Exploring Eliot's Friendships

Find out about the early life of George Eliot and the connections and friendships that inspired her, through the collections of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

Writing board (1877/1878) by Elma StuartThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans who was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire on 22 November 1819. She became one of the leading authors of the later 1800s and her work was heavily influenced by her life and experiences in Warwickshire.

Self-portrait, Caroline Hennell (1814-1905), Caroline Bray (nee Hennell), 1830/1835, From the collection of: The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
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At Rosehill, the Coventry home of Cara and Charles Bray, Eliot developed particularly close and deep-rooted friendships with the Brays and their circle.Throughout her life she made many close relationships both in Warwickshire and beyond.

Head of Christ (1830/1844) by Unknown ArtistThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Companionship with the Brays influenced Eliot’s work and her thinking on religion, which became more radical. Her evangelical Christian views changed to something closer to spiritualism.

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) (1819-1880) (1881) by Francois D'Albert-DuradeThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Portrait of George Eliot

This is a portrait of Mary Ann Evans in 1881 by Francois D'Albert-Durade. It is a copy of an original painted by Durade in 1850 when Mary Ann was 30 years old. Mary Ann's temperament could be complex and changeable with its sunny and shady sides. Charles Bray described her as often depressed and provoking, however she was also regarded as agreeable and sociable.

Gloves (1840/1880) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Kid gloves were made from the skin of a young goat and were usually worn by fashionable well off women. This pair belonged to Mary Ann Evans and indicate her interest in fashionable clothing. She may have worn them while carrying out charitable works to support poorer people in the district, such as the local clothing club she helped to set up. This kind of work was expected of young middle class women at the time.

Doll's cloak (1825/1835) by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

This doll’s cloak from around 1825 to 1835 is reported to have been made by Mary Ann Evans and her school companions when she attended Franklin’s school in Coventry, between the ages of 13 and 16.

Mary Ann’s schooldays were not always a happy time and she experienced bullying and name calling from other children.

Like most young women, Mary Ann acquired domestic skills, including embroidery, which was useful when she became responsible for running the household after the death of her mother.

Rosehill, Coventry (female heads verso) (1835/1899) by Sara Hennell or Cara BrayThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum


This watercolour was probably painted by either Cara
Bray or her sister Sara Sophia Hennell. The circle of people who gathered at Rosehill
was a huge influence in Mary Ann’s life. She spent much of her time there and
created strong bonds with the Bray family. The window scene suggests a space
that was familiar, comfortable and intimate.

Mary Ann felt included, loved and supported as well as appreciated for her intelligence and knowledge. Here she shared important conversations and ideas, particularly on religion and social issues. At Rosehill she also developed contacts with the wider world.

Charles Bray (1811-1884), Sara Hennell or Caroline Bray (nee Hennell), 1830/1850, From the collection of: The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
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This is a portrait of Charles Bray. Mary Ann looked to Charles for support, although some visitors at Rosehill, like Maria Lewis, did not approve of her walking around the grounds on the arm of a married man. Although she was connected to the family as a whole at Rosehill, she had a particularly solid and close friendship with Charles Bray.

Sewing box (1820/1850) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

This walnut sewing box from around 1820 to 1850, is inlaid with mother of pearl. It belonged to Cara Bray, who used it throughout her lifetime, and contains locks of hair from two of her siblings.

While Mary Ann was living in Coventry, she and Cara became good friends. A quote from Eliot's novel Middlemarch was found in this sewing box.

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) (1819-1880) (1849) by Caroline Bray (nee Hennell)The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Sketch of Mary Ann Evans

This pencil drawing of George Eliot in two
perspectives was made by Cara Bray in her sketchbook during their tour of Europe
in 1849. Before the tour, Mary Ann’s father passed away, leaving her a small

She had been dependent on her father financially, and this trip enabled her to think about how she could live independently through her writing.

Rosehill (1842) by Caroline Bray (nee Hennell)The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The Brays made Rosehill a place for sharing opinions and experiences, where ‘many friends… enjoyed a seat there in that wooded retreat’ settled on a bear-skin rug. Mary Ann Evans visited Rosehill often and was great friends with both the Brays.

Tray cloth (1872/1880) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Tray Cloth

This tray cloth is an embroidered black baize and was probably given to Mary Ann by Elma Stuart who lived in Dinan in Brittany. Mary Ann and Elma corresponded from 1872 until Mary Ann’s death in 1880. They had a devoted friendship, exchanging many letters.

Stuart was a fan of George Eliot’s writing and gave her a number of gifts, including pieces of furniture with decorative carving, which she had made herself.

Robert Evans (1773 to 1849) (1830/1841) by CarlisleThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Robert Evans, Mary Ann’s father, was the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate near Nuneaton. Mary Ann became close friends with Charles and Cara Bray, whose unconventional religious beliefs had a profound influence on her, and in January 1842 she refused to go to church any longer.

This resulted in tensions between her and her father, though their relationship improved after Mary Ann’s her brother Isaac intervened on her behalf. When her father died, Mary Ann wrote ‘what shall I be without my father? It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone’. She clearly respected her father and based many of her moral and religious beliefs on the upbringing she had received from him.

Credits: Story

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.

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