25th Sep, 2018

Eliot Class hears of how Victorian girl overcame prejudice to succeed

Les Reid 21st Feb, 2018

YOUNG pupils at a Warwickshire school class named after George Eliot heard about the 19th century girl who faced barriers simply because of her gender – before becoming the ‘richest woman in Victorian England’ as a novelist with a man’s name!

Last week, we reported how the nine and 10-year-olds of ‘Eliot Class’ at Park Hill Junior School, Kenilworth, have individually written to Prime Minister Theresa May and other national and local leaders.

They are calling for the world renowned novelist’s former Coventry home, the listed Bird Grove in Foleshill, to be preserved and opened up to visitors.

The children had been keen to add their voices to the Bring George Eliot Home campaign, run by the Observer in partnership with the George Eliot Fellowship.

The Fellowship’s John Burton has now also given a talk to the class. He was accompanied by his 17-year-old grand-daughter, A level drama student Sophie Burton.

She wore a replica of a dress once worn by the young Nuneaton-born Mary Ann Evans, who was to become George Eliot the novelist much later in life.

The Eliot Class was characteristically knowledgeable on the subject of the change of name. When asked, pupil Amelie said: “In the Victorian period, women weren’t taken seriously.”

And Bella explained: “She wanted people to recognise her for her books, not who she was.”

Mr Burton, emphasised to the class how she also wanted to avoid the “gossip and scandal” of living with a married man George Henry Lewes in London, her great love and inspiration.

He said: “The dress is based on one she wore and still exists in the museum in Nuneaton. A statue in Nuneaton, which has only been there for 30 years, also has her wearing the same dress Sophie is wearing.”

He added: “I think it is fabulous that you have written to the Prime Minister. It must make a change for her from Brexit. She’ll be receiving something more interesting from children in Kenilworth!”

Mr Burton also told the children: “George Eliot was writing these books 150 years ago. But they are not dead. They are alive.

“We are still talking about her. That’s how literature lives. And we want you to do something about it.”

Regarding the shabby Bird Grove, where even a plaque has been removed, Mr Burton told the class: “George Eliot’s bicentenary is next year and Coventry is to be the UK City of Culture for 2021.

“It’s another opportunity to say, ‘Come on, George Eliot is important.’ And we need people like you to say, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea.”

The George Eliot Fellowship is also seeking further grant funding to restore an outbuilding at Griff House in Nuneaton, Mary Ann Evans’ childhood home, by November this year as a visitor centre.

It hopes Nuneaton and Coventry can work in partnership to develop a George Eliot offer to rival Shakespeare in the south of the county.

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