SELECTED SOJOURNS ON THE ISLE OF WIGHT

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:42

It was in Standard One at my first school that an otherwise uninteresting reader outlined a piece called Maggie Tulliver and the Gypsies – my introduction to the work of Mary Anne Evans who, to ensure her novels received wider acceptance, used the pseudonym George Eliot, and who, from time to time, came on holiday to the Isle of Wight – a fact brought to my notice by her letters from Niton to Sara Hennell and Charles L. Lewes in the Isle of Wight Bedside Anthology. Thirty years later I read The Mill on the Floss, the novel from which the extract was taken, and another forty-three years were to elapse before, after reading Gordon S. Haight’s excellent biography of the writer, I knew her to be, not only a superb novelist, but also one of the most remarkable women of her era.

In these days when we have female judges, scientists, and business executives, there is no doubt that women have the analytical and scholarly minds once thought to be a masculine prerogative. During the last century those that existed seldom were made public. Proof of George Eliot’s extraordinary mental powers was shown quite early in her writing life when she translated David Friedrich Strauss’ Das Leban Jesu (The Life of Jesus) – a commission executed for the radical politician, Joseph Parkes, who paid her twenty pounds for a task which took two years to complete, and entailed coping with 1,500 pages of German with Latin, Greek and Hebrew interpolations; the result being a book which we are told had in this country a profound influence on certain aspects of religious thought.

The quality of a good story may be assessed by its potentiality for other media, and those who have heard The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, and Silas Marner as radio serials, and have seen Silas Marner (1985) and the more recent TV production of Adam Bede, will appreciate George Eliot’s ability as a story-teller. In the latter the actress, Patsy Kensit, made a convincing Hetty Sorel, but after seeing the arch-seducer in Clarisse I thought Freddie Jones’ portrayal of the squire who led her astray lacked villainy. When interviewed, Giles Foster, the director of Adam Bede, said “Eliot wrote deceptively simple stories, full of duty, innocence, and prolonged mental anguish. She wrote about a precise world in terrific dialogue that can be cut and boiled down without damage.”

An investigation into the life of George Eliot reveals that, although she was christened Mary Anne, in 1837 she discarded the ‘e’, and influenced by her sojourn in Switzerland in 1850 she sometimes signed herself Marian. By 1880 she was again Mary Ann, but often, especially when writing to her friends, the Brays, using Pollian, the name, a play on the word Apollyon (the angel of destruction, or Destroyer), given to her by Sara Hennell. When in Geneva she occasionally called herself Marianne.

Born in 1819, George Eliot was the daughter of Robert Evans who, although the son of a carpenter, had become an efficient businessman engaged as the agent and overseer for Francis Parker, a descendant of the Newdigate-Newdegate family, employment which sent him to a farm near Astley Castle in Warwickshire. His first wife, Harriet Poynton, bore him Robert (1802), Frances Lucy (1805), and a third child who died in infancy. She herself died in 1809. Robert’s second marriage to Christiana Pearson in 1813 gave him Christiana, known as Chrissey (1814), Isaac Pearson (1816), Mary Anne (1819), and twin boys, William and Thomas who, in 1821, died at the age of ten days. Their mother died in 1836.

Wishing to give his daughter a good education, Robert started it at a nearby dame school run by a Mrs Moore. At five she joined her sister, Chrissey, at Miss Lathom’s boarding-school which was a few miles distant in Attleborough. In 1828 she entered Mrs Wallington’s boarding school in Nuneaton where, encouraged by Miss Maria Lewis, she learnt German, Italian, and Latin, read widely (her father willingly gave her money to buy books), played the piano, and painted in water-colours. Religion, too, played a significant part in her school life and unfortunately turned her into such an evangelical bigot that, after her schooldays were over, she would not go to theatres, condemned oratorios, and spent hours studying the Bible.

From Mrs Wallington’s school Mary Anne, aged thirteen, was transferred to a school in Coventry owned by Mary and Rebecca Franklin, the latter fluent in French after a year in Paris. While at school in Coventry Mary Anne was not forgotten by Maria Lewis who continued to influence her.

In addition to the school prizes she won, a preview of things to come was given in an essay that differentiated between affection and conceit, and which indicated a mind already capable of mature thoughts. Continuing to study after leaving school, at twenty she did astronomy, chemistry, entomology, geology, mathematics, and phrenology. At a ladies’ college she took a geometry course. In Switzerland a lecture on the magnetism of oxygen given by Faraday was attended.

Regarding George Eliot’s appearance, it has to be said that the adage about the incompatibility of beauty and brains applied. Portraits show a somewhat masculine face which Henry James described as having a low forehead, dull grey eyes (Georgiana Burne-Jones said they were clear and piercing, an American, John Fiske, thought them blue), a large pendulous nose, a huge mouth with bad, uneven teeth. Bret Harte, the Consul in Glasgow, pronounced them large and white. Early portraits show her brown hair coiffured into side ringlets which did not suit her. Later, when these were removed and side pieces like a bloodhound’s ears were added by the Marquise de St Germain during a visit to the Continent, her appearance was improved. Henry James, to compensate for his harsh criticism, spoke also of her sagacity, sweetness, dignity, frankness, a kind of remoteness, and a voice which captivated him.

A revelatory chalk drawing by Samuel Lawrence gives her a thoughtful face with full, sensual lips, a modicum of cruelty, and no indication of her undoubted sense of humour. Her paramour, George Henry Lewes, hated it, and it was given to the publisher, Blackwood, who kept it in his office where it remained until, after 1914, it disappeared. People who knew George Eliot as the charismatic, witty, and strong-minded woman (see her letters to Blackwood), who was admired by royalty and intellectuals, would not have recognised in her the shy and extremely sensitive child who would isolate herself at a party and, given the choice, would rather converse with adults than play with other children.

To be continued.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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