George Eliot and Warwickshire

Talk by Vivienne Wood of the George Eliot Society
0n the 10th October 2017

The Chairman, Trevor Humphreys, opened the meeting with four apologies for absence. He introduced the speaker, Vivienne Wood, Vice-Chair of the George Eliot Society. Members were given free copies of ‘Felix Holt’, donated by the Society to promote her works. Vivienne explained her mission – to bring the work of Mary Anne (her childhood name) to a modern audience. She had adapted ‘Felix Holt’ for the stage to help in this, and had successfully staged it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Mary Ann Evans was born in 1819, the daughter of the energetic and capable land agent at Arbury Hall. She was close to her father, who took her on a great variety of visits in the course of his business, getting to know the surrounding country well and meeting local people. Often she would be left in the charge of a housekeeper and servants, hearing news and gossip and forming the basis of a deep knowledge of the countryside, and of people in all stations of life. Vivienne directed us to page 7 of ‘Felix Holt’, where there is a most vivid description of both the north and the south of Warwickshire, the one deprived, the other prosperous.

In 1841 Robert Evans moved to Coventry, with Mary Ann as his housekeeper following the death of her mother. Here she met radical new friends like Charles Bray, and began to develop independent views, even refusing to go to church. Robert died in 1849, giving Mary Anne the opportunity to travel in Europe before moving to London to become Assistant Editor of the Westminster Review. Here she met radical, free-thinking people and fell in love with George Henry Lawes. They eloped to Weimar in Germany. Lawes was married, so for Marian, as she renamed herself, a life began as a social outcast. Her health suffered; Lawes, however, encouraged her to write, and this remarkable and intelligent woman produced eight novels. Six of these were set in the Midlands, for which she had a warm and lasting affection.

Vivienne was sad that not more had been done to promote George Eliot in North Warwickshire. However, she was hopeful that Coventry’s bid to be the next UK City of Culture might release funds to commemorate her; in fact there are also plans to dedicate part of the Nuneaton museum to her. Mary Ann’s childhood home is now a Premier Inn – but visitors from abroad love this and it does help to preserve the house!

Vivienne gave a vivid and complete picture of George Eliot’s life; she is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable promoter of this classic writer, who is now less widely read than in the past.

Claire Spivey thanked Vivienne warmly for her most interesting talk, which was part of the ‘Warwick Words’ History Festival.

Present – 55 members and visitors

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