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George Eliot, Coventry and St. Mary’s Guildhall

June 13, 2023
Author: Chris Harris, Volunteer Blogger.

Chris Harris, Volunteer Blogger.

The novelist, George Eliot, was born Mary Anne Evans in November 1819 on the outskirts of Nuneaton, about 10 miles from Coventry. Her father, Robert, was estate manager for the Newdigate family of Arbury Hall.[1]

Mary Anne attended Nant Glyn school in Coventry from 1832. The school’s principals were the Franklin sisters, daughters of a well-known minister.[2] The school was in Warwick Row, close to the city centre, in a building now housing Loveitt’s Estate Agency. A commemorative plaque is visible here.[3]

Mary Anne was an excellent pupil and experienced a broad education at Nant Glyn, including learning to read French and Italian.[4] She studied there until late 1835, when her mother’s illness forced her back to the family home at Griff House, Nuneaton. Her mother died in early 1836.

In 1841, Mary Ann (as now known, she dropped the ‘e’ in 1837), moved with her father to live at Bird Grove in Foleshill (present day George Eliot Road).[5] Her brother, Isaac, took over Griff House and management of the estate at Arbury Hall.

Soon after moving to Foleshill, Mary Ann (or now, Marian)[6] became acquainted with Charles Bray and his wife, Cara. Bray was a charismatic, prosperous ribbon manufacturer and radical thinker.[7] Under the influence of the Brays and others (centred on the Brays’ home at Rosehill, Radford Road), Mary Ann pursued the next stage of her intellectual development and, significantly, renounced her previously devout Christian faith. [8]

This led to a brief period of conflict with her father, who had become strongly associated with Holy Trinity Church, in the centre of Coventry. Mary Ann refused to go to church with her father for several weeks in 1842 but reached a compromise whereby she agreed to attend Holy Trinity with him, while keeping her pursuit of free-thinking to herself.[9] A plaque in Holy Trinity marks her attendance there until her father’s death (1849).

During her years in Coventry from 1841-49, it seems that Mary Ann would have been familiar with St Mary’s Guildhall, close to Holy Trinity. In the 1800s, one of the uses of St Mary’s was as a city court [10] and it is likely that Mary Ann attended proceedings here – and drew on experience for the court scene in her first novel, Adam Bede (1859).

Here, Hetty Sorrel –  the beautiful, naive, but ultimately tragic dairy maid of Adam’s affection, is tried and convicted of infanticide.

In has been reported that Mary Anne’s aunt, Elizabeth Evans, told her nineteen-year-old niece the story of her visit to a young woman in prison, condemned for the murder of her new-born child. [11]Twenty years later, Hetty suffers the same fate in the novel (before she is spared the gallows, unlike the young woman from Elizabeth’s account).

The Great Hall can be recognised in the description of the courtroom for Hetty’s trial:

‘The place fitted up that day as a court of justice was a grand old hall…The mid-day light …was shed through a line of high pointed windows, variegated with the mellow tints of old painted glass. Grim dusty armour hung in high relief in front of the dark oaken gallery at the farther end; and under the broad arch of the great mullioned window opposite, was spread a curtain of old tapestry, covered with dim melancholy figures, like a dozing indistinct dream of the past. It was a place that through the rest of the year was haunted with the shadowy memories of old kings and queens, unhappy, discrowned, imprisoned…’[12]

Adam Bede was an instant success. Eliot’s reputation grew over the next twenty years through the publication of her later novels, including Middlemarch (1871-72). For many, Middlemarch is George Eliot’s best work, and it is believed the fictional Midlands town at the heart of the novel is based on Victorian Coventry.[13]

Sixty years after the publication of Adam Bede, for the centenary of George Eliot’s birth in 1919, an exhibition of ‘Relics, Manuscripts, Prints, Paintings, Photographs & Books relating to George Eliot’, organised by Coventry City Council, was appropriately held in the Muniment Room at St Mary’s. [14]

The exhibition was billed as having ‘special reference to George Eliot’s residence in Coventry, and to the Coventry circle of which she was the most distinguished member’. [15]

Image taken by Christopher Day, Volunteer Photographer.


Sources

Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Eliot

Eliot, George, Adam Bede, 1859

Exploring Eliot, https://exploringeliot.org/

The George Eliot Fellowship, https://georgeeliot.org/

Herbert Art Gallery and Museum – George Eliot Collection, https://www.theherbert.org/collections/social_and_industrial_history/13/george_eliot_collection

Maddox, Brenda, George Eliot, Novelist, Lover, Wife, 2009

Materials on Display, St. Mary’s Guildhall, Bayley Lane, Coventry

Our Warwickshire: Coventry Photographic Society Celebrates George Eliot’s Bicentenary, https://www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/george-eliots-bicentenary-as-shown-by-the-coventry-photographic-society

Our Warwickshire: George Eliot – Letter To A Female Friend, https://www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/george-eliot

The Project Gutenberg eBook of George Eliot Centenary, November 1919, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/30959/pg30959-images.html

Warwickshire County Council: Middlemarch and beyond, https://visit.warwickshire.gov.uk/georgeeliot

Footnotes

[[1] https://georgeeliot.org/george-eliot/lifestory/10-childhood

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/george-eliots-bicentenary-as-shown-by-the-coventry-photographic-society

[4] https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Eliot

[5] https://www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/george-eliots-bicentenary-as-shown-by-the-coventry-photographic-society ; https://exploringeliot.org/stories/whats-in-a-name/

[6] https://georgeeliot.org/george-eliot/lifestory/48-the-coventry-years

[7] https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Eliot

[8] https://www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/george-eliot

[9] Brenda Maddox, George Eliot, Novelist, Lover, Wife, 2009, pages 25-27 [1]St Mary’s Guildhall display materials, Muniment Room, St. Mary’s Guildhall

[10] Brenda Maddox, George Eliot, Novelist, Lover, Wife, 2009, page 19

[11] George Eliot, Adam Bede, First Published 1859, Penguin Edition 1980, page 476

[12] https://visit.warwickshire.gov.uk/georgeeliot

[13] https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/30959/pg30959-images.html;

[14] https://www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/george-eliots-bicentenary-as-shown-by-the-coventry-photographic-society

[15] https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/30959/pg30959-images.html

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