George Eliot’s Piano

A piano, belonging to George Eliot

Contributor: Delia da Sousa Correa

Location: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.

Description: Purchased on 22 November 1869 for the 50th birthday of the novelist George Eliot by her partner George Henry Lewes, this Broadwood piano was delivered to a grieving household. Lewes’s middle son, Thornfield, had returned from farming in Africa with a painful illness and had died, aged 25, just a month previously. It was a period when neither Eliot, who was writing Middlemarch, nor Lewes, were able to work. That the piano was purchased then, indicates that it represented something of deep significance. Not surprisingly, no flurry of references to the new piano fills Eliot’s correspondence at this date. Fittingly however, the piano has an implied presence as a source of solace a decade later when, on the first anniversary of Lewes’s own death, a line in Eliot’s diary for 8 Sept 1879 reads simply: ‘Darwin. Schubert’ (Journals, 180). ‘Darwin’ may denote a visitor, or his books; Schubert she must have been playing at the piano. Eliot’s journal further records that she had ‘Touched the piano for the first time’ after Lewes’ death on 27th May (Journals, 175). This piano is, however, representative not just of the personal importance for George Eliot of Romantic music but of its significance for numerous areas of Victorian culture in Britain.

The purchase of this piano was possible because of Eliot’s success as a novelist, although the fact that it was acquired before the publication of Middlemarch, which made her wealthy, is a further indication of its priority. Nor was it the first Broadwood that Eliot had owned. The first, purchased in 1861, marked an important early milestone in her successful career. The enthusiasm conveyed in Eliot’s letters informs us of the central place a piano occupied in the Lewes’s domestic and social lives. ‘Today our new grand piano came – a great addition to our pleasures’ Eliot records in her journal for 1st October 1861 (Journals, 102). Later that month, she writes that a state of good health and spirits might be attributable to her ‘new grand piano, which tempts me to play more than I have done for years before’ (Letters, III:460). The next year she mentions being unhappy with the piano’s touch – no doubt among the reasons for replacing it with the piano shown here (Letters, IV:30). Despite this reservation, Eliot makes repeated references over the following years to the benefits she derives from ardent and energetic practice (Letters, IV:120, 127). In 1862, the Lewes’s rearranged their entire drawing room to improve the piano’s position and sound (Letters IV:30). It became a centrepiece of Eliot’s social gatherings including the increasingly important Sunday salon held at The Priory, her house at 21 North Bank, Regents Park, purchased in 1863; from 1869 this will have been the place occupied by the piano featured here, when the Sunday salon resumed shortly after Thornton Lewes’s death.

The arrival of Eliot’s first Broadwood was celebrated, on 5th October 1861, with a ‘Beethoven night’ the first of many musical evenings in which music of the Romantic period predominated (Letters, III:456). Eliot owned numerous Beethoven scores and when she acquired her first Broadwood, had been playing Beethoven duets ‘with increasing appetite every evening’ with her eldest step-son, Charles Lee Lewes (Letters, III:346). The liberal politician Frederick Lehmann (1826-1891), who visited The Priory to play Mozart and Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin with Eliot during 1866, described her as ‘a very fair pianist, not gifted, but enthusiastic, and extremely painstaking’; their audience was Lewes who would ‘groan with delight whenever we were rather successful in playing some beautiful passage’ (Letters, VIII: 385 n.7). In October 1868, one year before this piano was acquired, Eliot wrote to Charles requesting him to buy ‘some music from your city man’; she asked Charles to choose ‘things by Schumann and Schubert, of the genre, for example, of Schumann’s Arabesque.’ (Letters, IV:478). The Romantic composers that Eliot played on this piano are frequently alluded to in her novels and were sometimes a standard against which literary contemporaries were measured. It is in this context that we can infer that, in addition to Beethoven and Schubert, she also played some of Chopin’s Études. In an 1856 review she wrote that ‘Turning from the ordinary literature of the day to such a writer as Browning, is like turning […] to the distinct individuality of Chopin’s Studies or Schubert’s Songs’ (Selected Essays, 350). Such a reference indicates the cultural penetration of Romantic music in the world of the London literati.

Date: Completed 25 July, 1868.

Creator: Broadwood and Sons

Subject: George Eliot, novelist (1819-1880). (born Mary Ann Evans, later Marian Lewes).

Media: 

Media rights: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry

Object type: musical instrument: piano

Format: wood, iron, ivory

Publisher:  Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry

Location:  Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry

The manufacturer’s records show that during Eliot’s ownership, the piano was moved between the Lewes’s homes in London and Surrey and that it underwent maintenance in June 1878 and that it was still in Eliot’s possession in May 1880 when she married John Cross.

Digital collection record:  http://coventrycollections.org/search/details/collect/96462

Catalogue number: SH.A.552

References

Eliot, George. The George Eliot Letters. ed. Gordon Haight, 9 vols. New Haven and London, 1954-78. Cited as Letters.

——. The Journals of George Eliot. eds. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Cited as Journals.

——. George Eliot’s Life: As Related in her Letters and Journals. ed. J.W. Cross, 3 vols. Edinburgh and London, 1885. Cited as Cross.

——. Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings.  ed. by A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990. Cited as Selected Essays.

Blind, Mathilde Blind. George Eliot. Eminent Women Series. ed. by John H. Ingram. London: W. H. Allen, 1883.

Share this post