Because George Eliot became well-known before she published The Mill on the Floss, many of her own words about the book survive, giving a fuller picture of her intentions with the novel, as well as her regrets and her general humility. In a letter to her publisher enclosed with an early draft, she wrote, “At present, I have no hope that it will affect people as strongly as Adam [Bede] has done,” but as she continued, she developed “high hopes” for its reception. Eliot found herself deeply attached to her characters, and a companion wrote that she was “getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story.” Upon completion of the novel, Eliot wrote that Maggie’s “sorrows have clung to me painfully.”
After the publication, Eliot was magnanimous in response to criticism. Most of the negative reactions to The Mill on the Floss were to the second half of the book--the suddenness with which the tragedies occurred, the relationship between Maggie and Stephen, the deus ex machina quality of the ending. In response, Eliot would agree that “the tragedy is not adequately prepared,” because she “was beguiled by love of [her] subject in the first two volumes,” so the rest of the novel suffered “a want of proportionate fullness.”
She also said that her primary purpose in writing the novel was to illuminate the struggle between generations and, though this was a major part of her own life, “in The Mill on the Floss, everything is softened, as compared with real life." Her own experience, she said, "was worse.” In looking back on her conflicts with her father, however, she blames her own youthful ignorance and egotism. Additionally, she was surprised to see that readers thought she didn’t like the Dodsons or Tom, as she was very fond of all characters, especially Tom--thus, though these characters were based on her brother and aunts, she was not trying to hold them up to public ridicule.
*Photo copyright Rischgitz/Getty Images "Tom and Maggie overwhelmed by the flood"