Plans are afoot to bring three George Eliot collections in Warwickshire to a wider audience
In 2019 it will be 200 years since the birth of writer George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in Nuneaton, Warwickhsire.
Although she later moved to London to launch her literary career and write a suite of seven novels that cemented her reputation as one of the most important novelist of the Victorian era, her formative years were spent in Nuneaton and Coventry where her intellectual development and famously radical ideals were nurtured and formed.
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Now thanks to a partnership which has secured £119,711 from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, an 18 month project will work on three internationally important collections related to Eliot, and the people of Nuneaton and Coventry who influenced her, to bring them to a wider audience.
The funding will enable the appointment of a Project Officer who will lead on new research of all the collections and work with volunteers and staff to provide activities across the three organisations, which will provide new ways of people getting involved in Eliot’s story.
The collections are held by Nuneaton Museum, Warwickshire Libraries, Nuneaton and the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry – at the heart of what might be termed George Eliot country – and together they represent the largest collection of Eliot personalia and related items held publicly in the UK.
At Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, the collection encompasses everything from personal possessions and items of clothing to a street sign from Jerusalem and a recreated version of her drawing room. Many of them have strong local connections and fascinating stories to tell.
“Because some of her works were so personal we have got items relating to people who feature in her first book Scenes of Clerical Life,” says Catherine Nisbet, Museum & Arts Officer at Nunetaon Museum.
“It is scandalous really – there’s wife beating, alcoholism… She was really washing local people’s dirty linen in public – bearing in mind these were identifiable local characters, so we have quite a bit of material relating to people who were in that book.”
The Nuneaton Museum collection also includes material from one of her biographers, who donated one of her dresses and a little gypsy pendant. “We want to find out more about that because we think she bought it in Seville and it may have inspired the Spanish Gypsy poem,” adds Nisbet. “We also have a pair of her shoes, which are tiny, and some of the written material, although some of that is with our other partners who are involved in the project.”
One of those partners is the Herbert in Coventry, the city where Eliot is said to have developed some of her radical ideals as part of the Rosehill Circle – a talking shop of radicals and dissenters supported by local ribbon manufacturers Joseph Cash and Charles Bray. Here part of the haul of Eliot-related material can be seen in a Middlemarch section in the History Gallery.
The range of objects include a writing cabinet and a pair of kid leather gloves once owned by Eliot together with a portrait of her father, a copy of an Eliot portrait made by the artist Durade and a selection of correspondence from Eliot’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.
Back at Nuneaton the collection includes a portrait of Dante which was given to Eliot by Sir Frederick Burton who painted her portrait on June 29 1864.
“Some people said some very unkind things about her looks at the time,” says Nisbet, “so she was never very comfortable about sitting for portraits at all. But together with her husband she travelled around Italy with Burton and as well as painting her portrait, which now sits in the National Portrait Gallery, Burton presented her with this portrait of Dante.”
Eliot adored Dante and Burton’s portrait now sits in the recreated drawing room downstairs in the gallery.
“We get people from quite far afield visiting the museum,” adds Nisbet. There are a lot of devotees in America and in Japan and it’s not unusual for people to come on a pilgrimage from Japan to see her collection in the museum.”
“She used to go out on the cart with him and that gave her a unique way of seeing both classes and both ways of life.”
Eliot’s writing may have made her an international name but the local connection in Nuneaton and Coventry remains strong – and as well as a strong presence in the two museum and library collections there are several schools and buildings named after her.
“Her father Robert Evans (1773–1849) was a land agent for the Arbury Hall estate. Initially she was born in South Farm, which is a little cottage that still exists on the Arbury estate, but when she was less than a year-old they moved to Griff House and her father had his own adjacent farm and dairy which he worked in addition to being the land agent.
“So a lot of biographies will talk about how she was brought up to churn butter and be part of that rural lifestyle, but her father had a foot in both camps; he was dealing with the aristocracy and the well-to-do people of the area but he was also dealing with the people he was collecting rents from and with the manual labourers he employed on the Arbury estate.
“She used to go out on the cart with him when he was going about his business and that gave her a unique way of seeing both classes and both ways of life.”
These insights are now famously visible for all to read in her works from Mill on the Floss to Middlemarch and there are still parts of rural Warwickshire where you can get a sense of that rural way of life that Eliot describes, “although” adds Nisbet, “when she was writing she was describing an area around Nuneaton that had existed 40 years before, and which even then was being swept away by the time she was writing about it.
“When she moved to London and was writing there, she met George Henry Lewes but couldn’t marry him because he was already married and couldn’t obtain a divorce. That caused an estrangement with her brother so coming back to this area wasn’t something she could do.
“So there was a notion in her writing of her recreating a time and place that was closed to her at that point – there is a kind of wistfulness about her writing in some sense.”
But beyond her books the collections in Nuneaton and Coventry reveal the real Eliot – Mary Ann Evans.
She was also a lover of music and at the Herbert they have one of her pianos, whilst at Nuneaton a rare survivor from her early life (when she was still religious) is a manuscript book filled with her transcriptions of choral parts to certain pieces of music. One of the plans for the new project is to create a “wellbeing choir” that will explore this little known side to the famous author.
Similarly a textile project at Nunetaton Library will allow people to express their creativity in relation to the collection and Eliot’s life and beliefs.
“It’s about connecting new people to the story and making it relevant for young people in this area,” says Nesbit, “getting them to think about achieving something and exploring something they might want to do, because it was a struggle for her to get published and to build up that reputation. As a woman Eliot had to make her own way in the world through writing, which became her salvation.
“We believe that her radical life and the choices she made are revealed through our collections and can speak to local people, reflect their concerns and experiences and contribute to their wellbeing.”
With George Eliot’s bicentenary approaching in 2019 the people of Warwickshire and beyond are about to become re-acquainted with one of the county’s most famous daughters – given her struggles and her beliefs – it’s a project she would have undoubtedly approved of.
Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery
The Museum and Art Gallery is set in the beautiful Riversley Park and has three galleries which house regularly changing temporary and touring art exhibitions. We also have galleries devoted to permanent displays of local author George Eliot, local history and our fine art collection.
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum
We provide places for the people of Coventry and visitors to the City to meet, celebrate and explore their cultural and creative past, present and futures.