Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 24 (1993)
I am honoured to have been asked to lay a wreath in memory of George Eliot this afternoon. And, I can truly say, I do it in grateful memory. Not many years ago I would have to have confessed that I had not yet read any of her novels. On coming to Coventry, I decided to remedy this situation. For me, whatever town or city I have lived in, its sense of place has been defined very much by its literary associations, the part it has played in the imaginations of its writers and poets. As far as Coventry is concerned, there is only one novelist. Her novels, I am sure you will agree, are among the greatest of their century, indeed, among the greatest in the language. To discover the power of George Eliot' s writing was, for me, an illumination. And as I stand here today, with those who share my admiration and love of an outstanding Midlands lady, I have to say that I envy anyone who comes to the pages of Adam Bede or Middlemarch for the first time. Life would be less rich, less colourful, without the woman we honour here in her home town.
Now, perhaps there is a certain appropriateness in a clergyman laying a wreath here, and giving this address. Clergy seemed to be amongst George Eliot's favourite characters. There is a marvellous procession of clergy in her novels: Mr. Casaubon, Mr. Cadwallader, Mr. Tyke, Amos Barton, Mr. Gilfil, Mr. Stelling, Mr. Irwine, to name but a few - what a fascinating glimpse they give of nineteenth-century religious life, in all its strengths and weaknesses.
But there is also a pleasing irony in a clergyman taking part in this ceremony in this particular year. For 1992 marks a significant anniversary in the career of our authoress. One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1842, Marian Evans committed the famous act that was, in its day, both outrageous and courageous. She refused to attend church with her father. Robert Evans, the fine-looking man whose portrait bangs here in Nuneaton, was perhaps less interested in Marian's inner religious struggles than in making sure that his daughter behaved as was proper for a middle-class young woman with eligible prospects. As so often, religion was not so much a matter of conviction or truth, rather a convenient social tool.