Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
I always used to be an admirer of Charles Lamb until I read recently his view of bluestockings or intellectual women writers: 'If she belonged to me I would lock her up and feed her on bread and water, till she left off writing poetry. A female poet, or female writer of any kind, ranks below an actress I think.' What a sentiment from a man who was a contemporary of Jane Austen and whose only other defence could have been that he didn't live long enough to read George Eliot!
I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation of the honour accorded me and the responsibility laid on me in being asked to propose this toast. I am very aware of the fact that I am in reality a substitute for Dame Gillian Beer, a truly distinguished scholar, and I freely confess that I have made absolutely no contribution to George Eliot studies throughout my career, although, unlike some who have attended the meetings and lunches of this fellowship over the years, I have actually read George Eliot. Nevertheless, I must ask your indulgence for what I am about to say and if, like me, you are usually occupied at this time after Sunday lunch in a gentle sleep, please feel free ...!
From the moment that I received the invitation to propose this toast I began to think very seriously about George Eliot and to search for any qualifications I might have for daring to address you who are so very knowledgeable about her, and after a short investigation I found a very suitable starting-point. 140 years ago in 1865, four years after the publication of Silas Marner, George Eliot who never forgot her origins, began her novel Felix Holt, the Radical with an imaginary coach journey across the Midlands of England 35 years earlier, in about 1830. At first she describes the typical traditional unchanging rural scene - but after a few pages the mood changes with the landscape, and she continues:
But as the day wore on the scene would change: the land would begin to be blackened with coal-pits, the rattle of hand looms to be heard in hamlets and villages. Here were powerful men walking queerly with knees bent outward from squatting in the mine, going home to throw themselves down in their blackened flannel and sleep through the daylight, then rise and spend much of their high wages at the alehouse with their fellows of the Benefit Club; here the pale eager faces of handloom-weavers, men and women, haggard from sitting up late at night to finish their week's work, hardly begun till the Wednesday. Everywhere the cottages and the small children were dirty, for the languid mothers gave their strength to the loom; pious Dissenting women, perhaps who took life patiently, and thought that salvation depended chiefly on predestination, and not at all on cleanliness. The gables of Dissenting chapels now made a visible sign of religion, and of a meeting-place to counter-balance the alehouse, even in the hamlets.