Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A pretty Scripture thing - let's stand on a chair and look at the prints in The Mill on the Floss

A week or two ago I borrowed an out of context line from The Mill on the Floss (1860) for my own malign purposes. Young Maggie Tulliver, a great reader, is trying to convince Luke the miller, her father's employee, of the value of books. She thinks he might enjoy the illustrated Pug's Tour of Europe:

"'There are the Dutchmen, very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel.'

'Nay, Miss, I'n no opinion o' Dutchmen. There ben't much good i'knowin' about them.'

'But they're our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures.'

'Not much o' fellow-creaturs, I think, Miss; all I know--my old master, as war a knowin' man, used to say, says he, 'If e'er I sow my wheat wi'out brinin', I'm a Dutchman,' says he; an' that war as much as to say as a Dutchman war a fool, or next door. Nay, nay, I aren't goin' to bother mysen about Dutchmen. There's fools enoo, an' rogues enoo, wi'out lookin' i' books for 'em.'" (I.IV.)

Luke also rejects the "elephants and kangaroos, and the civet-cat, and the sunfish" found in Animated Nature. This is all good fun, a nice foil for the boundlessly curious and imaginative child Maggie.

Eliot extends the joke when Luke invites Maggie back to his house to visit his wife and eat bread and treacle. Maggie "stood on a chair to look at a remarkable series of pictures representing the Prodigal Son in the costume of Sir Charles Grandison, except that, as might have been expected from his defective moral character, he had not, like that accomplished hero, the taste and strength of mind to dispense with a wig."

I believe that the Prodigal Son is some combination of fool and rogue, and that his story is to be found in a book, so it turns out that Luke is not as free from the influence of books as he believes. Could the story actually be from The Gospel of Luke? Of course it is (15:11-32). Good one, George Eliot.

Next joke: over the course of the novel, Maggie is going to turn out to be a kind of Prodigal Daughter, so Eliot's setting up that theme here. But she's going to be an extraordinarily virtuous, unusually non-prodigious prodigal. That explains the otherwise bizarre insertion by the narrator of Sir Charles Grandison into the description, a character as far from the Prodigal Son as can be imagined.

Everyone's read Sir Charles Grandison, so I can just - what's that? No? Grandison is Samuel Richardson's Ideal Man, created as a penance for making Clarissa's diabolical Lovelace too interesting. There's a letter of Jane Austen's in which she also singles out the detail of the wig - Sir Charles, you see, wears his own long, flowing hair, a telling detail that shows his confidence, freedom from mindless convention, and possibly his freedom from venereal disease. Maggie's a lot closer to Richardson's hero than to the Prodigal, except she's not such a dull stick. I'm just saying, if Eliot just wanted to show that the Biblical characters in the pictures were wearing 18th century clothes, she could have used Tom Jones or Roderick Random, who were prodigal and then some.

A few chapters later, Maggie investigates another set of prints, at her Uncle Pullet's house. Maggie becomes "fascinated, as usual, by a print of Ulysses and Nausicaa, which uncle Pullet had bought as a 'pretty Scripture thing'" (I.IX.) Now that's just mean. Poor, dumb Uncle Pullet. Which Bible story do you think he thinks it is? Girl doing laundry meets naked man on beach - I have no idea.

I think I'll spend a couple more days rooting through The Mill on the Floss, looking at the pictures.

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