Our Bring George Eliot Home campaign this week hears from Germany, where enthusiast Mara Mauermann lives. She writes…
It is a regrettable fact that most of the buildings once inhabited by George Eliot have disappeared, or rather, have been allowed to disappear.
At present, not one of the three remaining actually ’belongs’ to her, although the one at Chelsea at least has a Blue Plaque for literary pilgrims to stare at, and at Griff House (in Nuneaton) there is the prospect of a George Eliot Visitor Centre in one of the outbuildings.
The third, Bird Grove, whence she moved from Griff with her father and spent some very important formative years, for a long time had been let. And that was that.
One might regret the fact that there wasn’t even a plaque on its wall to proclaim its importance.
Over the years, hordes of tourists on the ’George Eliot Trail’ must have passed that way, longing for a peep inside, which, however, few were granted.
I am among the lucky few, thanks to the silvery tongue of the late Bill Adams, who persuaded a caretaker to let us in, as ’this lady had come all the way from Germany’ for the purpose.
Frankly, I hadn’t, as I knew it was impossible! – thus this unexpected miracle was all the more gratifying.
What I saw, makes me emphatically support John Burton’s (of the George Eliot Fellowship) proposal to transform this building into a centre for literary and other purposes.
The building would be admirably suited to such a purpose. Its size is just right – not too large: its atmosphere is urbane: it is a house that is easily adaptable.
A romantic kind of ’shrine’ certainly fires the imagination. A mere good-sized house, however, can be used. And one like Bird Grove, with its graceful sweep of staircase into a generous hall, combines mere usefulness with beauty.
But! – is it feasible? And what about the costs? It is one thing to be enthusiastic about an idea, to practically see it all complete beforehand: getting there is quite another story, and the dread matter of ’cost’ is, of course, the decisive factor.
Money must be got for the purpose, and, as usual, money will be hard to come by.
That is one reason I rejoice in the comparative smallness of the building.
Preserving it will cost a lot of money, but not a huge amount. Not as much as other projects I know of.
Where I live, in The Ruhr, we have more derelict collieries and other industrial buildings than we know what to do with.
Still, lots of them have been successfully converted to new purposes. The results are breath-taking.
Compared to the demands of the conversion of vast industrial halls, the preservation of a mere house seems feasible enough!
Surprisingly, our Industrial Heritage actually draws a fair and increasing number of visitors. To anyone familiar with the rather unprepossessing Ruhr area, which doesn’t exactly recommend itself as a tourist site, this is nothing short of a miracle.
By comparison, diverting part of the stream of literary tourists flooding neighbouring Stratford towards the various George Eliot sites seems like child’s play.
Which of course it isn’t. For one thing, let’s face it: George Eliot simply is not as popular as Shakespeare. It isn’t fair, but it is a fact.
But this is another reason why the size of Bird Grove – a residential house, not a stately one – is an asset. It will be ’just right’ for its purpose. Or maybe – one of these days – even too small?
I envisage a house buzzing with activity all the year round, with study groups having to book well in advance because it is so difficult to accommodate them all.
All this will take money, good planning, good logistics, and time. Probably a good deal more of each than we now envisage, but wouldn’t it be marvelous if the George Eliot Bicentenary in 2019 could be celebrated at least with a beginning?
Here’s what we want:
George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in Nuneaton, lived in Bird Grove in her twenties in the 1840s after being schooled in Coventry, her formative years which went on to feature in her works including the enduring classic Middlemarch.
The Coventry Observer’s Bring George Eliot Home campaign – in partnership with the Fellowship – is calling for a blue plaque; access to tourists and visitors interested in George Eliot (alongside other activities); and examination of restoration funding which might also work for the building’s private owners; and for Coventry to do more generally to celebrate the writer’s important connections with the city in partnership with Nuneaton – with her bicentenary next year and UK City of Culture in 2021.