Demolition and Conservation: George Eliot, Literary Tourism, and the Start of a Digital Project – Part 1

This post comes from Sarah Barnette, a DPhil candidate at Oxford University, currently researching mid-to-late 19th century conceptions of sympathy in the fiction of women writers. She is expected to complete her degree in 2016.

            I can see her now, with her hair over her shoulders, the easy chair half sideways to the fire, her feet over the arms, and a proof in her hands, in that dark room at the back of No. 142.[1]

In the early 1850s, George Eliot was living at 142 Strand, the London headquarters of the radical Westminster Review, working anonymously as its editor and flexing her muscles as a journalist. She was still known as Marian Evans at the time, and she hadn’t started to write fiction yet. William Hale White was a fledgling writer who also lived and worked out of No. 142 in the early 1850s, and we have him to thank for this evocative image of Marian sitting and reading by the low light of the fire in her room.

She occupied two dark, but very quiet rooms at the end of a long passage   which runs back from the front and at right angles to the street.[2]

White’s depictions of Marian are short, but enticing. And it’s interesting how he always carefully describes her within the walls of No. 142 – an address that had quite an avant-garde reputation. For White, who published these memories a few years after Eliot’s death in 1880, it was important that the public knew her not only as the illustrious respectable novelist, but also as a fierce intellectual who led an “entirely unconventional” life. “She was really one of the most sceptical, unusual creatures I ever knew,” White claims. He knew how essential placing Marian in the rooms of No. 142 was to his portrayal of her precocious and provocative side.

DSC_0700Unfortunately for the literary tourists among us, these dark rooms at the back of No. 142 no longer exist. They’ve gone the way of half a dozen other sites closely entwined with George Eliot’s identity – either razed completely or altered beyond recognition. Eliot was born as Mary Anne Evans in 1819 in Nuneaton, a small village near Coventry in the Midlands. And while we might assume Eliot’s hometown has preserved her legacy in a way comparable with Haworth for the Brontës or Stratford-upon-Avon for Shakespeare, this hasn’t quite been the case…

The Elms, where Eliot was schooled as a little girl from 1828 to 1832, was demolished in 1960 to make way for road widening, while the boarding school Eliot attended in Coventry from 1832 to 1835 is now a real-estate agency. Bird Grove, where Eliot lived with her father from 1841 to 1849, was recently serving the Bangladeshi community in Coventry as a cultural and job training centre – but now it sits unused and untended. Rosehill – the home of Eliot’s close friends the Brays and the place where she used to spend hours socializing, playing music and meeting influential figures of the day like Ralph Waldo Emerson – once sat within easy distance of Bird Grove. But this building was also knocked down.

It’s strange to think of how many places affiliated with Eliot’s personal history have been treated as if they’d had no Victorian celebrity affiliation at all. George Eliot has been a seminal figure in the annals of Victorian literature for decades. Today, nearly every English literature curriculum – worldwide – features something from her oeuvre. But, unlike the fans and students of Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, or the Brontës, Eliot-acolytes seem less interested in the spaces she once occupied, and the Midland landscape she loved. Why is this?

George Eliot was once told that she had “a very large brain,” and I wonder if somewhere along the line we decided to define her by this standard. She’s turned into an author to be enjoyed cerebrally – in the classroom under a studious and scrutinizing gaze – rather than an author associated with the pleasures of literary tourism. Eliot is well known for the lessons she gives her readers about how to sympathize with people. But I think there’s much more to her work than this interpersonal sympathy – she also explores sympathy as a link, forged in childhood, between person and place. Her fiction highlights the importance of meditating upon the creative influence and power of spaces, especially those associated with childhood memories. Such connections demand greater scrutiny, as the second installment of my blog post will explore next week.

For more information, keep an eye on this site and follow the George Eliot Fellowship’s Twitter account, @GeorgeEliotLove.

[1] W.H. White, “Literary Gossip,” Athenaeum, 28 November 1885, pp. 702.

[2] W.H. White, “Dr. John Chapman,” Athenaeum, 8 December 1894, pp. 790.


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