Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)
George Eliot (Marian Evans) was quite delighted with Holly Lodge, Wimbledon Park Road (now No. 31) when she and George Henry Lewes took possession of it on a seven year lease on 5th February 1&59. The four storey house with "wide horizons, well ventilated rooms and abundant water" was a welcome change for them after four years in very cramped furnished lodgings at 8 Park Shot, Richmond, where their favourite evenings of songs at the piano had been restricted because a clergy-man happened to live on the floor below. In a letter to Sara Hennell several weeks later she was anxious, however, that her friend in the Warwickshire countryside should not picture it as "a snug place, just peeping above the holly bushes. Imagine it rather as a tall cake, with a low garnish of holly and laurel" - as it remains to this day.
Lewes was already known in academic circles as a philosopher, literary critic and writer on natural history topics, but for reasons of discretion and natural inclination, neither of them wished to be part of the literary scene. Wanting a quiet life, the still quite rural district of Southfields seemed as ideal a place as they could manage, with opportunities for the walking they had enjoyed so much around Richmond. They had been disappointed about a Mortlake house "after my own heart" which "turned out to have a premium fixed to the lease which made it too expensive for prudence."
Holly Lodge, a semi-detached house with open parkland to south and west, had been leased from a Captain William Thomas Rivers, RN, of Wimbledon Park, who, anxious to boost the area and flatter his tenants, told them "we visit with everyone round here and there are very pleasant soirees." When they expressed horror at this with the words "We don't visit and have no desire to be called upon", Rivers countered with a mention of a Mr. and Mrs. Congreve "who visited no-one." The two couples did indeed become close friends and the Congreves were, it seems, the sole comfort in their growing disillusionment with the area.
The only immediate problem was that of a servant. Within a week of moving in, Lewes's journal refers to "the servant we engaged on recommendation of Captain Rivers turning out to be, like all his other recommendations, a bad lot." That same day they had walked to Richmond to speak to the keeper of the Sheen Gate about a possible servant, and there is mention of a Caroline beginning work on March 7th, but after one day Marian is describing her in a letter as though a good woman, "also frightfully inefficient." Advertisements were placed in The Times and requests made to friends in the country "just in case there were girls who would like a place near London ...... . we would give high wages." She describes her wants to Mrs. Charles Bray: "a servant who will cause me the least possible expenditure of time on household matters. Cooking is the material thing, not because Mr. Lewes is epicurean (for he is stupid of palate) but because he is, amongst his many other eminences, eminently dyspeptic. I am anxious therefore to have a cook who is not only honest, but soup making and full of devices - as good a cook as your Hannah of old time. Honesty and cleanliness are the two other emphatic requirements and a not unimportant one is a power of keeping simple accounts," What seems to have been wanted here was a mature (and well educated) cook-house-keeper and not a young girl with an offered wage of £12 per year.