Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
I would like to thank you for inviting Jane and me to the wreath-laying and to this luncheon and the opportunity to propose the toast to the immortal memory of George Eliot.
It is over a year ago that I was walking through the corridors of Leeds University School of Healthcare Studies when I saw an advertisement for a lecture by Dr Jane Wood of the School of English - and the title of the lecture was "'Webs, Tissues and Predisposing Causes": George Eliot and Medical Science' (Yorkshire Medicine, Volume 12, No. 4, 105-109).
It is not the catchiest title I've ever heard, but because I was unable to attend the lecture I did get in touch with Dr Wood to find out more and what I have to say today is partly due to this unexpected encounter with a poster. It's a bit like the explanation behind the ward namings in this hospital: when you scratch a little deeper you never know what you are going to uncover. I've often wondered why Mary Ann chose the novelist name George Eliot and the consensus that I have come across is that George is a tribute to her companion in learning George Henry Lewes, and Eliot because in her own words it is 'a good, mouth filling, easily pronounced word'.
Jenny Uglow in her biography says that Eliot may have been a nod to Jane Austen's Ann Elliott in Persuasion; she was reading Jane Austen aloud that Spring of 1856.
It was the time her great experiment began to examine the great themes of fruitful sacrifice and in particular the vulnerability of women. She was also testing out her theories about realism and the social novel. It was trendy to describe everything in great detail in her era of writing and ironically she could only be free to make this experiment by posing as a man (Uglow, 83).
But what was different about her from other writers?
She broke the mould by commentating as a man when she was a woman. She had a thing about clergymen. And the loved ones are Amos Barton and, early on, Mr. Gilfil, and Mr. Tryan. Milly Barton shows heroic self-sacrifice so that her husband's influence may spread throughout the community. This is a familiar story for many clergy team members today, Jane, and it goes for men who are married to lady clergy. What would George Eliot make of all that?
But, as an aside, I suspect that if she were writing today she would pick up the vulnerability of men and their redefinition of their role in the community - and also the re-examination of the whole concept of self-sacrifice in an age when we are encouraged to make sure that all material comforts are accrued for the individual, sometimes to the detriment of the wider community. George Eliot certainly examined the areas of life that feed self-sacrifice like Hallowing, Consecrating and Sacredness and Love arising from men's love of suffering women.