Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)
Although from its first chapter the novel evolves towards the crises of Maggie's brief maturity, my focus here is on the two final Books of The Mill on the Floss. Book VI is called "The Great Temptation"; Book VII is called ''The Final Rescue". Taken together, these two Books can be read as an allegory of moral struggle and redemption.
The temptation itself is located in Paradise. Indeed, the first chapter of Book VI - ''The Great Temptation" - is entitled" A Duet in Paradise". In conjunction, the key titular words - "Temptation" and "Paradise" - conjure the Temptation in the Garden of Eden and supply the image of Eve's Tempter, who hovers behind Step hen' s role as Maggie's Tempter. Paradise is Lucy Deane's home, to which significantly George Eliot gives no other name.
The word "duet" in the chapter's title implies that Lucy's Paradise is to be musical. This is its essential quality if it is to offer joy to Maggie after her years of deprivation, for the power of sound to which she is highly susceptible is also for her a paramount sensory need. To this Paradise Maggie comes for rest and recovery after the grief of her father's Day of Reckoning. Before she arrives, though, we are presented with Stephen already very much at ease in Lucy's drawing-room, where the prominently-displayed piano stands open in readiness for the promised duet.
It is to the quality of Stephen's voice that Maggie is to be particularly susceptible. It is appropriate, therefore, that the reader should be given an early opportunity to appreciate that voice; and so we soon hear him sing. But what he sings is as integral to George Eliot's scheme as the resonance he brings to the recital. It is Adam's part in "Graceful Consort", from Haydn's ortario: The Creation. (Lucy of course sings Eve.) The anticipated duet is therefore not only performed in Paradise; it is about it. It expresses the mutual delight of (the still innocent) Adam and Eve, which in turn expresses the mutual delight of Stephen and Lucy.
In the oratorio, the duet is preceded introductory recitatives, first Adam's, and then Eve's. Stephen is particularly keen that Lucy should sing Eve's - "for the sake of the moral", he says.
"You will sing the whole duty of woman - 'And from obedience grows my pride and happiness.' " "Oh no, I shall not respect an Adam who drags the tempo, as you will,"
says Lucy - and goes straight into the duet. This is all very light-hearted, but the application to themselves is nevertheless intentional on George Eliot's part. The fact that Lucy evades her recitative means that, as Eve, she is absolved from offering Adam the following assurance of her servility:
o thou, for whom I am!
My help, my Shield, my all!
Thy will is law to me.
So God, our Lord, ordains,
And from obedience grows
My pride and happiness.
It is important that Lucy does not sing these words, for the Eve in her does not imply subjection. Her reign in Eden owes its rightfulness to the marriage of demeanour with place, not to the Will and Law of her Adam. She is to be grieved by his behaviour and her usurper's, not banished because of her own. She is to be wronged, not made abject. It was obviously equally important to George Eliot both to make Stephen's musical portrayal of Adam imperfect in some way, and to ensure that the nature of his imperfections didn't reflect on the quality of his voice - which is so crucially to influence Maggie.