There must be something in the waters of Warwickshire that spawns literary genius. We all know that the world's most famous playwright, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire but he is not our only local literary genius.
Although there is some debate over the birthplace of Sir Thomas Malory, he grew up in Warwickshire and served as MP for Warwickshire. He was however involved in various criminal acts of extortion and robbery. After a trial in Nuneaton in Warwickshire, he spent time in London's Marshalsea prison, followed by Maxstoke Castle, Colchester and it was finally in Newgate Prison in London where his literary genius flowered and literally with time on his hands, he wrote the epic eight volumes of Morte D'Arthur.
The County's third literary genius comes from North Warwickshire and is Mary Ann Evans who wrote under the pseudonym of George Eliot. She was one of the leading writers of the Victorian era and wrote what many people believe is the greatest novel in the English Language, Middlemarch.
Robert Evans was the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate for the Newdigate family in Warwickshire, and Mary Ann was born on the estate at South Farm (not open to the public) on 22nd November 1819. In early 1820 the family moved to a house named Griff, part way between Nuneaton and Coventry. Griff House is now a restaurant, pub and hotel. A copy of Durade's portrait (top left) hangs behind the reception desk.
The Griff House Pond, believed to be the model for the Round Pool in Mill on the Floss, has been landscaped as part of the hotel grounds and is situated to the right of the car park.
The young Evans was obviously intelligent and a voracious reader. Because of Evans' lack of physical beauty and thus slim chance of marriage, and because of her intelligence, her father invested in an education not often afforded females. From ages five to nine, she boarded with her sister Chrissey at Miss Latham's school in Attleborough, from ages nine to thirteen at Mrs. Wallington's school in Nuneaton, and from ages thirteen to sixteen at Miss Franklin's school in Coventry. At Mrs. Wallington's school, she was taught by the evangelical Maria Lewis to whom her earliest surviving letters are addressed. In the religious atmosphere of the Miss Franklin's school, Evans was exposed to a quiet, disciplined belief opposed to evangelicalism.
After age sixteen, Eliot had little formal education. Thanks to her father's important role on the estate, she was allowed access to the library of Arbury Hall, which greatly aided her self-education and breadth of learning.
George Eliot transformed Arbury Hall into the magnificent Gothic manor house of Cheverel Manor in Mr Gilfil's Love Story in Scenes of Clerical Life. Arbury Hall and gardens are open to the public on Bank Holiday weekends only (Sunday and Mondays) from Easter to September.
In Scenes, George Eliot transformed Nuneaton ino the fictional town of Milby, a thriving town experiencing the dramatic effects of industrialisation and the drive for social and political reform. A flour mill which once stood on a Saxon site near the town centre influenced her choice of name.
Nuneaton is now a modern pedestrianised shopping centre as well a place of historical interest. The George Eliot Memorial Garden was opened in 1952 and covers about two acres of what was once a residential part of the town well known to George Eliot. The George Eliot Fellowship wanted the town to create its own permanent memorial to George Eliot, and in 1948 the Fellowship suggested to Nuneaton Borough Council that the site of some bombed houses and their gardens should be landscaped into a memorial garden.
In 1984 the George Eliot Fellowship launched an appeal to raise £13,000 for a statue of George Eliot. Using the funds raised both locally and internationally a Warwickshire sculptor, John Letts, was commissioned to sculpt a statue to be cast in bronze. This statue, now standing in Newdegate Square is wearing a copy of the novelist's own dress and veil. The statue was unveiled on on 22nd March 1986 and a time capsule was placed under the dress.
John Letts also sculpted two other busts, one for the George Eliot Hospital and one of a Mother and Child for the Maternity Hospital.
Nuneaton video clip from Discover Warwickshire DVD
This video clip is taken from the Discover Warwickshire DVD giving a brief overview of Nuneaton and the surrounding areas that encompass George Eliot Country. It includes some commentary from John Burton, Chairman of the George Eliot Fellowship and mentions the Arbury Estate (where she was born) and Griff House (where she lived until 21) - now a hotel.
It also covers some of the places in Nuneaton that inspired her novels including Scenes of Clerical Life and Middlemarch including Chilvers Coton parish church where her family are buried, and the Chilvers Coton Heritage Centre.