Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 22 (1991) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
It seems incredible that it is now eleven years since the very exciting and moving day in June 1980 when a great congregation of some seven hundred people witnessed the consecration of this memorial to George Eliot. In the years before, the Fellowship Council had to make some momentous decisions. Among the most important was the choice of an inscription for the stone - words which would be on view here in the Abbey to millions of visitors for perhaps hundreds of years into the future. We needed to find a phrase which came as close as possible to an expression of George Eliot's philosophy. According to our records, the choice was made at a meeting in September 1975; I read with interest and not a little frisson of pride, that the Chairman made two suggestions, one of which was adopted. This is the reason why Michael Forrest was asked to read to you today the passage from 'Janees Repentance' containing the quotation, 'The first condition of human goodness is something to love, the second something to reverence'.
I want to consider whether we achieved our aim. In the story George Eliot is clearly talking about the effect of a religious faith on human behaviour. She herself, as a young girl, had ardently embraced religion as a foundation of her life, and at this most impressionable age she witnessed at first hand the plight of the very poor in Nuneaton and Bedworth. We are often temporarily upset by the sanitised version of poverty and starvation shown on our TV screens; it is different actually to be amongst those in dire need, and I think we should remember that the condition of the poorest people in the early nineteenth century was akin to that of those in the so-called Third World today. The religious ardour of Mary Ann Evans faded, but there remained perhaps the most powerful emotion which influenced her adult life - compassion. This awareness of the need to give love and to receive it was strengthened both by her innate reticence and her painful conviction of her own ugliness.