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Historical Notes: A long, long way from a cappuccino

BETWEEN 1858 and 1876 George Eliot wrote seven novels recreating the English countryside for an increasingly suburban constituency. Hot and dusty readers in Edgware, Clifton and Edgbaston plunged into Adam Bede and Silas Marner as if taking a deep walk into a cool, fresh forest they had heard about from their grandparents. People who rode the smutty train to work, or spent the day listless in a villa, immersed themselves each evening in Eliot's landscape of pleasant fields and farm cottages.

Yet, throughout the 25 years that she was writing her books, Eliot never once returned to the Warwickshire countryside which had furnished her with the library of images and references from which she now so successfully drew. Family rifts have always been supposed to lie behind this self-imposed exile: on learning of Eliot's decision to set up home with a married man in 1854, her deeply conventional brother and sisters had cut off contact completely.

The fact remains that Eliot never went to any other bit of the countryside either, except to do a swift raid on Lincolnshire and Wessex when researching The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda respectively. Instead she stayed holed up in Richmond, Wandsworth and, when fame and fortune struck, the St John's Wood side of Regent's Park. She moaned constantly about the stuffiness and dirtiness of it all, but never actually did anything about it. When choosing a summer writing hideaway, she opted for Dorking and Rickmansworth.

Anyone who has grown up in the English countryside will understand, both figuratively and literally, where Eliot was coming from. Until 1978 I lived with my family in the deepest Sussex countryside. In our tiny village, which managed to be both fake and remote at the same time, the bus service had petered out in the Sixties, with the local shop going soon after.

The usual villagey things were never quite what they seemed. The big houses were occupied not only by peers and squires but by City money men and Arab oil sheikhs who stayed tight behind their Gothic doors.

The Mother's Union was run by a woman who did not have children and the only kind of community care was provided by my 20-year-old mother whose voluntary job it was to show bemused locals how they could secure their farm cottages against nuclear fall-out by rolling up bath towels and ramming them against the doors. There was an annual flower show, but it often failed to attract sufficient entries to run, and the church bells were controlled electronically. The local boys signed up for the Army when they reached 15, or else caught the factory bus every morning to work seven miles away. Any girl unlucky enough to get pregnant without getting married moved into her parents' spare room with the baby and endured years of other people's disgusted delight.

So it seems odd to me, just as it seemed odd to Eliot, when people idealise the country as a place of community values. Now that my friends are in their late thirties I notice a longing for a bit of England that never was. People who enjoyed the benefits of a childhood in Muswell Hill, Brighton or Knutsford now insist on burying themselves in the corner of some muddy field, hundreds of miles from the nearest cappuccino. There, like the families of the Gatwick airline pilots who began to infiltrate our village in the late Seventies, they spend their time manning the tombola and trying not to be hurt when the locals show absolutely no interest.

It was not Eliot's fault that her complex, truthful accounts of the English countryside on the cusp of the industrial age were constantly misread by those who needed to believe in a mythic rural idyll. In any case, the readers of Silas Marner were hardly likely to give up their jobs as clerks, grocers and wholesalers, haul their families back to a small Midlands village, and take up weaving.

Kathryn Hughes is the author of `George Eliot: the last Victorian' (Fourth Estate, pounds 8.99)