As the world celebrates the bi-centenary of the birth of famous novelist George Eliot, the city where she lived and developed her character and critical thinking has not engaged in this at all. This is very disappointing in a city aspiring to be a “city of culture”.
George Eliot was born as Mary Ann Evans on 22 November 1819 in Nuneaton. She was the third child of Robert Evans and Christiana Evans, the daughter of a local mill-owner. Her father was the Land Agent for the Arbury Hall Estate and Mary Ann was born on the estate at South Farm.
In early 1820 the family moved to a house named Griff House, between Nuneaton and Bedworth. It is now a Beefeater restaurant and Premier Inn. She went to school locally but between the ages of thirteen to sixteen she attended Miss Franklin’s school in Coventry, located on Warwick Row.
At the age of 21 she and her father moved to Coventry to Bird Grove in Foleshill. Her father was a sidesman at the nearby St. Paul’s Church. The closeness to Coventry society brought new influences, most notably those of Charles and Cara Bray.
Charles Bray had become rich as a ribbon manufacturer and had used his wealth in the building of schools and in other philanthropic causes. Evans, who had been struggling with religious doubts for some time, became intimate friends with the radical, free-thinking Brays, whose “Rosehill” home was a haven for people who held and debated radical views.
The people whom the young woman met at the Brays’ house included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through this society Evans was introduced to more liberal and agnostic theologies and to writers such as David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, who cast doubt on the literal truth of Biblical stories.
In fact, her first major literary work was an English translation of Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846), which she completed after it had been left incomplete by another member of the “Rosehill Circle”; later she translated Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1854). As a product of their friendship, Bray published some of Evans’s earliest writing, such as reviews, in his newspaper the Coventry Herald and Observer.
Mary Ann stayed in Coventry until she was 30 in 1849 when her father died. After a stay in Switzerland she returned to England to live in London, now becoming known as Marian Evans and taking a job as Assistant Editor of the Westminster Review, a radical journal owned by one of her contacts at Rosehill.
Marian was determined to become a novelist and took the name George Eliot to disguise her identify, as being female was not a passport to serious literary success at that time. Her first writings under the name George Eliot were “Scenes of Clerical Life” published in 1858 and her first complete novel, Adam Bede was published in 1859. She subsequently published six further novels including Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch.
Middlemarch, a Study in Provincial life, was published in 1872. It describes life in a fictitious Midland town, which is certainly based on Coventry. The weaving village of Tipton is said to have been modelled on Foleshill.
George Eliot died on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
George Eliot’s Coventry home, Bird Grove House, still exists in Foleshill but is closed down and boarded up. It is a Grade II* listed building. There is no notice board or plaque showing the significance of the building, a previous plaque being removed by the last occupiers. Despite this it is a building of international significance and you can only imagine the bewilderment of Japanese and American visitors coming to see the building and finding it in the condition it is in.
The building was previously run as a Bangladeshi Education Centre which fell on hard times and closed. The building is still owned by the charitable trust that ran the building (Coventry Bangladesh Centre Limited), which includes a City Councillor as one of its trustees.
In 2017 the Chairman of the George Eliot Fellowship wrote an open letter to the City asking for it to consider utilising the building as part of City of Culture 2021. The campaign was supported by the Coventry Society and taken up by the Coventry Observer who are campaigning for the building to be opened up to become an international visitors’ centre and cultural resource for generations of future Coventrians. This campaign has been backed by a wide range of national celebrities including Kenilworth screenwriter Andrew Davies who was inspired by George Eliot’s books.
Despite all this campaigning, there has been no change in the status of Bird Grove House and the 2019 bi-centenary of the birth of George Eliot is now upon us. The George Eliot Fellowship has co-ordinated a wide range of events to celebrate this anniversary. Unfortunately only two out of 22 events are being held in Coventry.
It is perhaps disappointing that in a city aspiring to be a city of culture that there is so little attention given to one of its most important literary characters. Stratford has managed to create a multi-million pound industry celebrating the Bard and even tiny Nuneaton has managed to create a George Eliot “industry”, most recently with a half hour Radio 4 appearance on Open Country. But Coventry, the city where she developed her personality and character appears to have turned a blind eye to one of the country’s greatest novelists and a feminist hero.