Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
It is a great honour to be invited to deliver this civic address today in the presence of the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Nuneaton, and I am delighted to be here among you in George Eliot's home town. My chosen theme on this special anniversary is George Eliot, the Woman and the Writer, and I intend to address a number of questions related to George Eliot's life and art, including what I hope may be some of the less familiar aspects of her early days. But before I do, I hope you will forgive a personal note.
As a Midlander born and bred, I always took a special pride in our great local threesome, Shakespeare, Dr Johnson and George Eliot herself. In particular, I was lucky enough to live in Corley Hall, Corley, outside Coventry for twenty years, in the house formerly known as Corley Hall Farm. This was the place on which George Eliot based the Hall Farm she describes so lovingly in Adam Bede, having visited it, as we deduce, with her father when he made his rounds as a land agent to the Newdigate family in her youth.
From my time there, I can vividly testify to the accuracy of George Eliot's observation and memories. The stone heads of the heraldic beasts she delineates in Adam Bede still reposed on the brick pillars supporting the gates, and the remains of the avenue of old walnut trees still wandered away at the back. Quite unchanged were the attics where the girls of the house gossiped, shared their secrets and slept, next to the cheese room, the finest room in all the rambling attics and the only one with windows, since maturing cheeses, unlike lovesick maids and poor retainers, required both light and air. Still to be seen was the dairy on the side of the old farmhouse from which Hetty Sorrel sees the handsome, fatal Arthur arriving on his horse, and a less romantic touch, but one George Eliot fondly included in her broad palette of country effects, the frogs Mrs. Poyser complained of in the cellar still leapt up at the cellar door.
But long before I lived in Corley Hall, as a young girl full of the questioning and unease that George Eliot so masterfully understood and so accurately depicts, I found her a powerful source of comfort and inspiration, as so many others have for so many years. When I began to write, I was deeply compelled by the power of her example, through which I found the courage to begin writing myself. Like her, I too began by writing criticism and one of my early critical works, The Female Form, forms the basis of some of my observations today. When I moved on to writing novels, I was profoundly encouraged that she had done so too, in 1856, rather late in life, at the age of 37, in an era when the vast majority of the population died in their forties.
But what a beginning! And what a result! My theme today is the interplay of male and female in the life and writing of an author who was regularly hailed for the strength of her 'masculine' intelligence and 'feminine' sympathy - who seems to have had as an author the strengths of both sexes and the weakness of neither.