Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)
In June 1856 George and Marian Lewes (for it would not yet be right to call her 'George Eliot') were staying in North Devon. While George was collecting specimens on the beach, Marian was preoccupied with work for the Westminster Review, her 'Belles Letters' column and her famous article on W. H. Riehl, 'The Natural History of German Life', which, she wrote, 'I worked at considerably a contretemps, despairing of its ever being worth anything', But by this day, the 18th June, she was enjoying a splendid sense of freedom and a desire to turn to a different world, as she explains in her journal; 'When at last, by the 17th June both my articles were dispatched, I felt delightfully at liberty and determined to pay some attention to sea-weeds which I had never seen in such beauty as Ilfracombe.’
She describes, with a sense of excitement, and with typical attention to detail and to the processes of change and growth, the beautiful forms of algae in the rock pools, which were new to her, for she had previously explored only chalky or sandy shores. Now, having finished her work, she was at last able to look deeper, beyond the commonplace,
'I had not yet learned to look for the rarer Rhodospermiae under the olive and green weeds at the surface. These tidepools made one quite in love with sea-weeds, in spite of the disagreeable importunity with which they are made to ask us from shop-windows "Call us not weeds", so I took up Landsborough's book and tried to get a little more light on their structure and history.’
But even while she had been tied to her article, seaside scrambles were interspersed with 'delicious inland walks'. Marian's favourite walk was across the hills to Lee with its spreading views of crouching tors, golden furze, cliffs, moors and sea. But almost more fascinating than the broad sweep of skyline was the enclosed lane leading down to the hamlet nestling in its deep valley, 'the great charm of this road, as of all Devonshire lanes, is the springs that you detect gushing in shady recesses covered with liverwort, with here and there waving tufts of fern and other broad leaved plants that love obscurity and moisture. Springs are sacred places for those who love and reverence Nature'.
This tiny passage is like a foretaste of her fiction, with its accuracy, sensitivity and awareness of living organisms clustered together, dependent on their habitat and, beyond that, on deeper, mysterious springs. Her novels too were to widen out from tales of 'unfashionable families' living, like the ferns in relative obscurity, and crying out, like the sea-weeds" Call us not weeds". In Ilfracombe she took pleasure in learning the names of each plant, of probing into the history of species, and examining their relationship within a wider pattern.