George Eliot collection
Who was George Eliot?
George Eliot was the pen name chosen by Mary Ann Evans, a Victorian writer. She chose a male pen name so that her works were taken seriously, in response to an 1856 essay she wrote for the Westminster Review, ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’. Middlemarch is her most famous book and the fictional Midlands town which gives the novel its name is thought to be based on Coventry.
George Eliot and Coventry
Mary Ann Evans was born in 1819 at South Farm, Arbury Hall, near Nuneaton. This was part of the Newdigate family’s estate which was managed by her father. In 1820 the family moved to the Griff, a home just outside Nuneaton. It is now a pub and hotel.
After attending school in Attleborough and Nuneaton she moved to the Misses Franklin’s school, Coventry in 1832. She remained there until the age of 15, excelling at English composition and winning the school prize for French. The school’s building, Nantglyn, still stands on Warwick Row by Greyfriars Green in the city centre.
Mary Ann’s mother died in 1836. This ended Eliot’s formal education as she returned to the family home to help her sister. She acted as housekeeper from 1837 until the age of 21, when her brother Isaac became estate manager for Arbury Hall. Mary Ann and her father then moved to Bird Grove in Foleshill. At this time Foleshill was a village near Coventry, but not yet part of the city.
Mary Ann became friends with philanthropists in the city, including Joseph Cash and Charles Bray, both ribbon manufacturers. She became part of the Rosehill Circle named after the Bray’s home on the Radford Road. The Rosehill Circle debated radical views for the time, for example some questioned the supernatural elements of the Bible. Mary Ann, who had been fiercely Christian, began to examine her own beliefs. This led to tension between herself and her father who was actively involved with Holy Trinity church.
Mary Ann was reconciled with her father and they lived together until his death in 1849. After the funeral she visited Switzerland with the Bray’s. She stayed on in Geneva on her own, living with the artist Durade. After leaving Switzerland she briefly stayed with family in Warwickshire but quickly moved to London where she began her literary career. She never lived in Warwickshire again, although its people and places feature strongly in her works.
What’s on display?
The Middlemarch section in the History Gallery has a range of items which were owned by Mary Ann, including a writing cabinet and a pair of kid leather gloves.
There is also a painting of Mary Ann Evans by Durade. It was copied by the artist in 1880 or 1881 from works painted in 1850, one of which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
The folding table on display was intricately carved with flowers and insects by Elma Stuart and given to Mary Ann. Elma began her correspondence with George Eliot in 1872 and she became very fond of Eliot, calling her ‘mother’. They wrote until Mary Ann’s death in 1880 and they are buried near to each other in Highgate East Cemetery.
Mary Ann was a keen piano player throughout most of her life. One of her pianos is on display in Connected. The grand piano was made by Broadwood and Sons and was finished on 25 July 1868. In 1869 the piano was bought by George Lewes, Eliot’s long term partner. Although Lewes could not divorce his first wife he and Eliot considered themselves as a married couple. The piano was bought on 22nd November, Mary Ann’s 50th birthday. The piano must have been in constant use as the manufacturer's records show the piano was moved to Mary Ann’s various homes in London and Surrey. It was also regulated, or maintained, in June 1878.
After the death of Lewes in November 1878 Eliot continued to write poetry. She found companionship in John Walter Cross, a much younger man. They were married in May 1880 and Broadwood's records state that Mrs Lewes was 'now Mrs John Cross'. They were married for only seven months as Eliot died 22 December 1880, aged 61.
What else is there in the Herbert?
There is a range of paintings, drawings and a few objects in storage, most of which relate to Mary Ann’s Coventry friends Cara Bray and Sara Hennell, including a note from Cara Bray’s sewing box which illustrates the kind of debates held in the Rosehill Circle. The box is on display in the History Gallery.
The History Centre’s reading room contains books about George Eliot and its special collection relating to George Eliot is available through the research room. This includes photographs, letters and other paper items, again most of which relate to Cara Bray and Sara Hennell.
Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery displays and stores a collection of objects relating to George Eliot. You can find out more about the locally held letters collection through their website.
The George Eliot Fellowship promote and celebrate the life and works of Mary Ann Evans.
George Eliot, a Life by Rosemary Ashton (Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1996)
George Eliot, Voice of a Century: a Biography by Frederick Karl (WW Norton, 1995)