Nuneaton, a little town in the Midlands of England, may not be most people’s idea of a tourist spot. Yet, as I walked down its streets and avenues named after characters and places from the novels of George Eliot, they sprang to life all around me. I was transported into the ancient Victorian world in which she lived – a very traditional England with its strict moral codes; where according to Queen Victoria, women belonged to the “poor, feeble sex.”
Nuneaton in Warwickshire County is in itself a fitting memorial to the “first intellectual novelist” of England. She was born at South Farm on the Arbury Estates not far from Nuneaton, where her father was Manager. Christened Mary Ann, her birthday fell on 22nd November 1819, thirteen years after the owner of Arbury Estates, Sir Roger Newdigate died. Growing up on the Estate, she was permitted frequent forays into Arbury Hall through the good offices of a friendly housekeeper. What she gleaned from her observations and hearsay of this imposing personality went into her famous character Sir Christopher Cheveral in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story.”
The Arbury Estates are open to the public, and the fairytale loveliness of its interior, its art treasures, priceless antiques and paintings conjured up for me her noble house of fiction with its “architectural beauty like a cathedral.” The saloon with its glorious bay window, the stately dining room, the Cloisters decorated with trophies of arms and portraits of Royalty must have made a great impact on the impressionable young girl. She put them to good use in her novels.
Griff House where she grew up is now a busy hotel on the Nuneaton – Bedworth road.
I could imagine the horse and gig cantering down the road as Mr. Evans a land agent for several estates, went about his job with little Mary Ann for company. I tried to visualize Mary Ann hanging on to the Griff House gate, cheering with delight as the stage coaches “The Pea Green Tally-ho” and the “Yellow Independent” passed by.
Traveling from Nuneaton to Coventry I could identify the Red Deeps, a part of Griff Hollows, an area near the Coventry Canal, which is overgrown with trees, bushes and dense vegetation. Somewhere in this greenery was the rendezvous point where Maggie Tulliver met Phillip Wakem in “Mill on the Floss.” This book was largely autobiographical of George Eliot’s early life. Maggie Tulliver resembled the lonely, imaginative, restless Mary Ann, who lived out her tantrums in the attic, and during her angry spells drove nails into a wooden doll. She too like Maggie had a blind devotion to her brother Isaac, which was seldom reciprocated.
Chilvers Cotton Church on Avenue Road is not very far from the Nuneaton Market Place. Mary Ann was baptized here, and attended church for the first 21 years of her life. She had a restricted, narrow religious upbringing. In her “Scenes from Clerical Life,” this became the Shepperton Church.
The church was destroyed by an air attack in 1941. But it was rebuilt between 1946-47, and the original floor space of the old church was incorporated into the new one. On the north wall one can see an oval granite plaque which was unveiled in 1972, commemorating George Eliot’s association with the church. The Church Register, in which her baptismal entry was made, is now in the County Records Office at Warwick.
At the George Eliot Hospital, the wards are named after characters from her books-
Dorothea, Lygate, Tulliver, Poyser and so on. Yet to most people working at the hospital, George Eliot is a name like any other. Many don’t even know that she was a woman. The Grammar School which she attended in her childhood was destroyed during the war. It was here that she came under the influence of the Evangelical Mrs. Lewis. When she moved with her father to Foleshill in Coventry, her religious fervour increased, and she went about in ‘sack cloth and ashes’ so that not even the slightest flicker of vanity would besmirch her vision of eternity.
However, in Coventry, she soon came under the influence of philosophically inclined friends, who converted her into a rationalist for life. When her father threatened to disown her, Mary Ann challenged him.
“I wish to be among the ranks of that glorious crusade that is seeking to set Truth’s Holy Sepulchre free from a usurped dominion.”
Charles Bray a freethinker and a man who dabbled in Esoterica, had a great influence on her. But his interest was probably in the conformation of her skull as he was interested in Phrenology.
After the death of Robert Evans, Mary Ann was free to do as she pleased. The sight of a young girl mixing in male company made many a Victorian tongue wag in disapproval. She formed unwise and imprudent attachments to married men much older than her, and suffered many a heartbreak.
But it did not detract from her intelligence. Between 1851- 1853, she worked for the Westminster Review in London. The editor John Chapman found her services indispensable, though it caused a storm on his domestic front, and also with his jealous mistress.
Her friends were the literary elite of the day like Herbert Spencer, Carlyle, Francis Newman and others. Among them was George Henry Lewis a doctor, philosopher, writer, politician, but a married man, who became her live-in partner till he died. Though the world frowned upon such an arrangement, the couple considered it a singularly happy union. With his encouragement, Mary Ann became a prolific writer. If there had been no George Lewis there would not have been a George Eliot. ‘George’ was the name of Lewis, and ‘Eliot’ was a mouth-filling word. The pseudonym served two purposes. If her books were to be appreciated in such a highly patriarchal society, then her female identity had to be hidden. Also, as a “realistic story teller” she did not want to be clubbed with lady writers, who wrote ‘silly novels with trivial ridiculous plots.’
Her novels had their origins in childhood memories. Definite ethical views and morals were embodied in her books. There was a clear demarcation between right and wrong, and a moral obligation to follow what was right. As a novelist, she could be called a moralist, irrespective of her scandalous personal life.
After the death of George Lewis, she once again shocked her contemporaries by marrying John Cross who was twenty years her junior. Marriage at last restored her respectability. She died on 20th December 1880, and was buried beside Lewis at the Highgate Cemetery in London, an area reserved for religious dissenters.
It was only in 1980 in her centenary year, that a stone in her memory was unveiled at the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. On it were inscribed these words –
“The first condition of goodness is something to love,
The second is something to reverence.”
The George Eliot Memorial Garden is a good place to end one’s tour. It is sprawled over two acres of greenery, and is surrounded by places associated with her early life. It was opened to the public on May 1st, 1952. A blue granite obelisk that once stood in Arbury Park is installed here. It stands as a mark of respect and love to the woman who immortalized the little town of Nuneaton in her novels. Here people gather each year on her birth anniversary, to commemorate her life.
The Nuneaton Museum in the garden exhibits some of her personal possessions. The Library near by displays a collection of her manuscripts, photographs, books and original letters. Nuneaton should perhaps be christened ‘George Eliot Town’ in appreciation of the greatest ‘woman libber’ of the Victorian era.