My favourite author is George Eliot, and one of my recent treats was re-reading The Mill on the Floss, one of her early novels. I wanted to see if it was relevant for today’s older adults.
The focus of the story is childhood and youth: the central figures are Maggie, passionate but wayward, and her severe older brother, Tom. This book evokes the pains and bliss of childhood vividly:
These bitter sorrows of childhood! – when sorrow is all new and strange, when hope has not yet got wings to fly beyond the days and weeks, and the space from summer to summer seems measureless.
Many of George Eliot’s insights suit any age. Maggie’s often sad story shows the value of roots: not only the people we grew up with, but also the places. We also see the need to stay true to ourselves, and the values we believe in, even when glitter and glamour are seductive.
Although the main characters are young, there are several older adults who we can learn from in this book. One of these is Dr Kenn, the local vicar, who stands by Maggie when so-called polite society has judged her unfairly, and shunned her. If you can cope with the Victorian phrasing, Eliot gives a lovely view of the role of the elders:
The middle-aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair: most of us at some moment in our young lives, would have welcomed a priest of that natural order in any sort of canonicals or uncanonicals, but had to scramble upwards into all the difficulties of nineteen entirely without such aid, as Maggie did.
Present times are so demanding that it seems to me most of us feel the pains of childhood and need the wisdom of middle age, whatever age we are. George Elliot’s novels have a lot of wisdom still fresh for our times.