Sunday, October 31, 2010

The George Eliot Country

The Midland Plains
The region that George Eliot writes about is the English Midlands, more specially Warwickshire and Coventry. It is a calm and placid region which can boast of no towering peaks and wide open forests, but these Midland plains spoke to the novelist of ancient order and peace. It is a scenery of little ups and downs. George Eliot was very sensitive to the beauty of these Midland plains and never ceased to love them. Even to the last days of her life, she constantly turned her eyes longingly and lovingly towards the Midlands. This was so because her native country of Warwickshire was right in the heart of this region.

Picturesque and Wooded
When George Eliot first lifted up her childish eyes, the landscape which met her eye was undulating, well-wooded and picturesque. Says Parkinson, “Quite a feature of the scenery—and indeed of Warwickshire generally—is that the hedges are everywhere closely planted with trees, whose height, as well as the riotous wastefulness of the hedge-rose, give evidence of a kindly soil and climate.” At the back of the Griff house (her early home) there are flat fields which stretch all the way to the Griff pits. Through the fields are paths leading to the “round-pool,” the “rookery elms” and probably to the “Red Deeps,” where Maggie Tulliver secretly meets Philip Wakem. In her autobiographical poem Brother and Sister there are a number of allusions to her early home and the scenery around. We get an exact picture of the scene as it still exists round Griff house.
Use of Early Memories
When George Eliot was a girl she used to be taken out for a drive through the countryside by her father. They both enjoyed the drives and during these trips she observed the scenery which forms the background to her novels. Later she claimed that the alphabet through which she learned to read her native country, “was not within the boundaries of an ancestral park, but among the midland villages and markets, by the tree-studded hedge-rows, and where the heavy barges seem in the distance to float mysteriously among the bushes and the feathered grass. With her father, she visited Staffordshire and Derbyshire which were the scenes of activity of his early manhood. The background against which the drama of Adam Bede takes place is that of the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire; that of The Mill on the Floss is Lincolnshire; whilst Silas Marner, Felix Holt, and Middlemarch have Warwickshire landscape as their background.”
It was in Coventry that George Eliot went to school and gained lasting impressions of the landscape which is reproduced in her novels. Close to Nuneaton was George Eliot’s birthplace, and here she began her intimate acquaintance with farmers, villagers and other aspects of the life of rural England, which she later portrayed with all its colour and reality in her novels. It is in the English Midlands that a number of great men and great women of England have been born, centuries apart in time, but very close in space. “Thus, looking upon the same environment, George Eliot has rendered the same service for rural England in the days of Queen Victoria that Shakespeare did for the time of Queen Elizabeth—painting a never-to-be forgotten picture of life as it really was.”
The Warwickshire Scenery—Impact of Industrialisation
Warwickshire is a region, where as far as the eye can see, there are extensive tracts of flat-lying plains separated by ridges. Rivers, flow slowly between loamy banks. It is a region of heavy fallows; rank meadows and breezy uplands; of sweet lanes, with wide grassy margins and wild straggling hedges, everywhere closely planted with the oak and the ash, and where the holly runs riot and gives brightness even in winter; a comfortable looking country.” Travelling down a lane, one sees on either side hedges and grass borders. Beyond are farm-houses and cottages and on the wayside are villages. Northwards, a narrow strip between Coventry and Nuneaton, countryside is blackened with coal. Here industry and agriculture exist side by side. Coal has been mined at Cheverel Coton from the thirteenth century. The contrast between different scenes which George Eliot was familiar with in childhood has been vividly rendered by her in her introduction to Felix Holt: “In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another; after looking down on a village dirty with coal-dust, noisy with the shaking of looms, he might skirt a parish all of fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes; after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scenes of riots and trade-union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region, where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantage of near market for corn, cheese and hay.” George Eliot has, minutely and with a photographic memory, depicted the charms of this scenery. It is what a traveller in the days of horse-drawn coaches would have witnessed from the box-seat. She has painted as exquisite a picture in words as is to be found anywhere in English Literature. In a ride through Warwickshire beginning from the south, from Stratford-on-Avon, through Warwick, Coventry and Nuneaton, to the northern-most part of the country, one still sees all the different changes in scenery described by George Eliot and differences in life arising from agricultural, industrial and social conditions.
George Eliot regretted the changes in the countryside that took place with industrialisation but the beauty of the countryside she had seen in her youth became a part of her and is reflected in her works. In her novels the rivers, and lakes of this placid region, as well as the church towers, inns and the Gothic and palatial mansions of the country squires, and village schools, are all important landmarks. It is possible to identify most of the places in her early novels.
Churches and Other Landmarks
George Eliot was born on South Arbury Farm which stands within Arbury Park. Within a day’s walk from the farmhouse are all the places that have been made famous through her Scenes of Clerical Life. Less than a mile across the grassy park one can see the Arbury Hall, and the Cheverel Manor of ‘Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story.’ To the left, standing on hill, is Astley Church, the Knebley Church of the story. A mile to the east from Griff House is Stockingford, the Paddiford of ’Janet’s Repentance.’ The fictitious names of many other towns can easily be identified with their originals. A mile south of Nuneaton, the visitors can see the Shepperton Church, which is a small stone church. The story of, ‘Amos Barton’ opens with a description of this church and, in all essentials, the description still applies to it. It was in this church that Mary Ann Evans was baptised and it was this church she attended with her parents during their stay at Griff. It is no wonder she looks back at it so fondly. Nearby is the little vicarage and it was there that Milly fought her losing battle with poverty and sickness. The little vicarage is an old-fashioned house with a pretty garden. The Astley Church, the original of Knebley Church in ‘Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story’ is near the Arbury estate. But there is constant modification and transformation of reality. However, in essential details the originals remain the same and can easily be recognised. There is no falsification of reality.
The Inn
In her novels George Eliot describes quite a few inns. The description of the inns is given with care and the conversations are cleverly reported. The novelist probably heard her father reporting gossip he had heard at the inns, which he visited frequently, to his wife. She must have absorbed every word of it and hence we get in her novels some of the finest inn-scenes in the English language. The ‘Old Port Arms’ where Mr. Hackit presided over the annual dinner of the ‘Association for the Prosecution of Felons’ stands in the market-place of Nuneaton. Its real name is ‘Newdegate Arms.’ Close to the Newdegate Arms is The Bull Hotel which plays an important part in ‘Janet’s Repentance’ as the ‘Red Lion’ of Milby. In the second chapter of Adam Bede the traveller to Rosseter stops at ‘Dennithorne Arms’ which ‘stood at the entrance of the village of Hayslope.’ The original of the ‘Donnithorne Arms’ is the ‘Bromley Davenport Arms’ and it stands at the entrance of the village of Ellastone in Staffordshire. “The green lay at the extremity of the village, and from it the road branched off in two directions, one leading farther up the hill by the church, and the other winding gently toward the valley.” This is an exact description of the fork in the road just beyond the Bromley-Davenport Arms.    —(Charles Olcott)
The Mansions
The description of Donnithorne Chase in Adam Bede corresponds to the beautiful estate of Wootton Hall, not far from the village of Ellaston. Over hundred years ago it was owned by Sir Francis Newdegate whose son introduced Robert Evans to the old Squire and Robert Evans later became the Squire’s bailiff. This corresponds closely to the story in Adam Bede where Arthur Donnithorne makes Squire Donnithorne give the job of management of his lands to Adam Bede.
Robert Evans was born in a little cottage in Reston. Between the cottage and the village of Norbury was little brick cottage owned by the village school-master Bartle Massey. The name of Bartle Massey has been left unchanged in Adam Bede. It was to this cottage school that Robert Evans (Adam Bede) went to night school. George Eliot no doubt had heard of the goings on in the school from her father and she is able to give a vivid account of it in the novel.
The Setting: The Use She Makes of It
These landmarks play an important part in the novels of George Eliot. They appear and reappear in her novels and this imparts to them a rare continuity and organic wholeness. If a visitor visits the geographical scenes and places mentioned in the early novels he will find himself in familiar surrounding which have been so accurately described and only faintly disguised.
(a) Adam Bede
According to George Eliot the background of Adam Bede was based on family history and her father’s account of his background and not on her own: “As to my indebtedness to facts of locale, and personal history of a small kind, connected with Staffordshire and Derbyshire—you may imagine of what kind that is, when I tell you that I never remained in either of those counties more than a few days together, and of only two such visits have I more than a shadowy interrupted recollection. The details which I knew as facts and have made use of for my picture were gathered from such imperfect allusion and narrative as I heard from my fathers in his occasional talk about old times.” In other words, in Adam Bede the locale is imagined rather than intimate.
She uses rich descriptions in this novel to provide a credible setting and to bring out the individual character of the setting and places where her characters live and to which they are bound by family tradition, love, memory, work and affection. “Finally, George Eliot, uses landscape to define, reinforce and foreshadow the events of the plot and moral situation.” Some idea of her use of setting and background is provided by the opening scene in Jonathan Surge’s workshop, where we meet Adam Bede for the first time. There are countless other such scenes in the novel. We should not just pass them by merely as background material. The warmth of the sun, the scent of the pine-wood and elder-bushes, the light striking the shavings of wood, all help to create the sense of a calm, ordered existence. Such scenes form a concrete background for the human action that follows. “The atmosphere of sunny, harmonious, energetic rusticity is complicated, but not shattered, by the diversity of personalities and underlying tensions.”     —(Henry Auster)
Mrs. Poyser is the voice of rural tradition and community; her home, the Hall Farm, provides a background that illustrates her character vividly. The Hall Farm is the centre of orderliness, comfort, love, energy, security and peace of mind, which all other characters in the novel recognize except Hetty. Even Captain Arthur Donnithorne recognize The Hall Farm as a kind of local landmark and compliments Mrs. Poyser: “I think yours is the prettiest farm on the estate……I know this his (Mr. Poyser) farm is in better order than any other within ten miles of us; and as for the kitchen……I don’t believe there’s one in the kingdom to beat it.”
(b) The Mill on the Floss
George Eliot actually journeyed with a note-book in hand to a distant town to find a setting for The Mill on the Floss. She had to find a tidal river for the tragedy with which the story ends and knowing that such a catastrophic flood was impossible in Warwickshire, she transferred the scene to the country of Lincolnshire. In Lincolnshire where the Idle joins the Trent River near the town of Gainshborough, she found the suitable locale for her flood. The site of the Dorlcote Mill and the surrounding picturesque scenery of wooded lanes and the Red Deeps are drawn from Warwickshire. Dorlcote Mill is based on her memories of Arbury Hill, close by her birth place in Warwickshire. The old mill, the attic, the little round pool in her home at Griff all have been transplanted to Lincolnshire. The book opens with the introduction of an expansive landscape. We get an impression of a harmonious setting: “A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace. On this mighty tide the black ships—laden with the fresh-scented fir planks, with rounded sacks of oil bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal—are borne along to the town of St. Ogg’s, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river bank, tinging the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of this February sun. Far away on each hand stretch the rich pastures and the patches of dark earth, made ready for the seed of broad-leaved green crops, or touched already with the tint of the tender bladed autumn-sown corn.”
In the second paragraph the author moves closer to the Dorlcote Mill. The background recedes and the author focuses our attention on a little girl who is observing the mill with the same intensity as the author. “Now I can turn my eyes towards the mill again, and watch the unresting wheel sending out its jets of water. The girl is watching it too: she has been standing on just the same spot at the edge of the water ever/since I paused on the bridge.”
The centre of attention is Maggie, the mill and the water. It is significant that George Eliot called the novel The Mill on the Floss and not Maggie Tulliver. Maggie is no doubt the central human figure but the world she lives in is symbolized by the mill and the river. We are never far away from the river Floss for it controls to a large extent the lives and destinies of the characters. “Maggie’s destiny, then, is at present hidden, and we must wait for it to reveal itself like the course of an unmapped river. We only know that the river is full and rapid; and that for all rivers there is the same final home”. The river is with us right from the very first sentence of the novel: “A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide rushing to meet, it checks its passage with an impetuous embrace.”
It is on the river that Stephen teaches Maggie to row. It is on the river that Maggie commits the indiscreet act which alienates the brother and sister. It is the river which brings the estranged brother and sister together again in death.
(c) Silas Marner
The nature scenery in Silas Marner is a perfect and realistic picture of the English Midlands. Even though Raveloe cannot be located on the map, like Shepperton, Milby, Hayslope and St. Ogg’s, the background definitely belongs to Warwickshire. The description of Raveloe, which immediately follows a survey of the linen weaver, Silas Marner, is highly pregnant with meaning and hints. The first impression is that of a rural setting, which is fertile, comfortable, abundant, charming and pleasant. Gradually a note of irony is introduced by the narrator into the account and the writer is lightly scornful of the sloth and prodigality of certain big families. The alienated Silas Marner is a strange figure in these rural surroundings. The prosperous and congenial atmosphere of Raveloe is not able to wake up Silas from his apathy or comfort him.
(d) Middlemarch
The action of the novel takes place in Middlemarch or in the neighbouring parishes of Tipton, Lowick or Freshitt. The locale of Middlemarch has been left vague and indistinct, though it is generally identified with the town of Coventry in the Midlands. This is so because it is a novel about people and not about places or ideas. Says Robert Speaight “there are comparatively few passages of natural description, and these are generally relevant to the emotional mood. We remember the long alleys and melancholy trees of Lowick because they were the scenes of Dorothea’s disillusionment. But in general, we walk or drive from one modest red-brick house or one hospitable rectory to another, and only rarely drop at the local inn for the gossip which George Eliot, when she wanted to, could so liberally dispense.”
Middlemarch is a manufacturing town in the Midlands, probably Coventry; it is growing steadily in size and importance for in the suburbs one may still find an old, substantial farm such as that in which the Garths live. The inhabitants are very proud of belonging to the town, and suspicious of anyone who comes from outside it. The countryside which closely enfolds the town may seem too idealized but it is an essential part of the environment, for the estates of the wealthy stretch for miles on the outskirts and contain the neighbouring villages. The novel is largely set in country houses which, though not great mansions by standards of that time, are vast by ours.
George Eliot began her career with a loving attachment to the region in which her youth was passed. Her interest was in a particular locality—the English Midlands—which has a powerful pull on her imagination in the early novels, and she represents it with massive, wide-ranging detail, conjuring up a vivid sense of actual, concretely felt neighbourhood. The Midland setting and the orderliness of existence within it, provide her with the background against which the conflicts and dramas of human life take place. Even in the simplest of provincial situations, life is revealed clearly, wholly and in- depth. Even in her regional setting, “from time to time, dramas of a grandeur and intensity, truly Sophoclean, are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely knit interdependence of the lives therein.”
George Eliot’s vivid and charming accounts of the Midlands are missed in her later novels where the setting is more sophisticated and urban.

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