Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 39 (2008) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am extremely grateful to you for inviting me here today to give this speech on George Eliot's Birthday. It is a real pleasure and very flattering: I hope I can live up to expectations.
If you had told me a year ago that I would be standing before you all now as Project Officer for the 150th anniversary celebrations of George Eliot's first work of fiction, I would have been surprised to say the least! For somebody who values literature as much as I do, who greatly admires the work of George Eliot, and who loves seeing people enjoy our culture and heritage, it has been a truly thrilling job to take on. I am aware also that many of the people I have been working with are volunteers and have not had the privilege to be paid for pursuing the activities they enjoy. In this sense too, I have been very fortunate to be in the position I am. Of course, soon I will have moved to new territory - I don't know where yet - and can only hope that I will be lucky enough to move into a similar position. This one, however, will take some beating!
Before I talk about the festival, I would like to tell you a bit about how I got to know and enjoy George Eliot's fiction, and also to tell you about a prophetic experience I had involving The Mill on the Floss which, I think, foreshadows my experiences with the festival.
I have not always been an 'Eliotic' person, if that is the correct term to use. Although I had completed a degree in English at Swansea, it was not until 2001 that I first read a book by George Eliot. I no doubt would have got to her sooner or later, but I always preferred twentieth century writers to nineteenth-century ones - people like D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell probably because I was at that stage of life where you value controversy over sensitivity, and strong judgements over sympathy. As a consequence, I had not read much that had been written before 1900. However, it was my girlfriend (now my wife) who insisted that I read George Eliot's Middlemarch in the summer of 2001, describing with great relish its superb canvas of life, its panoramic vision of a buzzing Victorian town, its sense of the myriad interactions of people as they go about their ordinary lives, and its emphasis on the great value that all our good acts have no matter how small. It was, she said, her favorite novel, and this was saying something for somebody who had read more novels by the age of 16 than most people read in a lifetime. Real evidence of her precociousness was brought home to me on one occasion when she said that she did not discover until the age of about fourteen that 'The Ring Cycle' was an opera by Wagner - she had foolishly thought it referred to The Lord of the Rings! Of course, all teenagers should know their Wagner! (You can imagine that I have had an inferiority complex ever since.) Anyway, in this context you can see that her remarks on George Eliot were praise indeed, and a recommendation not to be ignored.