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The George Eliot Fellowship


George Eliot in my Life

This essay by Kay Farndon is a lovely example of the sort of material that we want to collect  for the George Eliot Visitor Centre. There are many people locally who have stories to tell about how George Eliot has affected their lives, or those of their parents, grandparents or distant relatives. They all contribute to the rich local associations that still exist in the area.

George Eliot in my Life

By Kay Farndon

I was around eleven years old when George Eliot unexpectedly entered my life.

During the daily round of events within my childhood, were trips into Nuneaton, either courtesy of the Midland Red coaches, or my father’s Rover car.  I much preferred the bus, as I was higher up and could see more and most importantly I had a much better view of the ‘castle’!  As you approached the junction of  Bulkington Lane and Lutterworth Road at Whitestone,  just as you  turned left, there was a large house with a stone wall running around it. I now know this was Quarry House, demolished in 1958 for what was deemed the improvement of the area and the castle was really a small turret, sat atop the wall.

My vivid imagination, usually getting me into bother with grown-ups, led me to imagine many things about this small structure. It could have held Rapunzel, who let down her hair so her Prince could climb up and rescue her. Perhaps it was where the Sleeping Beauty had slept for a hundred years after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel? My theories were endless and in reality bound to stay firmly within my imagination.

Then the unbelievable happened and I found myself and the friends I played with, in their father’s car on our way to visit one of their grandfathers.  When the car stopped at this house and we all got out and went inside, I think that I almost stopped breathing! We said our hello’s to grandfather and were then told to go outside and play.  I remember trees and little else, as suddenly one of the girls shouted,

‘Come on Kay, you   must come and see the tower, because this is where the famous author George Eliot used to come and write stories’.

Suddenly, I was up some steps and inside and looking outwards and to my sadness, all these years later, I cannot recall what the vista had been, but more than likely a view over farmland.  I know the room was small and empty and anyway, who on earth was George Eliot, I’d never heard of him? 

I was around three or four years old when we came to live in Bulkington, due to my Father’s relocation of his job, so my parents, from rural Lincolnshire, would probably know nothing of the history of the area.  During my entire school life George Eliot never entered any lesson, English or otherwise, but I feel certain that I would have related that particular day’s episode to my Mother at the time. I got the reading bug from my Mother and every birthday and Christmas there would be a book to unwrap and often devour at one sitting. 

When I was seventeen I had a book for Christmas entitled, ‘Silas Marner & other stories’.  I asked Mum why she had chosen that particular book and I have a feeling her answer was that she felt I was old enough to read and understand it. However, I struggled at first and several times I never managed to get through the first chapter and I have often thought that George Eliot, like Charles Dickens, may have written stories about children, but they certainly never wrote stories intended to be read by children, or in my case, a young adult making forays into serious literature.

I now knew a bit more about George Eliot and that he was a she: was it short for Georgina, I wondered then?  Had her parents wanted a boy and when a daughter turned up did they just give her the feminine counterpart of the boy’s name George?

 Gradually as I came to learn more about George Eliot, I now realise that my mother, always on a learning curve, had done her research and had probably chosen that book mainly for the tale of ‘Silas Marner’, as the village of Raveloe is supposedly based on the village of Bulkington.  I think Mum probably knew that, as she had an enquiring mind and would have wanted to learn about the area in which she would spend the remainder of her life.

After years of progressing from Louisa May Alcott, Susan Coolidge, L.M. Montgomery and adult authors, including Agatha Christie and more light reading obtained from the local library, I finally read ‘Silas Marner’ and when I almost reached the end of the story for the first time, I was blown away when they found the squire’s son in the quarry and actually exclaimed out loud, ‘Well, I’d forgotten all about that’ and realised that there is never a dull moment in any of her books.

By this time I was reading as much as I could about George Eliot, always wanting to know more about this local author. I questioned locals and one lady, born in 1917 and who had gone to the Old Central School for Girls in Bedworth, told me that they had been taught that Silas Marner was based on a real hermit- like man, who lived in a stone hovel at a place in Collycroft called Bottom River. She told me that a small brook ran under a bridge past the turnings to Hill Street on the left and Orchard Street on the right, when leaving Bedworth for Nuneaton. More poignantly she said that the area was nicknamed Raveloe, which was what George Eliot called her fictional village, but this lady had no idea why it had that name.  When I asked her if she had read ‘Silas Marner’ she replied in the negative and said that George Eliot was kept alive by Canon Evans, who was George Eliot’s nephew and the town rector. So I can only wonder at where she had picked up the name of Raveloe?

My ‘Silas Marner’ book also contains ‘The Lifted Veil’, ‘Brother Jacob’ and a selection of George Eliot’s poems and I have read and re-read them over the years.

During the 1970’s a lady called Mary Ashmore, who was a great local historian, had lived in Bulkington as a child and had immersed herself in researching this area and began to write about Bulkington and her work was published as a series of articles in one of the local newspapers. Eventually they were printed up as small booklets. This fascinated me, particularly as I was now married and living in a house which had been built on the foundations of a farm, which had belonged to my husband’s grand-father and where, so Mary Ashmore told us, she had also lived as a child and referred to is as, ‘the farm up the steps’ as there were steps up to the door. .

 I contacted her and she came and spent an afternoon with me and my husband, who was more than interested in her reminiscences. Mary was well versed on the subject of George Eliot and she told me that George Eliot would have been more than familiar with Bulkington, as she would have made trips to the village with her father when he came to collect money from farms, which came under the auspices of Arbury Hall.   I have never been able to verify this, but it is certainly within the bounds of possibility, as they would have had farms in the district under their ownership. As her father Robert Evans was the estate manager at Arbury Hall, he had varied duties and would have travelled to all the villages around Nuneaton, and Bulkington would definitely have been on his list. He was much respected and was often called in to assist with all types of farm related problems by other farmers.

I would share my story of Quarry House with anyone who would listen, but I always felt that it was viewed with suspicion, as no-one else had ever heard  of  this. Then, I unexpectedly had a phone call from a Nuneaton man, who re-assured me he also knew of this and that he had heard the story from more than one source, which caused both of us to wonder exactly where the reminiscence had originated? I was pleased, as it verified my own memories.

The local paper often had little snippets about George Eliot and people would write in with questions, so I decided to do the same. I wrote to the local newspaper, in letter form, about my story of Quarry House, hoping that another reader would respond. However, on the newspaper’s staff was someone who thought they could get either an article of their own, or perhaps more response from readers and instead of publishing my letter they rewrote it as an article, which was full of inconsistencies and I will never forget the beginning:

‘When Kay Farndon used to visit her grandfather, who lived at Quarry House... ‘What?’  I screamed.

The following day as I left my house I was accosted by a neighbour who said, ‘Your grandfather never lived at Quarry House!’  Well, of course it wasn’t my grandfather and I was so enraged that I couldn’t even contact the paper to complain, I just stopped reading it.

In the late 1970’s I enrolled in a Creative Writing Class, which was to last for two years and all students were encouraged to enter the Original Writing Section of the Nuneaton Festival of the Arts. Between 1979 and 1986 I entered yearly and always something in the George Eliot classes. I had a lot of success, including three placings in the George Eliot Topic and three in the George Eliot Essay, winning the George Eliot Cup twice.

In the June 4th edition of The Nuneaton Tribune in 1980, to celebrate George Eliot’s birth, I had an article entitled, ‘The Road  to Raveloe’ published. As I have already said at the beginning of this work I am fortunate to live in the village which George Eliot used for her depiction of the village of Raveloe, in ‘Silas Marner’. From the description of her village in the book, it is without doubt that George Eliot had first hand knowledge and I feel privileged in the fact that I knew parts of Bulkington which were in existence in George Eliot’s time, before the 1960’s council planners took charge!

I have read many books on her life and found that I was born only twenty miles away from her father Robert Evan’s birthplace, of Norbury, Derbyshire, while mine was a small nursing home in the village of Stockton Brook, Staffordshire, where my Father’s work had taken us during the war. We actually lived at a place called Sharpecliffe Hall at Ipstones, before moving to the small village of Endon, with all those places being in close proximity to each other and on the border with Derbyshire.

Time passes and then took an unexpected turn for me in the forging of a friendship with someone in Australia. Karen Robinson and I made contact through a family history forum and found that we shared similar views on many subjects and discussed, among other things, what kind of books we read and our favourite authors.  Oh, the joy for both of us, when we discovered our love of George Eliot and how envious she was that I lived only six miles from her favourite author’s birthplace, never mind in Raveloe itself! The jealousy swapped places, when Karen told me that her husband’s ancestors had a link to this great woman!

It was while Karen was researching her husband’s family tree, that she found his 4th great grandfather, Major William Hake, had two brothers, George and Henry. Henry [1803-1888] and George [1783-1848] who had been chaplain to HRH the Duke of York and both of them had been vicars of Chilvers Coton. George appointed vicar 26th February 1829 and Henry as stipendary curate on 28th December 1829. They had a long association with Chilvers Coton and Astley

Karen came across a few clues that the Hakes were inspiration for George Eliot’s clergymen characters, one being an article titled ‘Who Was Really Who, in George Eliot’ by Peter Lee in the Nuneaton Family History Group Newsletter 1997.

George Eliot is thought to have based two characters on the Hake brothers, the Reverends Carpe and Duke, both in, ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’. For all the seriousness of her work these characters show that  she had an underlying sense of humour in choosing two species of fish to compliment Hake. Carpe is fairly common in the fish world, but how she knew that there was a catfish called a duke can only be wondered at.

Serendipity keeps coming and as a professed bibliophile I will often buy a book when the cover attracts me. Thus it did in a charity bookshop a few years ago, when the spine of a book read: ‘Poets of the Shires. Warwickshire’ edited by C.H. Poole. The lettering was in gilt and the front cover had embossed gilt lettering and a heraldic motif, of which I have no knowledge of despite researching. Certainly it is not the Warwickshire crest of the Bear and Ragged staff.

I did not look inside this book until I was home and there she was again, leading the section entitled:  Poetesses of Warwickshire.  The book had been published in 1914 and was signed by the editor, Charles Henry Poole, to the owner, a John R. Palmer and also included a newspaper cutting of a review of a similar book.

I have not read all of George Eliot’s works, but my favourite is the short story of ‘Brother Jacob’ and it puzzles me as to why it is only her more famous novels which are brought to our screens, when this story would make fine viewing.

When my brother had a big birthday, I put together a selection of family history items and ended with four verses of George Eliot’s poem ‘Brother and Sister,’ as she had written what I felt.

Where the great lady will surface in my life in the future is anyone’s guess, but she undoubtedly will and more than likely when I least expect it.

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The George Eliot Fellowship