Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
May I begin by thanking the Fellowship for the invitation to be the principal guest at the annual wreath-laying ceremony. My association with today's event goes back over a number of years bringing students to lay a floral tribute at the obelisk. Indeed, when I first came more schools were involved. It is fitting that the secondary school named after many would say the greatest Victorian woman novelist, still comes along faithfully to the Memorial Garden. Kathleen and Bill Adams have visited the school, talked to groups of students and presented the school with a portrait of George Eliot and copies of her writings. During English lessons students visit the exhibition about George Eliot at the local museum. Indeed, George Eliot will play a major role in our new Year 7 'Learning to Learn' course. I hope that by the time the youngsters who attend George Eliot leave school, they will have some knowledge of George Eliot and her writings. I am afraid there are still many visitors to the school who ask me 'And who was George Eliot?'
I thought it would be appropriate this afternoon to remind ourselves of the education Mary Ann Evans received prior to the introduction of a state system of education; then with the help of some of my students we will look at an extract from one of her novels that touches on education today.
Mary Ann Evans was born on 22 November 1819 at South Farm, the family home on the Arbury Estate. When she was four months old the family moved from South Farm to Griff House, a spacious home with a dairy attached.
It was estimated that at the time just one child in every ten went to some form of schooling. From the age of three to five years Mary Ann went to a Dame School opposite Griff House. For a few pence a week the children were taught to read and write, but for most of the time the children were just looked after and kept out of mischief. Can you just imagine what the new Ofsted style report to children might say? 'We are sorry you do not learn very much, but your teachers keep you out of trouble!'
From the age of five to eight years of age Mary Ann was a boarder at Miss Latham's Boarding School in Attleborough. It was from all accounts a cold, damp and dismal place and she was miserable and unhappy, so there was still a problem about schools being fit for purpose! Indeed, she was always much happier in the company of adults than children. No doubt she would have been no happier if her parents had sent her to Chilvers Coton Free School opposite Chilvers Coton Church, that had been founded by Lady Newdigate in 1745. At the time when Mary Ann was a girl there would have been over 100 pupils there, taught in separate boys' and girls' classes. A new idea some secondary schools are experimenting with today! This would have provided a very limited education and only those who attended Chilvers Coton Church were admitted, a condition of course that Mary Ann would have met.