Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The nineteenth century was an age of travellers, including many famous British women travellers. Lady Hester Stanhope lived for years in the Middle East, Mary Kingsley explored the jungles of Gabon and died while performing medical work in South Africa, Isabella Bird Bishop journeyed around the globe and wrote books on Malaysia, China, Japan, the Hawaiian Islands, the Sinai Peninsula, and the valleys and peaks above 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
George Eliot was also a woman interested in travel, though in ways different from those of the women I have just named. Several of the earliest extant letters of the teenaged Mary Ann Evans refer to travel that is metaphorical rather than literal. A fervent Evangelical, as we know, she wrote to her teacher and friend Maria Lewis employing a metaphor common in mediaeval literature and in later Evangelical writing, the image of life itself as a journey, a pilmgrimage. One of those letters, written 18 August 1838, describes as happiest those people 'who are not fermenting themselves by engaging in projects for earthly bliss, who are considering this life merely a pilgrimage, a scene calling for diligence and watchfulness, not for repose and amusement' (Letters I: 6). The mature Marian Lewes, in her early life as George Eliot, employs the image of travel both literally and figuratively in her first full-length novel, Adam Bede. Attempting to comfort his mother, who fears that old Thias Bede's irresponsibility and alcoholism will drive Adam to leave his parents' home, Seth Bede prays with her:
So the mother and son knelt down together, and Seth prayed for the poor wandering father, and for those who were sorrowing for him at home. And ... that Adam might never be called to set up his tent in a far country, but that his mother might be cheered and comforted by his presence all the days of her pilgrimage…. (Ch. 4)