A Casual Relationship?

In our second guest review from Stella Backhouse, she explores the relationship between JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and a George Eliot’s classic – and not the one that it is usually compared with. There are SPOILERS but both books are now long enough in publication to allow for that, I am sure! Over to Stella.


Surveying the wreckage that is the climax of her 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy – three year-old Robbie Weedon drowned in the river, his guilt-racked teenage sister Krystal dead from a lethal overdose – JK Rowling dryly observes that her unlikely heroine “had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them”. It was at that point that I realised that The Casual Vacancy is not, as most critics seem to have surmised, an attempted update of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Full marks for spotting Eliot as the inspiration – but the true source is a completely different novel: the one whose epitaph for a brother and sister washed away in the floods is “in their death they were not divided”. I’m talking, of course, about The Mill on the Floss.

I don’t know why this has apparently gone unnoticed – Google ‘Casual Vacancy Mill Floss’ and you’ll turn up virtually nothing. It may be that the panoramic portrayal of small-town life that characterises both Middlemarch and The Casual Vacancy is just too hard to ignore; it may be that while Middlemarch is, according to one reviewer, “worshipped by many literary liberals”, The Mill on the Floss, with its story of bright, fierce Maggie Tulliver’s sacrifice of her own happiness to the demands of her implacably controlling brother Tom seems out-of-step with modern womanhood. But is it really? Beyond the siblings’ immediate histories, the book’s wider theme, termed by Eliot “the shifting relation between passion and duty”, is still, in these days of global pandemic, burgeoning inequality and looming man-made climate catastrophe, urgently current. It’s exactly the question addressed by Rowling in The Casual Vacancy.

OK: the hundred-and-fifty-two years that separate the two novels inevitably mean shifts of focus. But from Maggie Tulliver’s struggle with her brother’s insistence that she do nothing to jeopardise his conception of family honour, to the middle-class inhabitants of Rowling’s pretty town of Pagford who agonise over the fate of The Fields, the run-down, crime-ridden sink estate on their doorstep, the questions are the same. How do we balance the selfish lures of lust, cravings, covetousness, scratching itches, self-preservation, animal instincts and the need to be loved with our responsibilities to civil society? How do we decide our priorities?

Rowling’s answers take a number of forms. One is acknowledgement of the past. Repenting of their elopement, Eliot’s Maggie asks Stephen Guest “If the past is not to bind us, where does duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment”. Unfortunately, as becomes clear in The Casual Vacancy, the past is open to interpretation. Pagford stalwarts Howard and Shirley Mollison and Barry Fairbrother all spring from unpromising backgrounds. But while Barry uses his past to help Krystal Weedon overcome similar disadvantages, Howard and Shirley prefer to deny theirs or – if they must face it – to claim it as a reason for casting off undeserving individuals who didn’t work as hard as they did. Howard would surely applaud Maggie’s Aunt Glegg’s horror of squandering money on “them as have had the same chance as me, only they’ve been wicked and wasteful”. 

Rowling counters the Mollisons by arguing that the past is so hopelessly jumbled that it makes us all one. Contemplating his two very different offspring, Eliot’s Jeremy Tulliver laments “as the lad should take after his mother’s side istead o’ the little wench. That’s the worst on’t wi’ the crossing o’ the breeds: you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t”. The Casual Vacancy brings the results of this speculation to fruition five or six generations later, by which time the Mollisons (Latin for ‘mill’: molendini) are Pagford’s First Family, the Tullys (quite possibly the Mollisons’ not-too-distant relations) are a byword for criminality, and the lines of inheritance from Eliot’s characters are so blurred and so tangled that everyone is now part of everyone else.

For instance: despite having a mini-me son and a (to his mind) problematic daughter, self-satisfied Howard Mollison is too much of an establishment figure to represent the aggrieved outsider Jeremy Tulliver. Instead, it’s chippy printer Simon Price, with his noisy workplace, isolated homestead and violent outbursts who most resembles Eliot’s litigious miller. Simon’s son Andrew, secretly in love with beautiful Gaia Bawden (Lucy), decides to get a job and stays loyal to his father despite being painfully aware of Simon’s failings – all of which augur kinship to Jeremy’s son Tom; but on the other hand, Andrew’s gentlemanliness, peanut allergy and chronic acne all add a dash of disabled artist Philip Wakem – whose ghost is also visible in Barry Fairbrother’s attempts to help Krystal achieve her potential. Elsewhere, trying to nick his mate’s girl frames Stuart Wall* as a Stephen Guest figure; but commitment-phobic lawyer Gavin Hughes is also Stephen Guest because he ends up losing both of the women he gets involved with.

All these points are amplified by the importance in The Casual Vacancy of twins and mirror-images, with characters from the town having opposite numbers on the council estate. Unhappy, unfeminine doctor’s daughter Sukhvinder Jawanda and desperate, ballsy Krystal Weedon, her life-chances cruelly circumscribed by factors beyond her control, are twinned because in different ways, their lives re-enact Maggie Tulliver’s. And – painful though it is for me to say this of one of Eliot’s most lovable creations – the entrepreneurial spirit of Bob Jakin lives on in both businessman Howard Mollison and scumbag drug dealer Obbo (who other ways too, are far more alike than they know). Those Pagfordians who want to cut off The Fields are precisely the ones who do not wish to hold up a mirror to themselves.

And it’s not just the characters who reflect each other; it’s also their habits. Even as the middle-classes shake their heads over the cost to taxpayers of drug dependency in The Fields, they unfailingly find ways to excuse their own damaging relationships with food: “Given that she spent nearly all her time trying to help other people” for example, it was hard for flabby diabetic Tessa Wall “to see muffins as so very naughty”. This double-think is brought screechingly into the open at a Parish Council meeting when GP Parminder Jawanda confronts the mountainously – and unrepentantly – obese Howard Mollison, angrily demanding if he knows “how many thousands of pounds you…have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?”

More unexpected perhaps, is the extent to which Rowling flags religion as a template for life. It has been noted elsewhere that Robbie Weedon’s last hours recall those of the abducted and murdered toddler James Bulger. This is certainly a conscious reference on Rowling’s part: earlier, Howard Mollison puts off dinner with son Miles “because we’re playing bridge with the Bulgens”. But it recalls too the parable of the Good Samaritan, mentioned near the end of The Mill on the Floss, and recounted, according to the Gospel of Luke, in response to the question “who is my neighbour?”. Though he is Howard’s rival, Miles and Samantha Mollison go to the aid of respectably middle-class bank manager Barry Fairbrother when he collapses at the golf club (and are hailed ‘good Samaritans’ by Howard for their trouble) – but it turns out not to have been the real test. The real test was not to pass by on the other side as grubby, unattractive Robbie Weedon wandered lost and frightened from road to riverbank.

Organised Christianity ultimately abandons Maggie Tulliver when sympathetic vicar Doctor Kenn can no longer tolerate the malicious gossip that swirls around his entirely blameless attempts to rehabilitate her. The removal of Robbie’s case from Kenn’s modern-day equivalent, social worker Kay Bawden, is one of the factors that triggers Krystal’s high-risk plan to keep her brother with her. But as the Weedon children’s funeral progresses under the watchful eye of St Michael, vanquisher of the Tempter-in-Chief, it’s clear that the thing that finally unites Maggie, Sukhvinder and Krystal – indissolubly and for ever – is their instinctive impulse to save whoever needs saving, irrespective of cost, irrespective of who they are. True, two of them wind up dead (which is a pretty big cost) but the third is a spectacular winner. Rescued from the water, Sukhvinder emerges like the Sikh religious leader Guru Nanak to do what no one else can: use her re-birth to bring together Pagford and the Fields – one people in common humanity.

*The paternity of Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall is the unexploded bomb of The Casual Vacancy. Adopted at birth, he knows only that his mother was a fourteen year-old girl who refused to say who got her pregnant. But though he seems to be “pre-eminently and uniquely himself”, in reality he’s as much a part of the family as everyone else. The text provides ample clues to the identity of his father.

Stella Backhouse