THIS Open Letter by English Research Assistant Professor BEVERLEY RILETT, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA, is the latest instalment in our Bring George Eliot Home campaign for Coventry to do more to celebrate George Eliot, including at her former home, the listed Bird Grove in Foleshill, Coventry.
Bringing George Eliot Home: An American Literary Tourist’s View
Warwickshire has produced two of the finest authors in history, William Shakespeare and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans).
As a literary tourist and scholar of British literature, this area was naturally on my list of places to visit.
Perhaps my impressions of the community will have some bearing on your current campaign to “Bring George Eliot Home” to Coventry.
Stratford-upon-Avon—featuring Shakespeare’s and Ann Hathaway’s homes and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre—has long been a popular destination for tourists. The Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre is another excellent attraction not far away.
In comparison, George Eliot tourism is in its infancy. Despite the best efforts of the George Eliot Fellowship, a group of devoted local volunteers with worldwide connections who have been promoting the author for more than fifty years, the tourism potential of the area’s second native genius is far from realized.
I was thrilled when I discovered I could stay in Eliot’s childhood home, Griff House (Nuneaton), now converted to a Premier Inn and Beefeater Restaurant. Promotions for the hotel barely mention its history in relation to George Eliot and there isn’t much to see, but I was grateful to the owners for permitting a peek into “Maggie’s attic,” which is part of their own residence.
Nearby was what readers of Eliot’s Mill on the Floss recognize as the “brown canal” and the “Red Deeps” copse. How enchanting to be able to stand in those spots she described about 150 years ago.
I could not have asked for more appreciative and informative tour guides than John Burton, Chair of the George Eliot Fellowship, and executive members Vivienne Wood and Linda Mayne. These community volunteers have been outstanding guides, publicists, and advocates for “George Eliot Country” tours for many years. The international community of Victorianists knows and appreciate their work.
The George Eliot Fellowship is a group of generous, knowledgeable individuals, including but not exclusively academics, who have devoted many years to disseminating information about the author.
They manage the website, publish the journal, sponsor lectures and social events, and regularly organize tours to the George Eliot-related countryside, churches, gravesites, and local monuments for visitors who arrive not only from the UK but also from Europe, America, Australia, and even Japan.
These community ambassadors do excellent work, but there is very little for literary tourists to spend their money on—not even a gift shop.
I am eager to explore the area further to learn more about its rich history; on my list for a future visit is a stay in Astley Castle and a tour of Arbury Hall and Kenilworth Castle. Along with the proposed Visitor’s Centre at Griff, a renovated and open-to-the-public Bird Grove would provide another cultural destination – another reason to return to Warwickshire.
I knew when I visited in October 2016 that Eliot’s Coventry home, Bird Grove, was not open to visitors but I did not expect to find it in its current state of shabbiness, with a chain-link fence, trash in the weedfilled yard, and not even a sign to commemorate the eight formative years Eliot spent there. I would have loved to see Rosehill, the Coventry home of Eliot’s radical friends, the Brays, who used to host touring lecturers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Though Rosehill estate is long gone, there is still a chance to save Bird Grove.
Literary tourism is increasing and so are the numbers of university students who are seeking study abroad opportunities. I am a faculty member in the English department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and I know several students who have visited Warwickshire as part of their study abroad experience
I believe a strong transatlantic collaboration could be developed if Bird Grove is restored and converted to a center for the study of British literature and culture, possibly a place where student interns could work and live for a few weeks while they are staying in England.
I would welcome an opportunity to collaborate further with any interested faculty members at Coventry University or the University of Warwick to further this potential.
When I first heard of the campaign to “Bring George Eliot Home”, I was shocked to learn that Bird Grove is already a listed English Heritage site. I’ve toured the listed Charles Dickens home and museum at 48 Doughty Street in London, a wonderful example of what Bird Grove could be. Another comparison might be the Brontës’ Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire.
Literary tourists are already coming to Warwickshire and looking for places to visit and stay. With Coventry’s relatively easy access to London or Birmingham, one can imagine Bird Grove becoming some combination of a museum, a bed-and-breakfast, a place for students to intern and reside, a place to rent for special occasions, and a place to learn about and celebrate Warwickshire’s exceptional contribution to world literature.