Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)
Starting a new friendship is often a very chanoey business and none more so than the friendship which developed between The George Eliot Fellowship and one of its staunchest supporters, Gabriel Woolf. Gabriel's recent 20th visit to Warwickshire to present his ann\J.al programme of Readings has reminded us how much of a fluke our finding him really was.
In 1969 the Fellowship planned to mark the 150th anniversary of George Eliot's birth with a week of celebrations in Nuneaton. We were then a very small society with a very inexperienced committee but, nothing daunted, we hoped to put the George Eliot Country on the literary map. Looking back after twenty years it is clear that our celebrations had a distinctly homespun look about them, and yet they were all immensely successful. One of the major events of the week was to be the opening of a special exhibition of George Eliot memorabilia in Nuneaton Museum, hopefully by an eminent person. The week was fast approaching and no-one had been found to perform the opening. It seemed that a golden opportunity to make this particular mark was going to be lost.
One evening, quite late, the Fellowship secretary was taking a bath and was listening to the radio. Into the steamy atmosphere floated a beautiful voice reading, in the BBC Radio series 'A Book at Bedtime', Middlemarch. I cannot now believe that I had not earlier heard other episodes of the serialised reading; it was, after all, in an unprecedented 45 episodes, and I was in the first flush of my long term of office and up to my eyebrows in George Eliot's anniversary. Perhaps my desperation had now reached such a state that I decided there and then to invite this actor with a wonderful voice to open our exhibition. After all, I thought to myself, although this is just a job of work to an actor he must have some feeling for the novel if he can read it so well and so sensitively. He may know little or nothing of its author. So desperate was I that this seemed not very significant. He would have to do! I was clutching at the proverbial straw, and the straw turned out to be Gabriel Woolf.
In response to my invitation, Gabriel Woolf phoned me from London to accept with great pleasure. I was astonished to discover that not only did he love Middlemarch he also loved George Eliot and knew a great deal about her. Indeed, he had been commissioned by the BBC to write a radio portrait of her to mark the same 150th anniversary. The actor who 'would do' was an authority on the novelist and a devotee beyond our wildest hopes. We could not have chosen anyone more suitable for the occasion for, when he performed the opening ceremony in June 1969, he told his audience how he had fallen in love with George Eliot at first paragraph. To get some local colour for his radio portrait he stayed in the area for a few days and the friendship was sealed.