This guest 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.
As I’ve perused the Postcard Gallery, I’ve been astonished to see how each entry differs so vastly from the next – visiting literary sites is truly a complex and nuanced act. It can be a sign of respect or way of “entering into” an author’s experiences. It might be an attempt to conjure an author’s ghost or, surprisingly, it may entail a lesson in learning more about the people around us today. The writing of the author whose home we visit also colors our experiences, and in my view the work of George Eliot is particularly conducive to literary tourism.
George Eliot’s fiction acknowledges the intensity and value of our relationships with landscapes, buildings, and objects in a way that validates literary tourism as something more than a sentimental excursion into the past. Her work could even enhance our experiences of it. She writes in The Mill on the Floss:
There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality.
Due to a rift with her brother Isaac, Eliot wasn’t welcome home as an adult. Perhaps in part because of this, we see today how she regularly integrated her memories of the Midlands into her fiction. In his biography of Eliot, Gordon Haight touches on the constant ache Eliot must have felt as a kind of exile, and he hints at its powerful effect on her work:
Throughout thirty years in London her yearning for blue sky, orchards full of old trees and rough grass, hedgerow paths among endless fields, haunted her always. Wherever she travelled she would notice the slope of the land, the quality of the soil, the harvest. ‘I am always made happier by seeing well-cultivated land,’ she wrote…Of the scene so lovingly described in Middlemarch with little details that give each field a particular physiognomy, she wrote: ‘These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls – the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart, standing between their father’s knees, while he drove leisurely.’
Eliot used to accompany her father Robert Evans like this when he drove around conducting business. Robert was the agent of the Arbury Estate, the home of the local landowning family in Nuneaton, and here we find the brighter side to this story. As it turns out, not every place associated with Eliot’s early days has been lost or altered beyond recognition. Arbury Hall exists very much as it once did when Eliot’s father arrived in 1806. The vaulted ceilings and Gothicized interiors that Eliot saw as a child and remembered in her adulthood (she describes them in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story”) remain for today’s visitors to enjoy. South Farm, the place where the Evans family initially settled and where Eliot was born in 1819, still stands tranquilly along the side of a small lane that winds its way from the main gate of the Hall. South Farm is even occupied by the current estate agent and his family – an almost poetic detail linking Eliot’s “then” with our “now.” Nearby, the church where Eliot was baptized and the village school across the street that she once attended – Chilvers Coton Church and Chilvers Coton Centre – continue to serve the community. For those of us who may be disappointed with encroaching car parks and traffic whizzing past on busy streets, there’s another church nearby that Eliot also knew that still looks and feels very much like a country church. Astley Church lies outside Nuneaton’s urban sprawl. Instead of being bounded by asphalt, it sits adjacent some inviting fields and the recently renovated ruins of Astley Castle. A quiet churchyard rests in the shade of surrounding trees and the interior, which Eliot describes in “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” still looks as though the author might have just walked in to remind herself of some details for her story.
This past May my husband and I had a chance to explore these places with the George Eliot Fellowship, a literary society based in Nuneaton. Founded in 1930 to preserve and enhance Eliot’s memory, the Fellowship’s calendar of events includes an annual tour, and I was surprised (and delighted) by how enthralling the experience of roving around Eliot’s old stomping grounds actually was. The Fellowship’s Chair and Vice-Chair, John Burton and Vivienne Wood, have perfected the combination of reading from Eliot’s work while standing at the various sites she describes. As the day went on, the myriad ways in which Eliot revisited Nuneaton in her imagination and lovingly embedded it in her writing became clearer and clearer. I felt myself becoming more and more able to imagine and sympathize with Eliot’s struggles of not being able to return home.
The final stop of the tour was really its epicenter: Griff House, a red-brick Georgian-façade farmhouse that was Eliot’s home from 1820 to 1841, where she grew from a newborn infant into a young woman. The hospitality company Whitbread currently owns the property and they’ve made a few changes since Eliot’s time. Attached to the back of the house is a Premier Inn (a modern addition that thankfully isn’t visible if you approach Griff House from the front) and installed in the house’s ground floor is a Beefeater Restaurant. Perhaps not the ideal fate of George Eliot’s beloved childhood home, but since the farmhouse is now listed as a Grade II English Heritage site and Whitbread has ample funds for the building’s maintenance, the farmhouse is well looked after. The manager’s family even occupies its upper floors and so the place, fittingly, remains a home.
The farmhouse’s outbuildings are a different matter, however. The farmyard of Griff House was once extensive, but is now divided into two sides. Neither side has had much use over the years (bizarrely, one of the buildings straddles the dividing line between the two properties, with a brick wall cutting right across its middle). These outbuildings – once the life and breath of the farm – are rickety, ramshackle structures now, and the English Heritage listing doesn’t include them. So, in 2012 Whitbread requested their demolition.
Fortunately, the George Eliot Fellowship not only acted in time to save the outbuildings, but also secured permission from the local council to transform the dovecote into the George Eliot Heritage Centre. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing John and Vivienne eagerly share this success story – we walked all around the dovecote as they explained their plans to have a Heritage Centre that offers exhibition space, a reading room and library, and storage for the Fellowship’s archives. It was easy to see their warm enthusiasm about being able to welcome school students, scholars, historians, artists, and, of course, literary tourists to the Centre once it opens.
And they’re not the only ones excited to get started on this work and see the George Eliot Heritage Centre become a reality. As the conservation work drifts closer, Rebecca Mead and Kathryn Hughes have written articles nudging their readers in Nuneaton’s direction, siphoning attention away from the hubbub surrounding Michael Bloomberg’s recent purchase of Eliot’s London home in Chelsea and redirecting it northward.
My husband and I also wish to direct attention towards Nuneaton. We’re currently in the beginning stages of a digitization project related to this transformation. Once on-site work begins, we’ll be digitally documenting the development of the Centre, and as a part of this we plan to interview members of the George Eliot Fellowship, capture the tour experience, and talk with people in the local community who want to be a part of conserving cultural heritage sites. We hope to give some immediacy to the voices of today that are trying to preserve the legacy of George Eliot in concrete ways outside of her texts and beyond academia. Like the dark rooms hidden away at the back of No. 142 Strand, these places have a lot to offer in terms of telling parts of Eliot’s story, and there’s a chance that this visual project will encapsulate some of these lessons, while also encouraging literary tourists to come and experience these places for themselves.
For more information, keep an eye on this site and follow the George Eliot Fellowship’s Twitter account, @GeorgeEliotLove.
 G.S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography, Oxford: OUP, 1968, pp. 3-4. Quotation from Chapter 12 of Middlemarch.