The third book of The Mill on the Floss begins by detailing how Mr. Tulliver fell ill. After finding that he had lost the lawsuit and is in debt, he reads a letter while riding home, informing him that his creditor had transferred his securities, including the mortgage on Mr. Tulliver’s property to Mr. Wakem. Mr. Tulliver is found insensible by the road with this open letter and his horse beside him. When he wakes up, he remembers nothing but having received an important letter and his daughter.
Mrs. Tulliver’s sisters come to take stock of the state of affairs. Unfortunately, they offer little help. Mrs. Glegg, especially, is simply another hardship as she comes to tell her sister and the children about how irresponsible Mr. Tulliver is. Tom suggests that, if Aunt Glegg thinks it such a disgrace for them to be “sold up”, she should give him and Maggie the money she means to leave them in her will. He will pay her every year the interest she would have earned on it. But Aunt Glegg will do no such thing, and Maggie loses her temper, protesting against her aunts coming if it was only to criticize and scold.
Later, Tom goes to his uncle Deane (Lucy’s father, who was out of town at the time of the “family council”) to try to get a situation at Guest & Co., a business his uncle is a partner in. Mr. Deane doesn’t promise him anything (Tom’s education has not been suited for such business), but Lucy asks after her poor cousins so often that he decides to get Tom a place in the warehouse and helps him get lessons in bookkeeping and calculation. Mr. Deane also thinks of Guest & Co. buying the mill as an investment, when it goes up for auction, and having Tulliver manage it — provided Wakem doesn’t take it into his head to outbid them. Tom is determined to pay off his father’s debts, but the work isn’t easy for him and he becomes tired, depressed, and sullen.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Tulliver comes up with her own plan. She decides to go to Mr. Wakem and ask him not to bid on the mill. She does not share her husband’s animosity towards the lawyer and hopes to get his pity for her children’s sakes. Unfortunately, all she does is put the idea into Wakem’s head, who determines to buy the mill and ask Tulliver to work it. Though he does not have the bitterness and anger against Tulliver as Tulliver does towards him, he isn’t “too fond of the people who openly revile” (ch. 7) him and is glad of the opportunity to humiliate him. Vindictiveness isn’t his only reason for buying the mill. He also thinks it will be a good investment and furnish a good position for one of his sons (Philip is not his only child) in a few years.
It is nearly two months before Mr. Tulliver is recovered enough to know all that has happened during his illness. He finds all the furniture gone and Wakem owning the mill and offering him work. He promises to do his best for his wife, whom he has brought down in the world, even if it means working for Wakem, but swears never to forgive him. Then, he tells Tom to write in the family’s Bible:
“Write as your father, Edward Tulliver, took service under John Wakem, the man as had helped to ruin him, because I’d promised my wife to make her what amends I could for her trouble, and because I wanted to die in th’ old place where I was born and my father was born. … and then write, as I don’t forgive Wakem for all that; and for all I’ll serve him honest, I wish evil may befall him. Write that. … Now write — write as you’ll remember what Wakem’s done to your father, and you’ll make him and his feel it, if ever the day comes. And sign your name Thomas Tulliver.” (Ch. 9)
Thus Tulliver shows himself to be a bigger “raskill” than Wakem. Maggie is horrified and protests that it is wicked to curse and bear malice and her father should not make Tom write such a thing. “Be quiet, Maggie!” said Tom. “I shall write it.”
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 third book of The Mill on the Floss here: “The Mill on the Floss: The Downfall”.
Screencap of Mr. Tulliver requiring his son to write an oath against forgiveness toward Wakem in the family Bible, in a 1978 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss.