George Eliot in Jersey

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This article by Philip Stevens was first published in the 1978 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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George Eliot and George Lewes left the Scilly Islands on 11 May 1857 and proceeded to Falmouth where they embarked on the Sir F Drake, reaching Plymouth through a fog. That evening they re-embarked on the same ship and got to Jersey at 10 am on Friday, 15 May. Lewes records a very calm passage, but for Eliot it was a night of misery and she came on deck "yellow and frowsy" to look on the shores of Jersey.

George Eliot

George Lewes

Lewes, who had been at school in Jersey in 1829, found nothing familiar except St Aubin's Fort and Elizabeth Castle, until he got to the Royal Square, where "the old boyish feelings came back ... Broad Street, the theatre, the market, and a few other places were revived; but for the rest the place seemed as much changed as I."

"The Royal Square seemed to have shrunk to a third of its old dimensions, but with what strange sensations I first re-entered it! The Theatre had by no means the magical and imposing aspect which it then wore, when it seemed the centre of perfect bliss. Its yellow playbills no longer thrilled me, although memory wandered back to those happy nights when enchanting comedy and tearful tragedy were ushered in by overtures to Trancredi or Semiramide (the only two which the orchestra ever played), and when ponderous light comedians in cashmere tights, or powerful tragedians took the stage with truly ideal strides. Gone, for ever gone, are those bright credulous days. Never more shall I see the School for Scandal, or Pizarro, performed as I saw them then".
"Among the changes, it was pleasant to find that no longer did the Pillory disgrace the Royal Square; no longer were criminals publicly whipped through the streets, as I once saw them with shuddering disgust. Formerly women were thus publicly whipped; but that disgraceful exhibition was put a stop to before my time; and now Jersey has grown humanised enough to see that whipping men must be relinquished. It was indeed a loathsome sight. The naked shrieking wretch, with a cord round his neck, halberds pointed at his breast to prevent his hurrying forward, his back streaming with blood, his face turned imploringly towards the surgeon, who walked beside the executioner, and whom I once heard utter the cruel words, 'Harder, Jack!' meaning that the victim had strength to withstand even harder blows - a brutal mob following without sympathy - the procession moving slowly from the Town Hall to the Prison; - this was the picture Justice frequently presented to the inhabitants of Jersey, and which now, thank God, will never be seen by them again, but will take its place among the brutalities of the past, a sign of the onward progress we have made."
Rosa Cottage

Jeune's Hotel

Eliot and Lewes went to Jeune's Hotel (the Union) in the Royal Square and rested until lunch, after which they set out to buy books, have their hair cut, get letters and look for lodgings. Walking all the way to St Aubin, they found nothing suitable for a poor couple, one of whom, Lewes, was a marine zoologist. They returned on the omnibus for the night at Jeune's.

On the next day, Saturday 16 May, they went by omnibus to Gorey, whose fishermen made it more suitable to the interests of Lewes. He explains his choice of Jersey and of Gorey to his fellow naturalists:

"On the great attractions of Jersey for the naturalist, one word will suffice: there is no such spot in England for marine zoology. The attractions of (St Helier) I do not deny, and if the visitor is in need of watering-place attractions, he will pitch his tent there; but if his primary desires be zoology and quiet, he will select Gorey, especially during summer, when tide-hunting is necessarily poor, and only by dredging and trawling can he hope to get a good stock of animals. Always go where there are fishermen, that you may have the benefit of their aid. They may bring you what you would never find."

They therefore found lodgings in Gorey with the Amy family of Rosa Cottage: the cost was 13 shillings a week with attendance, but no bath. They returned to St Helier where they bought wine, brandy, groceries, paper, a map, etc. and hired an easy chair and a bath; dined at Jeune's and took a carriage, which they filled with Lewes' fish-traps, and got to Gorey that night.

Eliot described Gorey as a "very retired spot - a fishing-place ... with plenty of rich people's houses about to make it a point for omnibuses and tradesmen's carts". She described their feelings on arrival: "It was a beautiful moment when we came to our lodgings at Gorey. The orchards were all in blossom - and this is an island of orchards. They cover the slopes; they stretch before you in shady, grassy, indefinite extent through every other gateway by the road side; they flourish in some spots almost close to the sea.

What a contrast to the Scilly Isles! There you stand on the hills like a sparrow on the house top; here you are like the same sparrow when he is hopping about on the branches with green above him, green below, and green all around. Gorey stands on Grouville Bay, where the grand old castle of Mont Orgueil stands and keeps guard on a fine rocky promontory overlooking the little harbour, dotted with fishing craft."

Outings

On Sunday 17th they sat on the Castle hill while Eliot read Emma to Lewes. In the evening, and again on the 26th, they went across the wet sands to St Clement:

"The other limb of (Grouville Bay) is formed by the St Clement Reefs, which stretch their desultory length far out into the sea, one of them forming the site of a martello tower (Seymour Tower). Similar towers are placed at intervals almost all round the bay. There is an immense belt of sand laid bare at low water, but it is so uneven and consequently wet, that except towards St Clement's reefs, one can get no nice walking on the beach.
"As some compensation, there is a charming piece of common or down, where you can have the quietest easiest walking, with a carpet of minute wild flowers that are not hindered from flourishing by the sandy rain of the coast. I delighted extremely in the brownish green softness of this undulating common, here and there varied with a patch of bright green fern - all the prettier for two little homesteads set down upon it with their garden fence and sheltering trees. It was pretty in all lights, but especially the evening light to look round at the castle and harbour, the village, and the scattered dwellings peeping out from among the trees on the hill. The castle is built of stone which has a beautiful pinkish grey tint, and the bright green ivy hangs oblique curtains on its turreted walls, making it look like a natural continuation or outgrowth of the rocky and grassy height on which it stands. Then the eye wanders on the right and takes in the church standing halfway down the hill, which is clothed with a plantation, and shelters the little village with its cloud of blue smoke; still to the right, and the village breaks off, leaving nothing but meadows in front of the slope that shuts out the setting sun and only lets you see a hint of the golden glory that is reflected in the pink eastern clouds"

'Transcendant' weather

For the first week of their stay the weather was "transcendant" and they took long daily walks or "rambles" which they always described as "exquisite" or "delicious". One favourite walk was along the East Coast to the north of Mont Orgueil:

"Here we had the green or rocky slope on one side of us and on the other the calm sea stretching to the coast of France, visible on all but the murkiest days. But the murky days were not many during our stay, and our evening walks round the coast usually showed us a peaceful, scarcely rippled sea, splashing gently on the purple pebbles of the little scalloped bays. There were two such bays within the boundary of our seaside walk in that direction, and one of them was a perpetual wonder to us in the luxuriant verdure of meadows and orchards and forest trees that sloped down to the very shore. No distressed look about the trees, as if they were driven harshly back by the wintry winds - it was like an inland slope suddenly carried to the coast."

On one occasion, passing through a cottage garden, they were agreeably surprised by a woman's offering them a bunch of lilac and she then "brought out a telescope for us to see the coast of France, and was extremely obliging, smiling and good."

Queen's Valley

Inland walks were "inexhaustible. The island is one labyrinth of delicious roads and lanes, leading you by the most charming nooks of houses with shady grounds and shrubberies - delightful homesteads - and trim villas." They were clearly both delighted by Queen's Valley. The account following fuses their two similar descriptions:

"The exquisite vale of the Queen's Farm, where a broad strip of meadow and pasture lies between two high slopes covered with woods and ferny wildness, would at all times be charming but, after Scilly, its rich uplands and clustering trees were inexpressibly delightful. Pursuing the road to the right as we entered the valley from Gorey, we ascended a little and saw the grassy flat, with a water-mill (Blanc Moulin?), a little pool, a farmhouse, and further on a pasture with tethered cows lying below us; then we began to descend always by the wood side, with the birds singing and the sunlight shimmering in the boughs above us, the curious fresh green Euphorbia inviting our attention on the bank close by us, until we came quite to the depth of the valley, and winding our way along a narrow path with a clear musical brook running between banks fringed with long grasses and fern, stopping to pat the mild cows tethered with a view to these long grasses, we reached at last a perfect pond (the mill-pond of the Moulin de Haut?) - overhung on one side by oaks and ashes, on another by a meadow of buttercups and tall grasses and on another by the footpath edged with young oaks. A current ran through the pond making a river between the tiny forests of white blossoms that covered almost all the rest of the surface. When we first saw this valley it was in the loveliest spring-time: the woods were a delicious mixture of red and tender green and purple."

Eliot continues:

"When the blossoms fell away from the orchards my next delight was to look at the grasses mingled with red sorrel; then came the white umbelliferous plants making a border or inner frame for them along the hedgerows and streams. Another pretty thing here is the luxuriance of the yellow iris that covers large pieces of moist ground with its broad blades. Everywhere there are tethered cows, looking at you with meek faces - mild eyed, sleek fawn-coloured creatures, with delicate downy udders."

Journal forgotten

It was only after her stay that Eliot felt she should write an account of it: her mind had been involved with her first efforts as a novelist, and she excused herself for not keeping up her journal while in Jersey:

"My mind has been too intensely agitated and occupied during the last three weeks for me to have energy left to make entries in my journal, though I have often been reflecting that the days pass by without registering the beauties we see in our walks .. the wild flowers are in great beauty now."

Lewes had similar feelings:

"Nothing could be more charming than the welcome smiled by the rich meadow-lands and orchards (in Jersey) After the bold picturesque solitudes of Scilly, it seemed like once more entering civilised nature. Every inch of ground was cultivated. Cornfields and orchards resplendent with blossoms, sloped down to the very edge of the shore, and, by the prodigality of soil, defied the withering influence of sea-breezes. It was not amazing to me to learn afterwards that the land in the interior yields double the crop, per acre, which can be raised in most parts of England; and that, although the rent is £10 per acre, such rent can be paid by potatoes alone."

In pursuit of his subject Lewes continued to bend over his microscope and fill his journal with details of dissections for his Seaside Studies. "The shore is amazingly rich ", he wrote to Blackwood the publisher on 24 May, " and the brother-in-law of our landlord is the owner of a fishing vessel, and with him I propose interrogating Nature in her submarine recesses." On 30 May, therefore, they went trawling for specimens off the coast of Brittany, and on 23 June Lewes went with Amy and his son to a rock half a mile off Mont Orgueil (Les Arches?) to continue his interrogation of Nature. "It was a sweet, peaceful life we led there," said Eliot, "good creatures, the Amys, our host and hostess, with their nice boy and girl and the little white kid, the family pet. No disagreeable sounds to be heard in the house, no unpleasant qualities to hinder one from feeling perfect love to these simple people."

Minor complaints

Such complaints as Eliot and Lewes had were slight: Eliot found Jersey disappointingly English in its habits and its prices, and they both found the choice of literature limited. "The life of George Stephenson has been a real profit and pleasure", said Eliot, "I have read Draper's Physiology aloud, for grave evening hours, and such books as Currer Bell's Professor, Mde d'Auney's Mariage en Province and Miss Ferrier's (novel) Marriage for lighter food. The last, however, we found ourselves unable to finish, notwithstanding Miss Ferrier's high reputation."

The sea air had done her good but, as summer slipped by, Eliot began to be concerned both about the harsher heat and the stirring of the east wind in the middle of June. She watched Queen's Valley lose its spring beauty, pass into the green and flowery luxuriance of June, and then into the darker shade of July. On July 8 she wrote: "They are hay¬making now in all the meadows and the lovely grasses will soon be left in fringes on (the) roadside and under the hedgerows. The weather has become windy and disagreeable again and the trees have the monotonous dark green tint of high summer."

While Lewes was zoologising (and correcting his Life of Goethe) Eliot was writing the third of the Scenes of Clerical Life, Janet's Repentance, in which the theme of sunlight plays such an important part. Her first efforts were beginning to receive recognition: Blackwood forwarded a note from Archer Gurney to the unknown author of Mr Gilfil's Love Story. Eliot records its reception: "Dear G came upstairs to me with the letter in his hands, his face bright with gladness, saying 'Her fame's begining already'".


Bouley Bay

Their only expedition by carriage was to Bouley Bay on July 13, one "delicious evening when the sea was glassy smooth. The coast there is an agreeable contrast to that on the Gorey side of the island - tall hills with curving slopes, and perpendicular indentations making dark shadows on the soft green. We came back by Rozel Bay, also pretty" They returned to Rozel on foot on July 17 after dinner.

The only recorded meeting, during a long walk of Lewes, was with Pierre Leroux, a relic of the republican proscription that had brought Victor Hugo to Jersey five years before. Leroux promised to call, but there is no record that he did so. On 15-16 July Lewes and Eliot saw "a little of Jersey human nature at the Gorey Races - men at gambling tables, and the crowd around a company of montebanks" but on the second day they were driven home by the rain.

On 24 July, at 7 in the morning, they left Jersey, "This green island", recalls Eliot, "a sweet spot in our memories, while our memories last."

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