INTERNATIONALLY renowned literary, TV and film heavyweights have backed our Bring George Eliot Home campaign for Coventry to do more to mark the great novelist’s important connections with the city.
Writing for us this week is the distinguished George Eliot biographer, Emeritus Professor Rosemary Ashton OBE.
She is joined by BAFTA-winning TV and film director Giles Foster, whose work includes an acclaimed BBC adaptation of the George Eliot classic Silas Marner, featuring actor Ben Kingsley.
We also feature a group of Americans who recently visited George Eliot’s former house in Coventry.
Our campaign has joined with the George Eliot Fellowship in calling for her forlorn former home, the listed Bird Grove house in Foleshill, to be opened up to become an international visitors’ centre and suitable cultural resource.
It would be timely, with her bicentennial in 2019, and with the city bidding to be UK City of Culture in 2021.
In response to our campaign launched last month, support has already come from officials behind the bid, Coventry’s culture trust which runs the city’s museums, and Coventry University.
Leading city councillor Linda Bigham has also responded by pledging to explore potential options, including alongside the Fellowship, which has called on the city to work in partnership with the novelist’s birthplace, Nuneaton.
Our campaign has also called for more to be done in Coventry city centre to mark George Eliot – born Mary Anne Evans. Her time here included seven years in the 1840s living at Bird Grove, her schooling in the 1830s, and some of her earliest writing being published in the Coventry Herald and Observer.
Prof Ashton is Emeritus Quain Professor Ashton for University College London; and Giles Foster’s literary adaptations for the screen also include George Eliot’s Adam Bede.
In writing an Open Letter to councillor Linda Bigham for publication by us, Prof Ashton urges Coventry to “take the initiative over Bird Grove and embrace the celebrations in 2019”.
She notes preparatory discussions are already under way for bicentennial events at Westminster Abbey, the British Library, the National Portrait Gallery, and even in Leicester.
Mr Foster writes that Bath “celebrates Jane Austen vigorously”, adding: “If Bath can do it so can Coventry.”
A group of London-based American women recently visited the boarded-up Bird Grove, with help from the George Eliot Fellowship.
Among them was Debra Morgan, who told us: “A group of eight women travelled from London to Coventry and Nuneaton to see where George Eliot spent her youth.
“They have been taking a master class on the novel Middlemarch with Alice Leader, author and retired teacher at the American School in London.
“Leader and her adult students thoroughly enjoyed seeing Griff House (birthplace in Nuneaton), Holy Trinity Church, and other landmarks associated with Eliot’s life and novels.
“One member of the group said, ‘It was wonderful that Bird Grove is still standing, but we do hope that it can be properly restored and opened to the public sometime in the near future. Eliot’s time there was so crucial to her development as a writer and in the evolution of her religious and philosophical views.”
John Burton of the Fellowship, who escorted the group and also helps on the George Eliot trail in Nuneaton where the offer is being expanded, said: “They spent two nights at a local hotel, Griff House, George Eliot’s girlhood home until she was 21, and moved to Bird Grove, and spent money in local Coventry and Nuneaton restaurants and shops.”
Our campaign argues the sorry state of the closed Bird Grove is a missed opportunity for the city, not just for revenue from tourists.
Bird House is owned by the Bangladesh Centre Limited whose directors include councillor Rois Ali. It is advertised as ‘to let’ –
PROF ROSEMARY ASHTON WRITES…
Professor Rosemary Ashton, George Eliot biographer, has written the following words in response to our campaign, as an Open Letter to Coventry councillor Linda Bigham..
As a biographer and critic of both George Eliot and her life partner George Henry Lewes, and as a Vice-President of the George Eliot Fellowship, based in Nuneaton and Coventry and responsible for many enriching cultural events over the years, I am writing to you to ask for your support.
It is surely the right time to ensure that one of Mary Anne Evans’s homes, Bird Grove, is renovated and made available for George Eliot-related events and activities, if possible in time for the very important George Eliot bicentenary year 2019.
The George Eliot Fellowship, the Coventry Observer, and the Coventry Society have joined forces to press for Bird Grove to become part of the George Eliot culture trail, as a visitor centre or other vital part of the story of her life. I strongly support the initiative.
George Eliot is the greatest writer to have emerged from Nuneaton and Coventry. She is recognised as one of the greatest novelists in English; indeed Middlemarch is named again and again by modern novelists and critics as the greatest English novel of all.
Her achievements will be celebrated throughout 2019 in both the Midlands and London, with conferences, exhibitions, talks, and debates devoted to her life and work. Some colleagues are in active conversation with the British Library, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Society of Literature about organising events in London.
Other colleagues are planning a conference in Leicester, and the George Eliot Fellowship is to organise many events, including a special version of the annual wreath-laying which takes place at her memorial in Westminster Abbey on or around her birthdate, 22 November.
As Coventry is also bidding to become City of Culture in 2021, it would make great sense for the city to take the initiative over Bird Grove and embrace the celebrations in 2019, in order to demonstrate its commitment to culture, both local and national, and also – in George Eliot’s case, due to her worldwide reputation – international.
I’m sure you agree that an extra effort to celebrate the great writer whose novels are mainly set in the Midlands where she was brought up is well worth making.
Rosemary Ashton OBE, FRSL, FRSA, FBA,
Emeritus Quain Professor of English Language and Literature,
University College London
GILES FOSTER, BAFTA AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR, WRITES:
George Is A Woman
A bachelor from Raveloe whose life was tragically torn apart when he was burgled says he has moved on and has now adopted the little girl who mysteriously walked into his house one winter night.
This story did not appear in the Coventry Observer but in a book I read as an eleven year old. I was captivated by the sadness and joy: angered by the injustice but gladdened by the kindness. It was George Eliot’s SILAS MARNER but I had no idea who the author was or where he lived. Quite simply it was a beautiful tale that touched my heart.
Some sixteen years later I was standing outside a ruined cottage not far from Coventry with a film crew of fifty; Ben Kingsley dressed as a weaver; and a beautiful little girl with hair the colour of gold coins. By that stage, of course, I had learnt that George Eliot was Mary Anne Evans who had lived down the road and written some of the greatest novels in the English language.
“A prophet is not without honour except in his own country” –
But there are exceptions to this rule. My home city of Bath celebrates Jane Austen vigorously. It is a thriving industry that I endorse and have even contributed to with a film of Northanger Abbey. Commercialisation – well, why not? And if it brings more people to read the books that is nothing but good.
George Eliot has, for many of us, claims to even higher praise for her superior literary powers. Less showy but a depth of feeling, understanding, intelligence and humanity that deserve wider recognition. Unconventional, fearless , an early champion of women’s rights, funny, serious. And now often overlooked.
If Bath can do it so can Coventry. I write from the heart in supporting the efforts of the Council, The Coventry Observer, The George Eliot Fellowship and many other organisations and individuals to Bring Her Home. She is here. Let’s tell the world.
Giles Foster is a BAFTA award-winning director of many literary adaptations. His love of strong stories extends through his films of George Eliot’s SILAS MARNER and ADAM BEDE to novels by Joanna Trollope, Maeve Binchy and Rosamunde Pilcher.