It’s not every day that a 200-year old dead woman sends you a message from the other side. It’s also not every day that you spend the afternoon parading around inside a thirteenth-century castle, or – perhaps most astounding of all – manage to capture and keep the attention of forty twelve-year old children for an entire day when talking about a writer they’ve never read. What more could you ask of a workshop day designed to get children to learn about, interact and engage with their local literary heritage?
The brief for the ‘Writing with George Eliot at Astley Castle’ day was simple. Partnering with the Landmark Trust for one of their Heritage Open Weekends at Astley Castle, we wanted, in a fun and simple way, to educate local students about who George Eliot really was – a.k.a, the local girl Mary Ann Evans from Astley, Nuneaton. We wanted them to be able to picture her as a real person, who sat in the same rooms they were sitting in, and who wrote best-selling novels about the exact places they were seeing with their own eyes. We wanted her to prompt and inspire them to produce creative works of their own. And given the outdoors nature of the day, ideally we wanted all this to happen on a day when it wouldn’t rain – but then again, you can’t always have everything.
So at 10am, on Monday 24th June, nearly forty KS2 students from Croft Junior School dutifully filed into the imposing country church in the village of Astley, Warwickshire. While the students ogled the lofty ceiling and family crests adorning the wall, they were ushered on a whistle-stop romp through Astley’s history by Kasia Howard, Engagement Officer with the Landmark Trust. Then P.I Ruth Livesey stepped in and introduced the woman who was from then on to be the focus of the day, Mary Ann Evans.
Mary Ann, we all heard, was born in Nuneaton, just five minutes up the road from Astley Castle. Her parents were married in this very church, and her father worked on both this estate and the one next door in nearby Arbury Hall. She would have roamed the grounds of the castle just like children would do later that day; would have sat in the same pews as they were currently sitting in inside the church, and she wrote in her novels about the exact views and buildings the children could currently see. It became obvious, for example, after reading about the church in Knebley from Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), that the same church Eliot wrote about seemed suspiciously identical to the very one they were sitting inside. Once in possession of this nugget of knowledge, and armed with the extracts from the Scenes, the students were then accordingly sent on a roaming search of the church building in a quest to tick off all its identifying features. They would later learn that it wasn’t just the buildings of Nuneaton that showed up in George Eliot’s work, but also its inhabitants. One such inhabitant was described by Eliot as the most boring, dull man there ever was, but recognized himself from Eliot’s description and wrote letters to her in complaint!
These and other golden facts were digested in the next part of the day, when the students had the opportunity to not just hear about Mary Ann Evans, but to actually meet her. Cue Eleanor Charman, an actress from local theatre group Sudden Impulse, who was willing to take a shot at adopting for the day the persona of one of the most successful British female authors of all time. Complete with bonnet, book, and strong opinions, Mary Ann greeted some of the students from the village Reading Room, where she was able to further elaborate on the local places – and faces – from her novels. After providing some first-hand suggestions on what to do when getting those indignant letters of complaint from those who recognize themselves in your novels, Mary Ann was left to field questions from the students about her life and writing. Given that she was 200 years old this year – and looking remarkably good for it – we had paid her the homage of providing the students with blackboards and slate pencils to write their questions down on, and the scratching squeak akin to nails on a chalkboard proved an instant source of delight to the students. Despite this, they entered into conversation with Mary Ann with surprising earnestness. ‘Did you ever find your family and their views a little too demanding?’ she was asked. ‘Did you ever miss them or regret your decision to leave?’
Meanwhile, back up at the castle, a raucous scavenger hunt was occurring in the gardens and grounds by a second group of students. Landmark Trust’s Kasia Howard had planted lines and phrases from George Eliot’s sonnets in strategic locations, and after the students had successfully hunted them all out, it was down to them to create a new, personalised remix version of their own.
A third group were upstairs in the castle itself, being led in a creative writing workshop by Anna Lawrence, Writer in Residence for the Provincialism AHRC project, and key figure in the project’s partnership with Writing West Midlands. While the group outside composed their poems and read them aloud, the group inside experimented with prose instead, producing as finished products postcards addressed to George Eliot. These contained descriptions about other local settings dear to them, just like Mary Ann had included in her own novels. When each of the three groups had finished, an immaculately planned changeover would occur and each of them would circulate on to the next activity station. Packed picnic lunches were a pleasant interruption to the grand order of the day, as was the discovery of a dead rabbit, a source of added delight (and horrified squeals) from certain of the students.
It truly was an enjoyable and educational day, and for me, as a young early-career-researcher, it was encouraging to be reminded of how much literature can matter. ‘Impact’ is a word thrown around constantly in humanities academia, but this was the one of the first times I had witnessed the effect that a project like ours could actually have on a real, living, breathing community. Not only were these students learning about a historical and literary figure at Astley, they were also learning lessons of identity. ‘Don’t think that things aren’t important, just because they seem ordinary or everyday,’ the spirit of Mary Ann Evans had been telling them. ‘Even the ordinary and everyday can serve as inspiration to create.’ The feedback we got from the teachers was similarly as edifying. Not only had they themselves been inspired to read George Eliot and visit the other areas she wrote about in her novels, they also all unanimously commented on the positive effect they thought the day had had on the children. ‘They now have a sense of pride in the area they are from, and feel a personal connection to such an important historical figure from their local area,’ said one, and ‘Some of the children really like to write, and George Eliot has been an inspiration to them,’ said another. It was also universally said that they would all be reusing the techniques and resources in their own teaching practice, the exercises having been so successful that one of the helpers of the day commented on the sense of ‘unbridled creativity’ that permeated the atmosphere. It was a result that even Mary Ann Evans herself would have been proud of, and nothing – even a timely shower of rain, just in time for lunch – could take away from the success of it. Her views had originally prompted Mary Ann Evans to leave Astley behind, but that day, her lessons and legacies had most definitely received a homecoming at Astley. And hopefully, with the repetition of these and other related activities, they will continue to live on, right in the very place they began.
With big thanks again to the tireless work and preparation of Ruth Livesey, Kasia Howard and Anna Lawrence; the peerless acting of Eleanor Charman; the invaluable assistance of Colette Ramuz and Natalie Reeve, and the warm co-operation of the Landmark Trust, and all the year 6 pupils and staff from Croft Junior School!