Celebrating the 200th anniversary in 2019 of the writer George Eliot’s birth on 22nd November 1819 has brought a raft of work relating to her novels, her genius, her controversial life, and her connections with Coventry and Nuneaton in Warwickshire. Ranging from academic research, conferences, television and radio programmes, and performances of adaptations of her novels which even include a musical version of Silas Marner.
There has always been pride in Nuneaton for their famous daughter Mary Ann Evans, the name George Eliot was a pseudonym to ensure her anonymity in the male dominated world of writing and publishing. Her unfailing love and reverence for Warwickshire and its people is illustrated in her novel’s characters and situations, many of which can be traced to places and people she knew well. She moved with her father to Coventry, having attended school there too, but Coventry has not appreciated her as fully as the lovers of George Eliot would like. This is in the process of being addressed by the George Eliot Fellowship, and the recent exhibition of George Eliot at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum goes some way to encouraging a renewed dialogue of her association with the city. The exhibition at the Herbert includes a prestigious loan of the original manuscript for her grand and beautiful epic novel Middlemarch from the British Library. Open in a case so that her handwriting and amendments can be seen is a wonderful insight into the writing process. This will be on show as part of the British Library Treasures on Tour programme until the 5th January 2020 when it will move to Nuneaton for 8 weeks.
The Herbert exhibition contains many interesting, memorabilia of her life locally, her writing desk and writing board, with stationery cabinet and personal letters. Items of clothing, a lace bonnet and cape, leather gloves and an opal ring amongst other items belonging to her and her family. Her life is mapped out with contemporary images of her homes and people close to her. She considered herself to be not blessed with good looks, however her portrait by François D’Albert Durade, painted when she lodged with him and his wife in Geneva in 1849, portrays a warm, kind, generous woman with engaging blue eyes.
The Herbert have the piano George Henry Lewes gave her for her 50th birthday on permanent display. Part of the intrigue around George Eliot is her relationship with Lewes. They lived together as if married, even calling herself Mrs Lewes, although Lewes was in fact married to someone else. This blatant flouting of convention was too much for the Evans family and Mary Ann was ostracised with the ensuing scandal and was a contributory factor to choosing a pseudonym. Mary Ann was much in need of love and affection and was not going to surrender a chance of a life with Lewes which amounted to 24 years. The estrangement form her family ended with her marriage to John Cross in 1880, but Mary Ann died 7 months later.
A history of exclusion from her family and of life in Warwickshire may have contributed to the lack of recognition in her home territory which is now beginning to thaw. The rejection of society convention, a denouncement of any religious faith, and openly living with a married man, notwithstanding becoming a successful writer, Mary Ann was not entirely embraced by her community. Scandal and notoriety did not sit well with the people of Warwickshire and moral history is severe. Today we look at the colourful life of Mary Ann Evans and consider her brave to follow her convictions and to be successful in her chosen occupation and her choices in love. We admire her audacity and tenacity to succeed and consider her writing to be that of the best in the English language. Her humanity and understanding of people and what makes them human is beautifully observed and closely drawn with not only sympathy, but also humour. Her characters are recognisable as universal, we all know someone with some or all of their attributes and delight in the truth her novels illuminate human nature.
The 200th anniversary of her birth has provided a lens through which to examine and interrogate her life and work. The severity of history is seasoned with time and a relaxation of a strict moral code. We are now able to assess the work without that cloud of suspicion or denigration and enjoy the insights George Eliot provides. Yes, her text can be weighty and impenetrable, too dense and wordy for today’s taste, but the characterisation and humour is universal. Her turn of phrase, and skill at drawing people brings life to a bygone age and can be seen as a key to another century, and with that an understanding of the times she lived in.
The celebrations can be found on a dedicated website George Eliot 2019 and have included a conference in Geneva where she lived for a while, new publications about her and her work, a television programme Everything Is Connected – George Eliot’s Life where artist Gillian Wearing traced her life from Warwickshire to literary success in London with an intriguing and personable examination of Eliot. The radio has honoured her with readings, dramatisations of Silas Marner and Middlemarch, and George Eliot: A Life in Five Characters a series of 5 episodes where each one took a character from her work and proved a connection with a part of George Eliot’s experience or personality. She has been the subject of many literary discussions and we have learned not only of her literary successes, but also of her scholarly works, translating Spinoza’s Ethics and German texts such as Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu and Feuerbach’s Das Wesen Christentums. She was an accomplished linguist, speaking several modern languages; German, French, Italian and Spanish and ancient languages such as, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
Locally the George Eliot Fellowship has been active for many years and have had success in erecting a statue in Nuneaton and for generally keeping alive the connection with Nuneaton, Coventry and George Eliot. Sudden Impulse, a local theatre company, produced a new show Silas Marner The Musical. An ambitious project which involved local people, new songs, and a delightful, exuberant production that mirrored Eliot’s love of life and love. The Albany Theatre in Coventry brought the touring company Conn Artists to the city with their version of Silas Marner. This too brought a new perspective and was an inventive interpretation incorporating puppets and highlighting the humour and tragedy of the engaging tale of one of society’s outcasts.
Currently the Fellowship are raising funds to create a George Eliot Visitor Centre at Griff, Nuneaton where she used to live. The dilapidated outbuildings are to be deconstructed and a new centre built using the bricks and tiles to recreate the old farm buildings and a permanent home to celebrate the genius that is George Eliot. With City of Culture 2021 awarded to Coventry it would be the perfect time to encourage the links with this famous author, to continue being…
Politely Proud, but to also Proclaiming Proudly!