I was brought up in Bedworth, about 3 miles distant from Griff House, the family home of George Eliot, moving to the country in my early teens. Even while living in the town I knew dogs and horses would be a very important part of my life and so it came about. I was lucky to have my dream fulfilled, owning first a dog and then a pony of my own. I rode around the lanes familiar to Eliot, had my pony shod at the Astley forge (a village appearing in Scenes from Clerical Life), and picked wild flowers from the fields close to Griff House. These fields are now drained or built on; the polyblobs and ladysmocks no longer grow there.
Since that initial move I have always lived in the country. Farming has been my way of life; dogs and horses featured significantly in it, as did other domesticated animals. In my younger days I enjoyed sitting in the cafés of the local livestock markets, also long gone in most cases, listening to the lore, tales, grass roots wisdom and comments of the old boys. One comment that has stayed with me down the decades is: ‘Sum folk al alus live in the country and alus be townies, others al alus live in the town and alus be country folk’. There are obviously those who will be where they live.
These are the sorts of sentiments that might be found in the writings of Eliot, and the author has always appealed to me because she too is a product of Warwickshire country life. Indeed, George Eliot’s rurality never left her and is evident throughout her writings. Not merely the landscape, the seasons and the effect of economic and political influences, still factors in agriculture today, but the whole strata of rural community is there, including the animals. When hunting folk meet they still greet humans, horses and hounds as friends, enquiring after their health (enquiries which may well be directed at the animal itself), along with that of other family members. Eliot had a great depth of knowledge of this interaction, most especially, but not exclusively, concerning dogs and horses. She was also very aware that using dogs particularly in her fiction would evoke a positive emotional response from many of her readers, thereby enhancing the appeal of her work to a wider audience.
Eliot repeatedly uses dogs to underline the personalities of characters, most notably in Adam Bede but also in her other works. If I describe a selection of those characters to my friends and offer them a choice of the breeds of dogs, they will unerringly pair them. Other characters are defined by the absence of a dog. Eliot knows that if Grandcourt (Daniel Deronda) beats his dog to demonstrate his inherent cruelty, her readers would be horrified. Instead we witness his treatment of the devoted spaniel, a far more subtle and effective way to express his brutality
Eliot uses horses to show us the status of characters, in the same way a present day reader would understand the use of a car. In art, horses are often a symbol of masculinity and sexuality and the author is not afraid to make use of this explicit. Horses, especially bloodstock, are sensitive to human emotions. In the scene inThe Mill on the Floss when Stephen Guest visits Maggie at Aunt Moss’s, the horse connotes his status, his physical stature, his assumed supremacy and, most importantly, the mounting sexual tension between them.
Other domesticated animals are used in a variety of ways: to bring in comedy and embarrassment, to express social prejudices, female discrimination, racism and sectarianism, often by the use of a short, cutting comment around a particular animal.
Again in Adam Bede, when we are introduced to Hetty she is compared to a variety of delightful young animals. In that same introduction her dual personality and her eventual downfall is predicted, subtly and without the reader’s full recognition, by a farming analogy. I have been in that very situation, and am well aware of the vexation when chasing that calf. It is always in extremes of weather and in my case usually ends up in the canal. As the cavalry, in the embodiment of the fire and rescue service that some member of the public has decided to call upon, that sweet pretty culprit will suddenly seize upon the escape route of its own accord, and blarting its indignation at the unfair treatment it has received from those humans in its pursuit of an adventure, will gambol and trot across to mum for a guzzle of milk.
So Eliot’s rurality never left her, even at her most sophisticated. She too would have remembered those tales, the lore, the comments and grass root wisdom she heard in her childhood days. She roamed the fields around her home, picking flowers. All of these memories were recounted.
As I remember those anecdotes I heard all those years ago, and the folk who told them, I find myself smiling. I feel sure Eliot and Lewes would have laughed out loud at her recollections.
These are some of the ways in which I have encountered Eliot.
Created 6 August 2019