Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 23 (1992)
We are here this morning to remember a great English novelist, and one of the most formidable intellectuals of her day. It is appropriate that we should do so in Nuneaton, close to South Farm, Arbury, where Mary Ann Evans was born, and also close to Griff, where she grew up. It is right, too, that I should say Mary Ann Evans, for this was her birthplace; the birth of 'George Eliot' took place elsewhere.
But why, it might be asked, should we honour a writer at her place of birth when her adult life, and more importantly, her entire professional life, was spent in London and in other places? Mary Ann Evans as we know, left Griff when she was 21, spent some formative years in Coventry, and then moved permanently to London. She scarcely ever returned to Warwickshire for more than a brief visit.
For those who know George Eliot's work, and particularly her early work, there is one obvious and immediate response to this question. Nuneaton and the surrounding Warwickshire countryside are at the very heart of those early books. She began to write the three stories which comprise Scenes of Clerical Life, 'The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton', 'Mr. Gilfil's Love Story' and 'Janct's Repentance', during the early years of her life with George Henry Lewes, and very much with his encouragement. Living in London, in a period at once of great personal happiness but also a period of considerable social isolation and uncertainty as regards her own family, she turned to the world of her childhood, to the landscape, to familiar places, to actual people, clergymen in particular, whom she remembered, even to events she had heard about, and she wove her tales around those memories. We know too that Warwickshire was agog with excitement about them, that various 'keys' were in circulation as to who was meant to be who, that one man, a Mr. Liggins, actually put about the story that he was the author of the Scenes. Her family, now scattered through Warwickshire, though, were certain that the stories, and even more certainly, the novel which succeeded it, Adam Bede, could only have been written by Mary Ann. And of course in her next novel, The Mill on the Floss. she was writing from a great well of memories, of her childhood, of her immediate family, and of her relations, all of whom figure in that novel.