Historical Notes: A long, long way from a cappuccino
Thursday 22 July 1999
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)
Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandalbooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Russell Brand accuses FOX News anchor Sean Hannity of terrorism after aggressive Israel-Gaza debate
- 2 Pope Francis issues top 10 tips for happiness – including don’t try to convert other people
- 3 Arturo Vidal to Manchester United: Midfielder set to force through move to Louis van Gaal's Red Devils - reports
- 4 Disney heiress Abigail disowns her share of family profits in West Bank company
- 5 Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire
Game of Thrones actress begs for 'other princess work' after Myrcella Baratheon part is recast
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming August 2014
Star Wars Episode 7: Simon Pegg hints at role
Palestinian artists transform smoke-filled Gaza into symbol of resistance
Guardians of the Galaxy - review: A superficial and half-hearted Marvel film
The secret report that helps Israel hide facts
Land for gas: Merkel and Putin discussed secret deal could end Ukraine crisis
Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
Richard Dawkins tweets: 'Date rape is bad, stranger rape is worse'
Putin is 'thuggish, dishonest and reckless', says British ambassador to US
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – Britain as others see us
- < Previous
- Next >