More to her than meets the eye

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Clues to George Eliot's complex personality can be found in the haunts of her youth. Valerie Hall heads for rural Warwickshire What a mass of contradictions was George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans. The woman Henry James described as "magnificently ugly" and a "horse-faced bluestocking", yet who charmed him and others with the "powerful beauty" of her "admirable physiognomy" and "voice soft and rich". Contrast this with the sermonising, moralising novelist who rejected Christianity and whom Victorian society and her own family ostracised as a "whore" for living for years with a man not free to marry her.

Clues to her complex personality can be found by exploring the haunts of her youth in the Nuneaton area of Warwickshire. By her own admission, her childhood experiences strongly influenced her work, particularly her first novel, Scenes of Clerical Life, written when she was almost 40, and the semi-autobiographical The Mill on the Floss.

To attract student groups, Nuneaton and Bedworth Council has produced a guide to the A-level set text, The Mill on the Floss, costing Pounds 20. And, with its experience at running summer guided tours around "George Eliot country", the council can help to organise a tour itinerary, including the services of a George Eliot Fellowship guide.

I joined a tour being run for sixth-form students at Nuneaton's King Edward VI College, whose teacher Vivienne Wood wrote the council's pack. We were accompanied by Kathleen and Bill Adams, secretary and chairman of the George Eliot Fellowship, which they have built up over 30 years to 600 members worldwide.

At Nuneaton Museum, Mrs Adams outlined Eliot's history from her birth in 1819 at South Farm on the Arbury Hall estate to her life with George Henry Lewes at the heart of London intellectual circles. She touched on the re-pressed, puritanical atmosphere Eliot experienced as a child at Griff House until the age of 21, and of her "great need to love and be loved", particularly by her brother Isaac (paralleled in The Mill by Maggie's devotion to Tom).

In the George Eliot gallery, there is a reconstruction of her London drawing room from 1870. The large collection includes her piano and bureau, a faded blue silk dress, her mirrors and books.

Eliot's father was land agent for the Arbury Hall estate, the tour's next port of call. Here she had been allowed free access to the well-stocked library.

The hall, three miles from Nuneaton, has been home to the Newdigate family since 1586. Sir Roger Newdigate "gothicised" it in the late 18th century, a transformation mirrored in Mr Gilfil's Love Story, which describes how "Cheverel Manor was growing from ugliness into beauty". Eliot reveals a photographic memory, at 20 years' remove, of the saloon's elaborate tracery, "like petrified lacework", the dining room's "lofty groined ceiling, with its richly carved pendants . . . supported by pillars and arches", and its "full-length portraits of knights and dames in scarlet, white and gold".

The tour ended at Griff House, which was partly used as a model for Dorlcote Mill, a "comfortable dwelling house as old as the elms and chestnuts that shelter it", with its "great attic that ran under the old high-pitched roof . . . Maggie's favourite retreat on a wet day".

It remained Isaac Evans's home until he died and, although now a Beefeater Inn with Eliot themed areas, it retains its character externally and in the wood-panelled hallway and dining room, now a pool room.

Nearby is Gipsy Lane, where gipsies camped, inspiring the chapter in which Maggie runs away to join them.

Further on is Red Deeps (Griff Hollows in the novel), no longer the awesome place frequented by Maggie as a child, "visions of robbers and fierce animals haunting every hollow", or as an adult for her clandestine meetings under the Scots pines with Philip, son of her father's enemy, Lawyer Wakem.

Other places of interest include Chilvers Coton Church (Shepperton Church in Amos Barton), where the novelist was baptised and attended services and where her close family is buried, and Astley Church (Knebley Church in Mr Gilfil's Love Story), described as a "wonderful little church, with a checkered pavement which had once rung to the iron tread of military monks, with coats of arms on the lofty roof, marble warriors and their wives without noses . . . and the twelve apostles, with their heads very much on one side . . . painted in fresco on the walls".

To Amanpreet Sandhu, aged 17, "the tour is great because you can see why George Eliot portrayed life in The Mill in the way she did and get a better understanding of where she was coming from".

Hannah Dayman, also 17, adds: "We can relate different parts of the tour to her books and understand what it was like in those days. It has inspired me to read more."

The council is running a teachers' seminar in 1999; Pounds 40 including pack (outside Warwickshire), Pounds 25 (local). Details from Rose Selwyn, tel: 01203 376490.Arbury Hall, tel: 01203 382804. Student admission: Pounds 2.50George Eliot Fellowship, tel: 01203 592231

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