Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 30 (1999) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
For many years the tomb of Emma Gwyther in Chilvers Coton Churchyard in Nuneaton was totally obscured by a massive yew tree until it was recently cut back to reveal the sorry state of the tomb beneath it. Badly broken and its lettering difficult to read, it was clearly in great need of some restoration because of its place in the George Eliot story.
There seems little doubt that Emma Gwyther was the original of Milly Barton, the hard-working wife of the Rev. Amos Barton in Scenes of Clerical Life. Emma's husband was the Rev. John Gwyther, curate of Chilvers Coton Church 1831-41: since the vicar, the Rev. George Hake, was an absentee vicar for the most of his Vicarate (1831-1838), John and Emma lived in the vicarage. The Gwythers would have been well known to Mary Ann Evans during the years her family worshipped at Chilvers Coton, and keen observation of the curate provided many of the characteristics of Amos Barton. Gwyther officiated at her mother's funeral and the wedding of her sister Chrissey and many of the changes he instigated at Chilvers Coton are echoed in those at 'Shepperton' Church in Amos Barton's time.
At the beginning of 1998 the George Eliot Fellowship commissioned a stonemason to restore Emma Gwyther's table tomb almost opposite the door of the church, and the lettering on the slate memorial tablets revealed a story that is strikingly close to Milly Barton's. The death of Milly's seventh child, born prematurely, is soon followed by the death of Milly herself at the age of thirty-five, no doubt worn out by poverty, hard work and child-bearing.