George Eliot's manuscript for The Mill on the Floss.
George Eliot made changes to The Mill on the Floss as she wrote it. This is true even of her title. Eliot and her partner George Lewes tried out a series of them. These included:
- The Tullivers
- St. Ogg’s on the Floss
- The House of Tulliver, or Life on the Floss
- The Tulliver Family, or Life on the Floss
- Maggie Tulliver
- Sister Maggie
George Lewes thought that the last suggestion sounded like a children’s book. Eventually Eliot’s publisher John Blackwood suggested the title The Mill on the Floss. Eliot accepted it immediately. As a publisher, John Blackwood’s professional success depended on knowing how to sell books to readers. Perhaps it is not surprising that he should have come up with the successful title.
However, the title is a bit surprising. The Tullivers' mill is not actually on the Floss, but situated on a small tributary called the Ripple. Perhaps Blackwood thought The Mill on the Ripple sounded twee. ‘Ripple’ is hardly in keeping with the great flood which ends the story.
Titles matter. Readers would approach the book differently if its title indicated that it was about Maggie, or the whole Tulliver family, or the whole town of St Ogg’s. It’s also important that the title is the name of a place, not of a character. Two of the most important events in the narrative concern the mill. First, Maggie’s father is forced to sell it when he loses an expensive law suit. Second, Maggie and her brother are drowned in a flood after Maggie has rescued Tom from the mill. Although the mill might not be a character, it plays an important role in the story and shapes the lives of Maggie and the rest of the Tullivers. It is part of the environment which makes them who they are. Like the flood which literally sweeps away Maggie’s damaged relationship with her brother, the mill is a physical reality which is beyond her control but whose influence she cannot escape. It was there before she was born and still stands after she dies.
More about The Mill on the Floss
The real places that inspired Eliot: See George Eliot’s manuscript and the fictional names she gave to real places.
Recycled stories: Compare stories that inspired Eliot and explore her birthplace and belongings.
The Secret Life of Books: Find out more about the other books in the series.