English, Department of



Kathleen Adams

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (29)


In September 1842 Mary Ann Evans wrote a short but illuminating letter to her Coventry friend Cara Bray:

My own dear Heart's Ease [it was not unusual for her to give her closest friends the name of a flower as she had done this on several occasions before], ... your looks and words of love are so precious to me. I am together ashamed of myself - do not tell anyone that I am so silly as I appear to her whom I love best ... '

We don't know why Mary Ann was so ashamed but we do see clearly what Cara's friendship meant to her: Gordon S. Haight suggests that although Cara was the most outwardly conventional of the three friends at Rosehill on Radford Road in Coventry, Mary Ann's friendship was 'based more on affection than intellectual interests". The intellectual stimulus undoubtedly came from Cara's sister Sara, but it was Cara's warm and loving friendship that was to mean such a lot to her. Although that friendship is well documented both in the'Letters and Haight's Biography of 1868, details of Cara's life are less well-known except where it crosses that of her celebrated friend.

Cara was born on 4 June 1814 in Hackney, East London. She was the youngest of the eight children of James and Elizabeth Hennell. Cara's birth at 2 St Thomas' Square was followed the same year by the death of Lucy, one of her sisters. Two years later their father died, aged only thirty-three, of consumption. He had already suffered severe business problems but was determined, when he knew his illness was terminal, to provide for the wife and family he would leave behind. He insured his life for a large sum. He was buried at the Hackney Unitarian Meeting House, Gravel Pit Chapel, where Lucy was also buried.

The family now moved to a small house in Hackney at 5 Pleasant Row. Here they lived for ten years struggling in a narrow world of family which brought them all more closely together. Despite the insurance money, life was not easy. Mother was busy making and mending and doing the housework not fulfilled by the one domestic servant they could afford. The eldest girl, Mary, now thirteen years of age, set herself the task of becoming the main prop of the family and took on the education of the rest of the children - Eliza, pretty and romantic; Harriet, generous but with a fiery temper which often tormented the rest of them; Charles who was to become the author of An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838); James, quiet and self-sustained; Sara Sophia who was to play so significant a part in the intellectual life of George Eliot; and Caroline.