight youthful figures … had gone forth together into their life of sorrow, and they would never more see the sunshine undimmed by remembered cares. They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had forever closed behind them. (Chapter 7)
This is part of the Eliot Project, in which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I read through all of George Eliot’s novels and write about them. Read “Sophie’s” notes on the first book of The Mill on the Floss here: “The Mill on the Floss: School-Time”.
Screencap of young Maggie Tulliver and Philip Wakem in a 1978 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss.