CALLS for action by this newspaper’s Bring George Eliot Home campaign have led to a leading councillor seeking a crunch meeting with the owners of the great novelist’s former house in Coventry.
Our campaign, in association with the George Eliot Fellowship, calls for Bird Grove house in Foleshill to be opened up to become an international visitors’ centre and suitable cultural resource, including for generations of future Coventrians. We also call for more to be done in the city centre to mark George Eliot’s formative years in the city.
Our campaign, launched last month, has already been backed by celebrated BAFTA award-winning BBC TV screenwriters Andrew Davies and Giles Foster – who have adapted her novels for global audiences – and by Eliot biographer Professor Rosemary Ashton OBE.
Also supporting our calls are Coventry University, City of Culture 2021 trust bosses and Culture Coventry, which runs the city’s museums.
Last month, in response to our calls to council leaders, leading Labour councillor Linda Bigham said she would consider potential options, including in discussions with the Fellowship.
But it appears nothing has happened in the meantime.
We have now put further questions to council leaders, which prompted a further response from Coun Bigham, the cabinet member for community development.
She said: “I’m looking to arrange a meeting with the current owners of the building and our conservation team to help facilitate a way forward.
“We’ll be happy to update everyone after that has taken place.”
We have asked further questions about the timescale for such a meeting, and will continue to monitor any progress, while keeping the issue in the spotlight.
Time is pressing, with George Eliot’s bicentennial in 2019, and with the city bidding to be UK City of Culture in 2021.
Astonishingly, the former home of whom many critics consider to be the greatest novelist of all is now closed.
We have highlighted how it is shabby in appearance, guarded by an imposing and unsightly steel fence, despite being supposedly protected by listed status.
In recent years, it has been owned by the Bangladesh Centre Limited, which appears to have recently fallen on hard times. Its directors include Labour councillor Rois Ali.
Our requests for the owners to contact us back have so far come to nought.
There is no longer even a plaque hanging at Bird Grove, where Nuneaton born Mary Ann Evans – who famously used a male pen-name to avoid prejudice in a male-dominated world – lived for seven years in the 1840s with her father, several years after being schooled in Coventry.
The George Eliot Fellowship used to obtain permission to get international visitors inside to observe the building.
Her classic Middlemarch novel – brought to modern audiences worldwide by Davies’ BBC TV series – contains scenes, characters and ideas based on her experiences in Coventry.
As the Fellowship’s John Burton, who has written an Open Letter to the city’s authoritites, stated in writing for us last week: “The place which aspires to be City of Culture in 2021 really should be making efforts to secure the future of Bird Grove, to acknowledge its importance in the making of one of our greatest novelists, and to make it a part of a growing market for literary tourism.
“The opportunities are there. Let us not waste them.
“At the moment Stratford and Shakespeare have it all their own way.
“But George Eliot has been described as ‘The female Shakespeare, so to speak.
“This is an opportunity for our ‘movers and shakers’ to bring some of those visitors to Coventry and north Warwickshire.”