The Coventry Years

 

In 1841 Issac married and took over the family home and business at Griff.

26 Bird Grove  27 Bird Grove  Bird Grove now

Mary Ann and her father moved to Bird Grove in Foleshill, Coventry where she was quickly introduced to the intellectual circles of Coventry society.  She became particularly close to Charles and Cara Bray whose home Rosehill was a short distance away.

Charles Bray was a wealthy ribbon manufacturer, a progressive in politics and a philanthropist who used his wealth to set up schools and support hospitals in order to improve the social conditions of the poor.  Frequent visitors to Rosehill included Cara's brother and sister Sara and Charles Hennell as well as numerous philosophers and thinkers of the day. Bray, in his autobiography remembered with pride how Rosehill was a haven for radicals and intellectuals such as Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau and R.W. Emerson.  Mary Ann turned to writers and thinkers of the day such as Carlyle, Rousseau and perhaps, of great interest to readers of her novels, the French novelist George Sand, who made a huge impact on British readers in the 1840s.  For Mary Ann it was not Sand's iconoclasm or ideology but her ability in six pages to 'delineate human passion and its results with such truthfulness, such nicety of discrimination, such tragic power and such loving gentle humour' (Letters. Vol 1).  During those years the Brays may have also widened Mary Ann's horizons by showing her an alternative morality to that of her own strict family, for Charles Bray had a family with another woman.  Charles and Cara, who were childless, adopted one of his children and loved her dearly until her death at the age of nineteen from consumption.

Rosehill  28 Charles Bray

Marian (as she now called herself) felt she could no longer attend church, something which grieved her conventional father.  After some conflict a compromise was agreed, but she never returned to the unquestioning faith of her childhood. However her religious training had offered her radical visions of the rightness of conscience, of the importance of the individual and a model for expressing the spiritual power of women.  Women teachers like Maria Lewis and the Franklins were matched by women preachers like her own aunt Elizabeth on whom she was to base the Methodist preacher Dinah Morris in Adam Bede.

Marian could hold her own with any of the intellectual visitors to Rosehill.  An opportunity came for her to take on the task of translating from the German a hugely influential work of the day, Strauss' Life of Jesus (Das Leben Jesu), which questioned the miracles in the New Testament.  This translation took two years and the three volumes were published by the radical publisher John Chapman in 1846.  For her efforts she was paid £20 and her name was not even credited. This translation with its apparent attack on religion was to sever what remained of her friendship with Maria Lewis.

Also in 1846 Charles Bray bought The Coventry Herald and Observer and invited Marian to become his assistant.  She was to write many articles and book reviews for the paper (again, submitted anonymously) thus setting herself firmly on the path towards a career in writing. 

But the health of Robert Evans was failing. He was a demanding patient and Marian nursed him with patience and love, reading to him constantly. When he died on 30th May, 1849 she was exhausted emotionally and physically. To Charles Bray she declared that her father 'was the one strong deep love I have ever known'.  On the evening of his death she wrote: 'Where shall I be without my father? It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone'.

Five days after her father's funeral Charles and Cara Bray invited Marian to join them on a trip to Europe.  The Brays returned to England, but Marian remained behind in Geneva staying with M and Mme D'Albert Durade.     32 Durade  GE Durade 1

Francois d'Albert Durade was a fine painter, a gentle man who is believed to be the basis for the character Philip Wakem in The Mill on the Floss. The kindly understanding of Madame Durade and the invigorating conversation of their circle helped to heal Marian's heartbroken spirit. It is Durade's portrait of Marian Evans which is so frequently used for the cover of biographies of George Eliot and is used by the George Eliot Fellowship for its logo, from a copy of the portrait at The Herbert Museum & Art Gallery in Coventry, and reproduced with their permission.

Whilst at Geneva Marian must have realised that her future life would be away from Warwickshire and her family.  On her return to England when she visited Isaac at Griff she realised that they, in turn, had very little time for her: 'It was some envious demon that drove me across the Jura to come and see people who don't want me' (Letter to Sara Hennell).

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