English, Department of



Asa Briggs

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 21 (1990)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


I am privileged as a historian of Victorian England to deliver this Memorial Lecture on the occasion of the 170th anniversary of George Eliot's birth. The future Queen was born on May 24th 1819, described by her father as ' a model of strength and beauty combined': George Eliot was born at five o'clock in the morning on November 22nd. This was the year of the Massacre of Peterloo, when discontent and repression drove the Lancashire radical Samuel Bamford to ask in his poem 'The Lancashire Hymn'

'Have we not heard the infant's cry

And mark'd its mother's tear;

That look, which told us mournfully

That woe and want were there?'

Infants born in 1819 had very different life chances; George Eliot soon became aware of this. And although 'woe and want' were not to be the main themes in Queen Victoria's long reign, which started eighteen years later, they were never to be absent. A more familiar theme was to be 'plenitude'. There were more 'things' around than there ever had been before - and more new things: 'novelty' went with 'plenitude'. At the end of the reign even among socialists the theme was less 'woe and want' than 'poverty in the midst of plenty'.