Monday, 4 June 2018

The Mill on the Floss: Hair

I’m reading George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.
What motif do I pick up on? Hair. 
From chapter 2, Mrs Tulliver talking about Tom: 
“’… so far as talking proper, and knowing everything, and walking with a bend in his back, and setting his hair up, I shouldn't mind the lad being brought up to that…’”
(my emphasis) 
Then about her daughter Maggie: “’ … I'm sure the child's half an idiot i' some things; for if I send her upstairs to fetch anything, she forgets what she's gone for, an' perhaps 'ull sit down on the floor i' the sunshine an' plait her hair an' sing to herself like a Bedlam creatur', all the while I'm waiting for her downstairs.” 
Note: forgetful, contemplative, imaginative. 
This is chapter 2—a conversation about hair reveals a lot about our heroine Maggie Tulliver, and other characters. 
“’… But her hair won't curl all I can do with it, and she's so franzy about having it put i' paper, and I've such work as never was to make her stand and have it pinched with th' irons’”. 
She is such a rebel that even her hair doesn’t conform. 
“’ Cut it off–cut it off short,’ said the father, rashly.
‘How can you talk so, Mr. Tulliver? She's too big a gell–gone nine, and tall of her age–to have her hair cut short; an' there's her cousin Lucy's got a row o' curls round her head, an' not a hair out o' place.’ 
Maggie's hair, as she threw off her bonnet, painfully confirmed her mother's accusation. Mrs. Tulliver, desiring her daughter to have a curled crop, ‘like other folks's children,’ had had it cut too short in front to be pushed behind the ears; and as it was usually straight an hour after it had been taken out of paper, Maggie was incessantly tossing her head to keep the dark, heavy locks out of her gleaming black eyes,–an action which gave her very much the air of a small Shetland pony.
‘Oh, dear, oh, dear, Maggie, what are you thinkin' of, to throw your bonnet down there? Take it upstairs, there's a good gell, an' let your hair be brushed, an' put your other pinafore on, an' change your shoes, do, for shame; an' come an' go on with your patchwork, like a little lady.’” 
A passage about hair reveals to us readers that Maggie is unconventional, different from other girls; Mrs Tulliver wishes her to conform, and doesn’t see her merits; Mr Tulliver doesn’t seem to care much about other people, and takes Maggie’s side; Lucy is the pretty girl, the “perfect” (meaning conventional) girl, who is often used for comparison and who is probably Maggie’s foil in the novel. 
The contrast is clearer in chapter 7, when the 2 girls stand next to each other: 
“She did to-day, when she and Tom came in from the garden with their father and their uncle Glegg. Maggie had thrown her bonnet off very carelessly, and coming in with her hair rough as well as out of curl, rushed at once to Lucy, who was standing by her mother's knee. Certainly the contrast between the cousins was conspicuous, and to superficial eyes was very much to the disadvantage of Maggie though a connoisseur might have seen "points" in her which had a higher promise for maturity than Lucy's natty completeness. It was like the contrast between a rough, dark, overgrown puppy and a white kitten. Lucy put up the neatest little rosebud mouth to be kissed; everything about her was neat,–her little round neck, with the row of coral beads; her little straight nose, not at all snubby; her little clear eyebrows, rather darker than her curls, to match hazel eyes, which looked up with shy pleasure at Maggie, taller by the head, though scarcely a year older.” 
George Eliot also uses hair as a means to show Maggie’s passionate, excitable nature. 
From chapter 3: 
“At the sound of this name, Maggie, who was seated on a low stool close by the fire, with a large book open on her lap, shook her heavy hair back and looked up eagerly.” 
From chapter 4: 
“Maggie tossed her hair back and ran downstairs, seized her bonnet without putting it on, peeped, and then dashed along the passage lest she should encounter her mother, and was quickly out in the yard, whirling round like a Pythoness, and singing as she whirled…” 
“Maggie loved to linger in the great spaces of the mill, and often came out with her black hair powdered to a soft whiteness that made her dark eyes flash out with new fire.” 
And her disregard for looks. 
From chapter 5: 
“It was Tom's step, then, that Maggie heard on the stairs, when her need of love had triumphed over her pride, and she was going down with her swollen eyes and dishevelled hair to beg for pity.” 
Also in chapter 5, we get to see Maggie in comparison with her brother Tom: 
“He was one of those lads that grow everywhere in England, and at twelve or thirteen years of age look as much alike as goslings,–a lad with light-brown hair, cheeks of cream and roses, full lips, indeterminate nose and eyebrows,–a physiognomy in which it seems impossible to discern anything but the generic character to boyhood; as different as possible from poor Maggie's phiz, which Nature seemed to have moulded and colored with the most decided intention.” 
Hair reveals character, and conventions. 
Look at the description of Bob, Tom’s friend, from chapter 6: 
“For a person suspected of preternatural wickedness, Bob was really not so very villanous-looking; there was even something agreeable in his snub-nosed face, with its close-curled border of red hair.”
And then Mrs Glegg, one of Mrs Tulliver’s sisters, from chapter 7: 
“The Dodsons were certainly a handsome family, and Mrs. Glegg was not the least handsome of the sisters. As she sat in Mrs. Tulliver's arm-chair, no impartial observer could have denied that for a woman of fifty she had a very comely face and figure, though Tom and Maggie considered their aunt Glegg as the type of ugliness. It is true she despised the advantages of costume, for though, as she often observed, no woman had better clothes, it was not her way to wear her new things out before her old ones. Other women, if they liked, might have their best thread-lace in every wash; but when Mrs. Glegg died, it would be found that she had better lace laid by in the right-hand drawer of her wardrobe in the Spotted Chamber than ever Mrs. Wooll of St. Ogg's had bought in her life, although Mrs. Wooll wore her lace before it was paid for. So of her curled fronts: Mrs. Glegg had doubtless the glossiest and crispest brown curls in her drawers, as well as curls in various degrees of fuzzy laxness; but to look out on the week-day world from under a crisp and glossy front would be to introduce a most dreamlike and unpleasant confusion between the sacred and the secular. Occasionally, indeed, Mrs. Glegg wore one of her third-best fronts on a week-day visit, but not at a sister's house; especially not at Mrs. Tulliver's, who, since her marriage, had hurt her sister's feelings greatly by wearing her own hair, though, as Mrs. Glegg observed to Mrs. Deane, a mother of a family, like Bessy, with a husband always going to law, might have been expected to know better. But Bessy was always weak!
So if Mrs. Glegg's front to-day was more fuzzy and lax than usual, she had a design under it: she intended the most pointed and cutting allusion to Mrs. Tulliver's bunches of blond curls, separated from each other by a due wave of smoothness on each side of the parting. Mrs. Tulliver had shed tears several times at sister Glegg's unkindness on the subject of these unmatronly curls, but the consciousness of looking the handsomer for them naturally administered support…” 
I’m not sure about George Eliot’s other novels, but hair seems to be a central motif in The Mill on the Floss, and strongly linked to Maggie. 
In chapter 7, again there’s a conversation about her hair: 
“’Go and speak to your aunts and uncles, my dears,’ said Mrs. Tulliver, looking anxious and melancholy. She wanted to whisper to Maggie a command to go and have her hair brushed.
‘Well, and how do you do? And I hope you're good children, are you?’ said Aunt Glegg, in the same loud, emphatic way, as she took their hands, hurting them with her large rings, and kissing their cheeks much against their desire. ‘Look up, Tom, look up. Boys as go to boarding-schools should hold their heads up. Look at me now.’ Tom declined that pleasure apparently, for he tried to draw his hand away. ‘Put your hair behind your ears, Maggie, and keep your frock on your shoulder.’
[…] ‘Well, my dears,’ said aunt Pullet, in a compassionate voice, ‘you grow wonderful fast. I doubt they'll outgrow their strength,’ she added, looking over their heads, with a melancholy expression, at their mother. ‘I think the gell has too much hair. I'd have it thinned and cut shorter, sister, if I was you; it isn't good for her health. It's that as makes her skin so brown, I shouldn't wonder. Don't you think so, sister Deane?’
‘I can't say, I'm sure, sister,’ said Mrs. Deane, shutting her lips close again, and looking at Maggie with a critical eye.
‘No, no,’ said Mr. Tulliver, ‘the child's healthy enough; there's nothing ails her. There's red wheat as well as white, for that matter, and some like the dark grain best. But it 'ud be as well if Bessy 'ud have the child's hair cut, so as it 'ud lie smooth.’”  
Mrs Tulliver tells Maggie: 
“’… go and get your hair brushed, do, for shame. I told you not to come in without going to Martha first, you know I did.” 
All that leads to the delightful scene of one of Maggie’s early rebellions—she cuts her hair herself and makes a mess of it. 1 scene reveals everything we need to know about Maggie—her disregard for physical appearance, and wish to be seen as clever only; her unconventionality and rebelliousness; her passionate and impulsive nature; her deep-down yearning to be loved and accept, whilst refusing to conform; the humiliation; people’s disapproval of her “misbehavior” and misunderstanding of her motivations and her character; people’s narrow-mindedness and the consequences for Maggie; her own brother’s insensitivity, and inability to understand her. This is a set-up, a preparation of sorts, for her later rebellion. 
I’m on chapter 11. I can tell the hair motif will come up again and again in the novel. 
A quick search reveals that in The Mill on the Floss, the word “hair” appears 76 times, and “curls” 14 times.

No comments:

Post a comment