Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The centenary of George Eliot's birth in 1919 was recognized as an opportunity to commemorate her connection with the parts of Warwickshire where she was born and spent her early life. While her association with Coventry and Nuneaton had been noted during her lifetime and in obituaries, and emphasized again when George Eliot's Life as related in her letters and journals, arranged and edited by her husband J. W. Cross was published in 1885, there were some inhibitions about too enthusiastically claiming an agnostic libertine as a local celebrity. Both Nuneaton and Coventry chose to celebrate the centenary, and reconstruction of these celebrations provides particular insight into the reputation of George Eliot immediately after the First World War.
The move to acknowledge George Eliot in the places where she spent her early life, and to identify her with the area, can be seen as part of a more general interest in literary tourism and regionalism going back into the eighteenth century and intensifying early in the twentieth.' The classic centre was not far to seek, in Stratford-upon-Avon sixteen miles to the south of Coventry. Or think of Scott's Abbotsford, open to visitors from 1833; or of the Brontes: Haworth had visitors from the 1850s; or of 'Hardy's Wessex', already in being by 1919, with the author himself as curator and guide.' The possibility that George Eliot might achieve similar recognition was canvassed at the time of the centenary: 'George Eliot was one of the greatest of our territorial novelists, perhaps the greatest of all ... not excepting the amazing chronicles of the works and days of Wessex. She shows us the Mercia that was, that still is in many ways, as a complete community' .3 Somehow 'George Eliot's Mercia' has never taken on.
Already in 1919 there was some history of attempts to popularize the George Eliot country as a tourist resort: for example, in 1914 a Nuneaton newspaper, the Midland Counties Tribune, had produced in conjunction with the London and North Western Railway Company a booklet which 'was placed in the reading room of every Atlantic liner, on the great American expresses, and in the libraries of the chief American cities.' The timing may not have been propitious: war apart, it seems there was a lack of local support: 'Cold water was thrown everywhere, and the chance killed of making Nuneaton into a Stratford-on-Avon'.