We’re pleased to share the first output from the collaboration with project designer Paul Smith (no, not that one). This is our ‘postcard from George Eliot country’ which we’re using for our writing workshops and sharing with project partners across the Midlands. The brief was to produce a postcard that referenced the long history of travel guides to ‘The George Eliot Country’ but to emphasise how that country around Nuneaton in North Warwickshire was in Eliot’s time – and is still now – in a constant process of industrial use and repurposing. Canals, quarries, railways then – underpasses, super sheds, distribution warehouses now: North Warwickshire is beautiful because of its flux and rapid variation. That careful and steady scrutiny of the everyday which Eliot’s works tell us to do can still, on this scale of place, make every feature ‘a piece of our social history in pictorial writing’ (‘Looking Backward’).
Eliot’s writing – such as the opening to Felix Holt (1866), ‘The Natural History of German Life’ (1856), and ‘Looking Backward’ (1879) – reminds readers that to understand landscape we need to see the processes of human labour at work and entangled with nature. It’s all too easy to interpret Eliot’s asides in her fiction about the need to pity those (such as Gwendolen Harleth) without a rooted upbringing in one place as simple regret and nostalgia for rural and provincial town communities; to read her as arguing for an imagined pre-industrial era of small-town Englishness. But Eliot’s work, I’d argue, is clear-eyed in its acceptance that the past is gone and – most of the time – all to the good of those living in the present. In Eliot’s own life story we can see all too vividly that small town and rural communities can stifle as well as support. Mary Ann Evans had to leave home in order to thrive, for all that she built her intellectual life on what she learned in and around Nuneaton and Coventry for three decades.
When we turn to look at the imagery of ‘Eliot Country’ as its been depicted over the past 150 years – the subject of the next exhibition at Nuneaton Museum – there will, I think, be a gap between some of those beautiful sketches and what her writing achieves. The delightful costume dramas of Patty Townsend, for example, give an aura of sweet safety to Eliot’s radically unsteady way of writing pictures which dissolve at the lightest touch to show the hardship behind the picturesque, the shunning that makes community, and a place constantly on the move.