Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
I am deeply grateful for the honour of being invited to lay a wreath in memory of George Eliot, and to lay it in a place that meant so much to her.... Nuneaton. Before the heavens opened, I pictured us all gathered outside surrounded by green grass, trees and flowers, and able to imagine the spirit of George Eliot not in her study surrounded by books but out-of-doors, enjoying the fresh air. Some imagination is needed to visualize a little girl gathering flowers in the sunshine, or running towards a Round Pool after her older brother, or leaping with delight as she caught her silver perch in the Coventry Canal. But in spite of our enclosure within four walls, can we still reflect on 'George Eliot in the Open Air'?
I have just returned from a holiday in the Alps which began with a flight from Heathrow to Geneva. As the plane landed in Geneva, I thought of Marian Evans travelling to Switzerland with the Brays after the death of her father. They left England on 11 June 1849, and journeyed by way of Paris, Avignon, Nice, Genoa, Milan, Como, Lake Maggiore and Chamounix, arriving at Geneva in the third week of July. Cross says she stayed first at a pension, the Campagne Plongeon, which he described as 'a gleaming white house' with a meadow in front, sloping down to blue water and with 'an avenue of remarkably fine chestnut-trees, whence there is a magnificent view of the Jura mountains on the opposite side of the lake'. Marian Evans missed her friends in Warwickshire, grieved for her father and grew so thin that she wondered how much of her would be left by the following April: 'I shall be length without breadth', she wrote. Nevertheless, in spite of physical and emotional frailty, she wrote in excitement to her Coventry friends: 'I am becoming passionately attached to the mountains, the lake .... If you saw the Jura today! The snow reveals its forests, ravines, and precipices, and it stands in relief against a pure blue sky. The snow is on the mountains only now, and one is tempted to walk all day ... '
'Tempted to walk all day .... ' The picture of Marian Evans out -of-doors with the wind in her hair is a picture we more readily associate with Emily Bronte than George Eliot, but her love of the open air is apparent not only in Switzerland but also in the Scilly Isles where we find her striding out in 1857 and delighting in what she describes as 'a sense of freedom in those unenclosed grounds'. It is not difficult to link this feeling of liberation with the success of her first fiction and the joy of her loving relationship with Lewes. The weather was often wet and nearly always windy, but the energy of love infused her delight in the shapes and colours of the rocks, her feeling of exhilaration when the wind was at its height and she could see 'the white foam prancing round the reefs and rising in fountain-like curves above the screen of rocks'. Together, they looked up at fountains of foam towards a sky alive with larks. She wrote: 'I never enjoyed the lark before as I enjoyed it at Scilly'.