Wednesday, April 29, 2009

St Ogg’s on the Floss

Exactly one and a half centuries ago today, George Eliot was making an entry in her diary about the idea of naming a book St Ogg’s on the Floss. However, by the end of that year, 1859, the title had become The Mill on the Floss. And the novel itself? Well, it was destined to become one of the most loved and enduring of English literary classics.

Mary Ann Evans was born at Arbury, Warwickshire, the daughter of a land agent to the Earl of Lonsdale. As a child she was an avid reader. Her mother died when she was still a teenager, and when her father retired in 1841, she went with him to live in Coventry, and kept house. There, she joined a group of intellectuals, including Charles Bray, who were studying the Bible, and became more sceptical about Anglicanism. Her first literary work, Life of Jesus, a translation from German, was published in 1846. After her father’s death in 1849, she travelled on the Continent with the Brays, and moved to London, where she worked as a subeditor for the Westminster Review.

In 1854, she started a relationship with George Henry Lewes, who was married but separated from his wife. They lived together, a situation which caused a social scandal, and travelled abroad on various occasions. Lewes encouraged her to write, and in 1856 she began publishing Scenes of Clerical Life in Blackwood’s Magazine under the pseudonym George Eliot. By 1861, she had published three of her most famous novels: Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, although it was to be another ten years before she finished Middlemarch. After Lewes died in 1878, Eliot married John Walter Cross. She died two years later. More biographical information is available at Wikipedia and The Victorian Web.

Subsequently, Cross arranged and edited Eliot’s letters and diaries into what he described as her ‘autobiography (if the term may be permitted)’. This was published by William Blackwood and Sons in 1885 (Harper & Brothers in the US) with the title - George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals. The original is available for view at Internet Archive, and a reproduction by BiblioBazaar published in 2008 is partly viewable on Googlebooks. In 2000, Cambridge University Press released an edition of all Eliot’s surviving diaries. It includes, the publisher says, a chronology, introduction, headnotes to each diary, and an annotated index supplying valuable contextual and explanatory information. A few pages can be viewed on Amazon. More links concerning Eliot and her diaries can be found at The Diary Junction.

Here are a few diary/letter extracts from the 1885 edition of George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals. They all concern one of Eliot’s most famous books, and the first is dated exactly 150 years ago today.

29 April 1859
‘Finished a story - The Lifted Veil - which I began one morning at Richmond as a resource when my head was too stupid for more important work. Resumed my new novel, of which I am going to rewrite the two first chapters. I shall call it provisionally The Tullivers, for the sake of a title quelconque, or perhaps St Ogg’s on the Floss.’

15 December 1859
‘Blackwood proposes to give me for The Mill on the Floss £2000 for 4000 copies of an edition at 31s. 6d. and after the same rate for any more that may be printed at the same price: £150 for 1000 at 12s.; and £60 for 1000 at 6s. I have accepted.’

3 January 1860 - Letter to John Blackwood
‘We are demurring about the title. Mr Lewes is beginning to prefer The House of Tulliver; or Life on the Floss, to our old notion of Sister Maggie. The Tullivers; or Life on the Floss, has the advantage of slipping easily off the lazy English tongue, but it is after too common a fashion (The NewcomesThe Bertrams,’ &c., &c.) Then there is The Tulliver Family; or, Life on the Floss. Pray meditate and give us your opinion.’

6 January 1860 - Letter to John Blackwood
The Mill on the Floss be it then! The only objections are, that the mill is not strictly on the Floss, being on its small tributary, and that the title is of rather laborious utterance. But I think these objections do not deprive it of its advantage of The Tullivers; or Life on the Floss - the only alternative, so far as we can see. Pray do give the casting-vote.’

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