COVENTRY university and culture bosses have backed the Coventry Observer’s Bring George Eliot Home campaign.
We, in association with the George Eliot Fellowship, are calling for more to be done to mark the great Victorian novelist’s strong links to the city where she was schooled.
Notably, we say it should include opening up to international visitors the sadly closed and shabby-looking Bird Grove House in Foleshill, where she lived with her father in her formative 20s in the 1840s.
We have also called on more to be done to recognise George Eliot in Coventry city centre.
Her globally renowned works including the classic Middlemarch contain critical descriptions of parochial English life based on Coventry and her experiences here. The Coventry Herald and Observer was also the first to publish her early writings.
Last week we reported how, in response to our approach, leading Labour councillors were keen to examine potential options for Bird Grove House with the Fellowship. They include the Fellowship’ suggestions for it become a suitable learning and cultural space, as well as a tourist destination in association with an expanding George Eliot offering at her birthplace of Nuneaton.
The Fellowship had written an Open Letter to the council, culture trust bosses and Coventry University to propose those organisations might join in partnership to make it happen.
Our responses from those parties are the first public responses to the growing campaign call.
David Burbidge, chair of Coventry City of Culture Trust, the organisation behind Coventry’s bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021, told us: “George Eliot is one of the region’s most famous cultural names and while widely celebrated in Nuneaton, it is right that the connections to Coventry are also recognised.
“She will undoubtedly be a key figure to celebrate in 2021 if we are successful in our bid to be UK City of Culture.
“Her work and life has recently been featured in a major book The Secret Sisterhood which revealed her friendships with the likes of Charlotte Bronte and her own hidden identity fits with the themes of our bid.
“If Coventry wins UK City of Culture it could be a great boost to the campaign to save her house – another part of Coventry’s rich heritage and, with an estimated 1.8 million additional tourists expected if Coventry wins.
“We need to provide visitors with an insight into the role Coventry has played in culture from George Eliot to Philip Larkin, 2Tone to Delia Derbyshire and the invention of theatre in education.
“Middlemarch, which was based on Coventry, is one of the most popular novels ever and recent survey voted the 1994 adaptation one of the top 50 TV shows of all time, which has be potential to drive ‘film tourists’ to the area.
“While UK City of Culture bids have to be from individual cities, this would be an opportunity to work with our neighbours in Nuneaton who will, like other Warwickshire towns, benefit greatly from a successful bid.
“City of Culture is proven to be a catalyst for projects of this nature too. A similar campaign in Hull led to the refurbishment of filmmaker J Arthur Rank’s house with funding from the Rank Foundation and new community uses found for the property which had fallen into dereliction.”
We also approached Coventry University to ask if it would back our campaign call.
A response came from Dr Geoff Willcocks, the university’s director of arts and culture and an executive committee member for Coventry’s 2021 City of Culture bid, who said: “The rich heritage associated with George Eliot and her time spent in the Coventry and Warwickshire area is something our city and wider region are rightly proud of.
“We’re supportive of any efforts to strengthen how her legacy is reflected in the local area, particularly in Coventry but also by working with our neighbours in Nuneaton where she was born. As our City of Culture bid culminates, it’s as appropriate a time as any to celebrate this literary icon from our region’s past.”
Bird Grove House in George Eliot Road, originally misspelt when the street was renamed, is closed, surrounded by a steel fence.
It is advertised as ‘to let’ and owned by the Bangladesh Centre Ltd, where councillor Rois Ali is a director. Our further attempts to contact him this week have again gone unanswered.
WHAT CULTURE COVENTRY SAID
We also sought a response from the Culture Coventry trust, which runs Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry Transport Museum and the Lunt Roman Fort.
It responded: “The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum recognises the vital importance that Coventry played in the life and literary career of one of Britain’s best-known writers, George Eliot.
“The home she lived in, Bird Grove, is important as the place where she re-evaluated her religious beliefs, undertook her first published translation work, and nursed her father in his final days.
“From Bird Grove she was set free, eventually moving to London firstly as editor of the Westminster Review and then to become a world-renowned novelist.
“Bird Grove plays a significant role in the story of George Eliot and her time in Coventry, and how the people and the city influenced her writing and helped her on the way to literary superstardom.
“The friends Eliot made in Coventry were radicals and free-thinkers who looked to make positive social change in their city.
“There are artefacts and rich archival material in the Herbert’s collection illustrating how Eliot lived, worked, and formed friendships that lasted for the rest of her life.
“The Herbert firmly believes that George Eliot is one of Coventry’s cultural greats, and that her life and work should recognised and championed throughout our city.”