Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 27 (1996) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Most commentors agree that George Eliot furnished her early stories from memories of actual places, events and people encountered in her childhood and youth in Warwickshire. In making this (perhaps involuntary) choice so soon after her liaison with G. H. Lewes began she was probably already aware that the estrangement from her family, and consequent exile away from her roots in the Midlands, was inevitable. So, perhaps with a strong nostalgic sense of isolation, she began writing about Nuneaton, thinly disguised as 'Milby' which those familiar with the place were quickly able to recognize. Later on, the source of her scenes and characters was more deeply hidden in, as she wrote to John Blackwood, 'a combination of subtle, shadowy suggestions'.1 Nevertheless, the treasured memories of her homeland continued to well up into her stories like a perpetual spring of inspiration which can best be traced by readers who have shared her background and have become familiar with the things she also knew.
It is generally accepted that Middlemarch is a reflection of Coventry in the nineteenth century, each town being concerned with matters such as the development of hospitals and railways. Yet one cannot get much closer to actuality than George Eliot's 'Halsell Common'2 recalling Hearsall (pronounced Her-sal) Common, still, to this day, a playground for children in Coventry.
Even in this novel thoughts of Arbury (where the young Mary Ann was a frequent visitor) come back to her. In the very first chapter, writing about Mr. Brooke' s ancestry, she says 'there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate.' Now why should she take trouble with such an apparently inconsequential detail? The answer is that in the drawing room at Arbury Hall there is a large portrait of Sir Richard Newdigate, Bt (1602-1678), a judge in Cromwell's time. The famous story about him which has come down through the ages is that he refused to try three Royalist officers brought before him on a charge of treason - ruling that treason is to take up arms against the king - and if there is no king, there can be no treason! He was dismissed but later reinstated; and on the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660 the officers whose lives he had saved petitioned the monarch on his behalf and eventually the baronetcy was conferred upon him and Arbury prospered.