25th Sep, 2018

BRING GEORGE ELIOT HOME: Observer campaign launched to have her Coventry links recognised amid UK City of Culture bid

Les Reid 19th Oct, 2017 Updated: 19th Oct, 2017

THE Observer front page today launches our Bring George Eliot Home campaign to have the city’s most globally celebrated literary figure suitably recognised in Coventry, rather than forgotten.

It would be unforgivable if the current sorry state of affairs continues as Coventry bids to be UK City of Culture 2021.

Whether or not that bid is successful, the truly great Victorian novelist’s 200th anniversary of her birth will be marked across the world in 2019.

The author pen-named George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans in Nuneaton) lived in Coventry for seven years from 1841 in her formative 20s, and was earlier schooled here.

Some of her earliest writings appeared in the Coventry Herald and Observer under its influential editor, the wealthy ribbon manufacturer and philanthropist Charles Bray.

It is considered her experiences in Coventry significantly shaped her later novels including the classic Middlemarch, brilliantly adapted for BBC television and worldwide audiences by Kenilworth-based scriptwriter Andrew Davies.

Some academics and literary giants argue she is the greatest novelist in the English language. Generations of students will continue to turn to her radical and enduringly relevant work, which exposed Victorian notions of morality, gender and religion.

Yet, as we reported two weeks ago, the house where she lived with her father – Bird Grove House in Foleshill – is empty and forlorn, guarded by an unsightly bolted steel security fence.

The listed building’s importance was recognised by English Heritage.

Yet, incredibly, there is not even a plaque to inform the public of the genius that resided there, while a Blue Plaque adorns the London house where she died.

Projects are afoot to develop Nuneaton and Bedworth’s George Eliot offering, including at her birthplace, Griff House.

Much of that work involves the George Eliot Fellowship, which has members as far afield as Japan.

In an ‘open letter’ to Coventry City Council, Coventry University, and the city’s culture trust, the Fellowship’s chairman John Burton has now called for Bird Grove House to become an educational and international visitors’ centre.

It is a call the Coventry Observer’s Bring George Eliot Home campaign wholeheartedly supports.

We also believe she should be marked in the city centre.

The failure to adequately recognise George Eliot’s Coventry connections at Bird Grove House is at best a missed opportunity – for the city’s cultural diversity as much as attracting international tourists.

At least the road where George Eliot lived was re-named ‘George Elliot Road’.

Yet, embarrassingly, the authorities spelt her name wrong in the street name, a mistake that was eventually rectified.

As our report by experienced Coventry journalist Steve Chilton revealed, the building has been owned by The Coventry Bangladesh Centre Ltd since its £150,000 purchase in 2003.

Its recorded directors include well-known city businessman and Labour councillor Rois Ali, who has not even registered the directorship in the council’s register of members’ interests.

In recent years, the house has been used by the Bangladesh community as an educational and cultural resource, and it is understood there was once a brass plaque that was taken inside for safekeeping.

But now a notice advertises the property is ‘To Let’, giving the centre’s phone number. Repeated calls to it and Coun Ali were not picked up.

There is potential for Bird Grove House, in association with Nuneaton and Bedworth’s George Eliot initiatives, to put Coventry on the map alongside Shakespeare’s Stratford, Mr Burton argues.

Let’s make it happen.

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