George Eliot

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George Eliot's North Warwickshire, Warwickshire

Mary Ann Evans, the child born in a small village between Bedworth and Nuneaton, was to become George Eliot , one of the greatest English novelists. Though her fiction was produced long after she moved away from the haunts of her childhood and youth, the countryside and buildings of Warwickshire remained in her imagination throughout her productive life. Indeed, in her early works some of the places and people depicted, albeit under different names, were so easily recognizable that they caused a local brouhaha, the hidden authorís true persona much speculated upon. And the changing nature of the town and landscape of her early days as the country industrialized provided one of the great recurring themes of her books.
The place to begin an exploration of Eliotís Warwickshire is the house where she lived from the age of four months until she was 21, Griff House. Then it was a farmhouse provided to her father as land agent and manager for the Arbury Estate. Now, conveniently, it is a hotel, in fact a Premier Inn with Beefeater attached. The decor is accordingly much changed, but it takes little imagination to recreate a vision of the authorís childhood home.
Arbury Estate , with its decidedly grand gothic main house, is private, but opens to the public on the Sundays and Mondays of summer bank holiday weekends, and for special visits arranged via the George Eliot Fellowship. This was the home of her fatherís employer, and a place but thinly disguised as Cheverel Manor in Mr Gilfilís Love Story from Scenes of Clerical Life. South Farm where she was born (now Arbury Farm) is part of the estate, and off limits as a working farm and residence. The mill a mile or so away perhaps gave the young Mary Ann an insight into how such places operated, and The Mill on the Floss may have benefited from this, but the house in the novel owes far more to Griff House, and the mill itself to a place in Gainsborough , Lincolnshire.
Some of Eliotís greatest characterisations are of clerics Ė Edgar Tryan, Maynard Gilfil, and Mr Crewe for example Ė and accordingly some of the places most closely associated with both her life and her writings are churches in North Warwickshire.
Mary Ann Evans was baptized at Chilvers Coton Church , in a settlement once entirely separate from Nuneaton but now embraced by it. The church was important to her family as their place of worship, and her mother, father and various siblings are buried in the churchyard. The structure was badly damaged by the Luftwaffe, but its tower is largely as Eliot would have known it.
The 14th century Collegiate Church of St Mary the Virgin in Astley, a mile or so south west of Nuneaton, was another place she knew well, using it as the model for Knebley Church in Scenes; a short stroll away the ruined castle provided similar inspiration for Knebley Abbey.
Heading into Nuneaton from Astley you pass through Stockingford, whose church features in Janetís Repentance, the settlement thinly disguised as Paddiford Common; and Nuneatonís own church of St Nicolas is Milby Church in Eliotís writings.
Nuneaton itself offers several sites of great interest within a relatively small area: there is a memorial gardens dedicated to the author; the local library has a fine collection of her works, various documents, and facsimiles of letters. Likewise the townís museum and gallery has recreated a room of her time there, and houses items owned by her. If all the site-seeing is proving thirsty work a logical stop is in Bridge Street at what was in Eliotís time The Bull, depicted by her as The Red Lion, and for the last couple of decades renamed in her honour as the George Eliot Ė though a bit more self-control than Dempster exhibited here is just as well.
With her father travelling the district in his estate work, Mary Ann often went with him in his gig, so a motor tour of the area is well worthwhile, getting a flavour of the country with its canals and villages; and she made special visits to the lovely Kenilworth and Leamington , which both offer a closer look at the world of her day than the much rebuilt Coventry . She lived in that city for a time and it provided details for Middlemarch and Felix Holt; the house her father retired to, Bird Grove now in George Eliot Road, still exists; as does Nantglyn, one of her schools (three others no longer stand), though it is now an estate agents.
Eliot wrote about a changing world, but the bones of her own world remain and are easily unearthed. And even for those with just a passing interest in Eliot North Warwickshire merits a visit.

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