The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

As we open our conference in Hinckley this year, I ask the question : ‘What is the importance of location in the works of Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot?’ This two-part post will look at the locations around Nuneaton and Hinckley, used by Eliot in her early novels. The second part will look at the areas round Astley and Griff.

All Saints, Chilvers Coton

Eliot opens ‘Amos Barton’ with a description of  Shepperton Parish Church, which Graham Handley deems is a  portrait  of All Saints, Chilvers Coton, ‘about half a mile from the market town of Nuneaton, where Mary Ann Evans was baptised by the original of Mr Gilfil in 1819’:

All Saints Church, Chilvers Cotton

Shepperton Church was a very different-looking building five-and-twenty years ago. To be sure, its substantial stone tower looks at you through its intelligent eye, the clock, with the friendly expression of former days; but in everything else what changes! Now there is a wide span of slated roof flanking the old steeple; the windows are tall and symmetrical; the outer doors are resplendent with oak-graining, the inner doors reverentially noiseless with a garment of red baize; and the walls, you are convinced, no lichen will ever again effect a settlement on ( Chapter 1 Scenes)


From the outset, Eliot uses accurate descriptions which show the engagement of memory and the progression of time since throughout Scenes of Clerical Life we see her constantly returning to the Nuneaton of her childhood. This is a book which relies heavily on memory, which is not always accurate, but it is fascinating to see how Eliot views the passage of time in a rural community. In ‘Janet’s Repentances’ the narrator reflect on how:

More than a quarter of a century has slipped by since then, and in the interval Milby has advanced at as rapid a pace as other market-towns…. By this time it has a handsome railway station, where the drowsy London traveller may look out by the brilliant gas-light… There is a resident rector,…; the church is enlarged by at least five hundred sittings; and the grammar school, conducted on reformed principles, has its upper forms crowded with the genteel youth of Milby…If you had passed through Milby on the coach at that time,…It was a dingy-looking town, with a strong smell of tanning up one street and a great shaking of hand-looms up another; and even in that focus of aristocracy, Friar’s Gate,… would not have seemed very imposing to the hasty and superficial glance of a passenger.

Dempster House

It is here, in Nuneaton/Milby, that Janet lives with her abusive husband, Lawyer Dempster. Despite some aspects of Scenes being very architecturally accurate, others are based on people and their homes. These people are only thinly disguised as characters in some of Eliot’s work. Similarly, Gaskell only thinly disguised some of her characters in Cranford. In ‘Janet’s Repentance’ the characters of Mrs Pettifer (Janet’s neighbour) and Lawyer Dempster (Janet’s husband) were allegedly inspired by John Buchanan and Mrs Robinson, who lived in Church Street, Nuneaton. This street became Orchard Street in the story. Dempster House, as it was called, no longer exists, as it was bombed in 1941 during WW2, but there are images of the place, a painting by Wakeman and photographs of the bomb damage, although they do not quite fit Eliot’s description. There is, for instance, no overhanging upper storey:

Dempster House by Thomas Wakeham (from the Visit Warwickshire website)

His house lay in Orchard Street, which opened on the prettiest outskirt of the town—the church, the parsonage, and a long stretch of green fields. It was an old-fashioned house, with an overhanging upper storey; outside, it had a face of rough stucco, and casement windows with green frames and shutters; inside, it was full of long passages, and rooms with low ceilings. There was a large heavy knocker on the green door, and though Mr. Dempster carried a latch-key, he sometimes chose to use the knocker.

According to the George Eliot Archive; The George Eliot Memorial Garden is located where the Dempster House once stood.

Arbury Hall

In ‘Mr Gilfil’s Love Story’ Arbury Hall is used as a model for Cheverel Manor. It is here that Eliot grew up and where, since 1806, her father had been employed as agent to Francis Parker who had inherited the estate for his lifetime and had taken on the family name of Newdigate.  Eliot draws on the hall’s history in her presentation of Cheverel Manor, but as you can see from the images, her descriptions of both the interior and exterior are fairly accurate

Arbury Hall
Arbury Park (National Library of Scotland)

Cheverel Manor …: the castellated house of grey-tinted stone, with the flickering sunbeams sending dashes of golden light across the many-shaped panes in the mullioned windows, and a great beech leaning athwart one of the flanking towers, and breaking, with its dark flattened boughs, the too formal symmetry of the front; the broad gravel-walk winding on the right, by a row of tall pines, alongside the pool… the lawn, with its smooth emerald greenness, sloping down to the rougher and browner herbage of the park, from which it is invisibly fenced by a little stream that winds away from the pool, and disappears under a wooden bridge in the distant pleasure-ground.

The castellations and colour of the stone are all accurate, and, as you can see from the map, so are her depictions of the pool, and the stream. Arbury was originally an Elizabethan mansion, turned into its present Gothic style by Sir Roger Newdigate in the late 18th century.  The hall was designed by Sanderson Miller who had also worked on Horace Walpole’s house, Strawberry Hill. 

Moreover, the Gothic design of the outside was mirrored within. Eliot goes on to draw a fine picture of the dining room at Arbury. Look carefully at how clearly she has transcribed what she saw as a child:

any one entering that dining-room for the first time, would perhaps have had his attention even more strongly arrested by the room itself, which was so bare of furniture that it impressed one with its architectural beauty like a cathedral. A piece of matting stretched from door to door, a bit of worn carpet under the dining-table, and a sideboard in a deep recess, did not detain the eye for a moment from the lofty groined ceiling, with its richly-carved pendants, all of creamy white, relieved here and there by touches of gold. On one side, this lofty ceiling was supported by pillars and arches, beyond which a lower ceiling, a miniature copy of the higher one, covered the square projection which, with its three large pointed windows, formed the central feature of the building. The room looked less like a place to dine in than a piece of space enclosed simply for the sake of beautiful outline; and the small dining-table, with the party round it, seemed an odd and insignificant accident, rather than anything connected with the original purpose of the apartment.

Dr Diane Duffy
Chair, The Gaskell Society