JOHN Burton, of the George Eliot Fellowship, writes for our Bring George Eliot Home campaign on ‘Why Coventry Needs Bird Grove’, the great novelist’s former home.
“It is now ten weeks since I wrote an open letter to 22 ‘movers and shakers’ in Coventry about the plight of Bird Grove.
The letter has been copied and forwarded to a huge number of people and has, I think, produced a lot of discussion at city council, museum and university level.
I am grateful to The Coventry Society for its support and to the Coventry Observer for taking up the cause in a magnificent way, and to George Eliot scholars and film directors for their publicly expressed support.
“We await responses from the city council and, most importantly, from the owners of the building who will clearly have an important role in ensuring a future use for Bird Grove which matches its historical importance.
So why is it a historically important building and why is the George Eliot Fellowship making such a passionate appeal on its behalf?
The 21-year-old Mary Ann Evans moved here in 1841 with her father Robert when he went into semi-retirement after 35 years as Estate Manager or Agent for the Arbury estate.
As a girl she had already spent three years from 1832 to 1835 at a school run by the Miss Franklin sisters, daughters of the minister of Cow Lane Baptist Church, and on whom Revd Rufus Lyon is based in the 1866 novel Felix Holt.
That school building survives as Loveitts on Greyfriars Green, and a plaque over the door recalls it former use.
Living next door to Robert and Mary Ann when they moved to Coventry were Mr Abijah Pears and his wife Elizabeth. Abijah was a ribbon manufacturer and future Mayor of Coventry; his wife was the sister of Charles Bray, also a ribbon manufacturer married to Caroline or Cara Hennell.
Mary Ann became a frequent visitor to their home in Radford called Rosehill and made friendships and acquaintances with many of the leading writers, philosophers and radical thinkers of the time.
Rosehill was a meeting place for them, and Bray was a leading member of a small group of employers influenced by Robert Owen who urged better conditions for workers, profit sharing and housing provision.
The people Mary Ann met, the discussions she had and the challenge of intellectual argument was hugely important to the development of the future George Eliot.
It gave her the confidence to make the leap from an agricultural environment at Griff to the centre of intellectual life in literary London, where she thrived, editing the Westminster review for John Chapman, who she first met when living at Bird Grove.
Her London journalism was made possible by writing reviews in the Coventry Herald and Observer which was owned by Charles Bray.
Bray’s brother-in-law was Charles Hennell. He had written An Inquiry concerning the Origins of Christianity in 1838.
It was one of the books which changed theological thinking. Mary Ann had read it and by the end of her first year at Bird Grove she turned her back on established religion and refused to accompany her father to Holy Trinity church.
Her father was furious, regretted moving to Coventry because of his daughter’s striving for intellectual independence, and sent her back to Griff (in Nuneaton) in the hope that her brother Isaac could talk sense into her. He had no chance.
She could argue convincingly with the best brains in the country.
It was her time in Coventry that gave her the confidence to do so.
This was the woman who in later years was to produce the most psychologically perceptive and moving novels of her century, with her masterpiece Middlemarch using characters, ideas and challenges remembered from her years in Coventry.
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.”
PHOTOGRAPHS we publish today provide a rare glimpse into the Bird Grove of old, as well as more recent times.
George Eliot’s former home is now closed, shabby in appearance, and is 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, which appears to have recently fallen on hard times.
The George Eliot Fellowship used to obtain permission to get international visitors inside to observe the building.
The photos show how the living room, study and staircase recently looked.
We also publish rarely seen photos from the 1910s of the study and living room, closer to how they were in the 1840s when they were home to the young woman who was to go on to become one of literature’s enduring worldwide greats.
Last week, celebrated Kenilworth-based Bafta-winning TV screenwriter Andrew Davies, who adapted Middlemarch for the BBC, backed our Bring George Eliot Home campaign.
Writing for us a fortnight ago was distinguished George Eliot biographer, Emeritus Professor Rosemary Ashton OBE, and BAFTA-winning TV and film director Giles Foster, whose BBC adaptations include the George Eliot classic Silas Marner, featuring actor Ben Kingsley.
We join the George Eliot Fellowship in calling for Bird Grove house, in the re-named George Eliot Road 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.
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.
There is not even a plaque hanging at Bird Grove. Our picture today shows one that was taken inside in recent years.