Tuesday, 2 April 2013

George Eliot and Staffordshire

Warwickshire has claim as the home of Mary Ann Evans better known to posterity as George Eliot. She took a male name because she remained very sensitive to criticism. She was anxious to avoid being patronised as a woman writer and followed the example of the Bronte’s in using a male pseudonym.

 Her family roots however lie in Warwickshire and particularly Nuneaton her birthplace and Coventry which had a strong impact on her early development, but it is Ellastone on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire which proved the inspiration for her first novel Adam Bede published in 1859. The village and the association with someone who has a very strong claim as Britain’s first modern novelist has proved popular with the tourist board covering the Peak Park Authority who is strongly promoting the link. Ellastone is beautifully situated under the brow of the Weaver Hills and the attractiveness of the countryside captivated the novelist who gave the name of Hayslope to Ellastone.

The rich undulating district of Loamshire(Staffordshire) to which Hayslope belonged lies close to the grim outskirts of Stoneyshire (Derbyshire) overlooked by barren hills as a pretty blooming sister may sometimes be seen linked in the arm of a rugged, tall, swarthy brother; and in two hours ride the traveller might exchange a bleak treeless region, intersected by lines of cold grey stone, for one where his road wound under the shelter of woods, or up swelling hills, muffled with hedgerows and long-meadow grass and thick corn; and where at every turn he came past fine old country seats nestled in the valley or crowning the slope.

Adam Bede is a country novel which chronicles the lives of villagers in the North Midlands at the beginning of the 19th century, a way of life which would rapidly disappear. The principle character Bede is a carpenter based on Eliot’s own father a highly principled individual who is in love with Hetty Sorrel the high spirited niece of Farmer Poyser. She is seduced by the young squire and becomes pregnant. The young woman is abandoned and hurriedly leaves the area. Hetty is later charged with the murder of the child. The young Methodist preacher Dinah Morris spends a great deal of time at Hetty’s side as she is convicted and sentenced to death. Hetty is reprieved and transported to Australia while Adam forges a new relationship with Dinah.

The central figure is the carpenter who is based on Robert Evans the father of the novelist who had a strong sense of honour and work ethic. He remained an unwavering Tory throughout his life and his strong personality would later clash with her equally strong willed daughter. She was full of admiration for him

He had large knowledge of building, of mines, of plantations, of various branches of valuation and measurement, of all that is essential to the management of large estates.

 She clearly showed an interest in his work as the scene in the carpenters was always admired as being an accurate portrayal of the profession. The central theme of the novel the fate of Hetty was a result of a conversation that Eliot had with her Aunt a Methodist preacher Elizabeth Tomlinson who ministered to and befriended a young woman Mary Voce who murdered her illegitimate child and was hanged in Nottingham in 1804.

 The fate of young working class women who bore children out of wedlock was frequently a grim one as they faced the opprobrium of a moralising society.

   The judgement of society is something that women who found themselves in this situation continued to face throughout the 19th century. In the decade of Eliot’s death in 1886 there is a report in a local paper of a young woman in Sheen Mary Lomas a domestic servant who died after an attempt to conceal a pregnancy neither mother or child survived. Earlier in the century in 1859 Sarah Middleton of Flash dies in a field in an advanced state of pregnancy. The voice of the working class woman who is suffering from poverty is rarely heard ,but occasionally it comes through.

 There exists an unusual archive of a series of letters written by Ellen Parker born in 1790 in Alton a pauper who wrote to the authorities in Staffordshire as she was bringing up a number of children following the death of her husband, The response of authority is at first caring but when she becomes pregnant with a sixth child following a brief relationship the attitude to her shifts. She moves from the category of deserving poor into the category of undeserving. The pressure and obloquy that women who were in this situation faced caused some to resort to desperate measures which was the case with Voce.

Elizabeth Tomlinson appears from biographies of Eliot to be saintly women who preached throughout Staffordshire and Derbyshire and it is thought that she preached in the open air on the green at Ellastone. Her fame travelled far and Queen Victoria had a picture of Tomlinson wearing a distinctive Quaker bonnet.

 Many of Eliot’s family lie buried in the area. Her grandparents lie in Norbury Church over the River Dove. The church is said to contain examples of woodwork by Robert Evans who learnt his trade in the area. She was taken to the area on several occasions by her father and a lengthy visit happened in 1839/40 where she gathered information which she used in her book twenty years later. A letter published in an 1888 biography of Eliot sets out a journey that Eliot made in 1839 when she was staying with her Staffordshire relatives.

Ashbourne Church, the finest mere parish church in the kingdom- in the interior; of Alton Gardens where I saw actually what I had often seen mentally- the bread fruit- in the interior; of the fan palm and the papyrus; and of last Lichfield cathedral.

In the novel Eliot also uses local names such as Poyser a number of who still appear in the Staffs Moorlands telephone directory and Maskery. She describes with a great deal of detail the lives of the peasantry knowing that the country in the period that the novel was set was poised on the brink of great change.

Those old women scraping carrots with their work worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dinghy pot house, those round backs and stupid weather beaten faces that have bent over a spade and done the rough work of the world- those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their cluster of onions. 

A one point in the narrative even oatcakes are mentioned

When she published the novel she was criticised for including the dialect and accent of Staffordshire and it was suggested that she change it along with the distasteful scene and for its time revolutionary of Hetty giving birth in a field should be changed.

I would rather have my teeth drawn than part with either.

She also alters the names of local place names in the book so that The Weaver Hills become the Binton Hills, Eagledale is Dovedale, Oakthorpe became Ashbourne and Wotton Park Donnithorne Chase. Local characters also appear in the novel a well remembered and loved Vicar George Hake becomes Aldophous Irwine in the novel.

The book was published in 1859 and was well received right from the beginning the write Charles Reade called it the “finest thing since Shakespeare”. Charles Dickens equally was enthusiastic Adam Bede has taken its place among the actual experiences of my life. In Russia Tolstoy approved of the novel. 1859 was a bumper year as far as publications of ground breaking books was concerned apart from “Adam Bede, it was the year of the publication of John Stuart Mills On Liberty and another book with strong Staffordshire connections The Origin of Species. Eliot had a strong interest in the natural sciences and was aware that the old certainties of faith were under strain an assertion that is reflected in her work especially in  her first novel.

But in Adam Bede Eliot portrayed men and women with their struggles and sufferings. The characters are rooted in a time and in a place in Staffordshire which provided of one of the finest novels of the Victorian period.