Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 23 (1992)
Various biographies and critical studies argue that Mary Ann or Marian Evans's formative years in the Midlands influenced George Eliot's art. They do so by explaining that memories of Robert Evans contributed to George Eliot's conceptions of Adam Bede and Caleb Garth, that Cheverel Manor is Arbury Hall, that Amos Barton is largely based on the Rev. John Gwyther, the curate of Chilvers Coton whom Mary Ann knew as a child, that a good deal of autobiographical material went into the creation of Maggie Tulliver, and so on.
Is there a need, then, for Graham Handley's George Eliot's Midlands when at least many of these paths linking childhood, adolescence and fiction are so well trodden? The answer is yes, because this study explores those paths thoroughly and in a lively and readable way. In ten chapters, not counting the introduction and brief conclusion, the study analyses when and, more interestingly, how the Midlands of the author's youth is at once projected and altered in all the novels and stories, except, of course, Romola, Daniel Deronda and The Lifted Veil.
Handley's principal argument is that 'George Eliot's art derives from the personal and intellectual affiliations of her Midland years' (12), and so he necessarily rehearses the sort of biographical information referred to above. He collects the latter from various sources, and makes one or two emendations along the way. For instance, Gordon Haight identified the prototype for Caterina Sarti as Sarah Shilton and said that she was nine years old when Sir Roger Newdigate's nephew, 'the impossible Captain Wybrow,' married (cf. George Eliot 221). Quoting directly from Lady Newdigate-Newdegate's The Cheverels of Cheverel Manor (1898), Handley quietly corrects Haight by referring to Sally Shilton, adding that she 'was eleven years old at the time of the story's action' (52-4). And it appears that Haight was also wrong in saying that the Old Hall described in The Mill on the Floss is based on recollections of St. Mary's Hall in Coventry: 'in fact there was Gainsborough's Old Hall, which George Eliot, despite the brevity of her visit, certainly knew about' (72) - although here (as in a few other places, too) no authority is cited for saying so.