English, Department of



Ruth Harris

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 25 (1994) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (25)


It is said that Napoleon interviewed his prisoners at three o'clock in the morning when their powers of resistance were at their lowest ebb. My video recorder saved me from testing his theory between the unearthly hours of 2.00 and 4.00 a.m. on Thursday 10th March when BBC2's Night School presented its resource material on the life, work and times of George Eliot. If I had had to stay awake, however, then I think that Professor Rosemary Ashton and her able colleagues would have overcome my powers of resistance with Napoleonic skill. The material was attractively varied, and concentration was helped by its division into ten sections, the first four mainly biographical and the last six mainly critical.

Interestingly, Gabriel Woolf began the story of George Eliot's life with her death and burial in unconsecrated ground. Her questioning of orthodox doctrine, her tolerance and deep moral concerns made the setting for the first part of the programme peculiarly appropriate, filmed as it was in the cool serenity of a place she knew - Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Church. Against glimpses of stained glass, Gabriel Woolf reminded us of George Eliot's trails formations from evangelical country girl to radical blue-stocking to Successful novelist. His introduction prepared us for an exploration· of her life and background by Rosemary Ashton whose rapid but always lucid narrative was skillfully interspersed with the voices of Gabriel Woolf and Margaret Wolfit. Different voices made for variety: so did different settings and the use of paintings, photographs, and brief clips from an early and occasionally over-coloured film on the life of George Eliot. Three aspects of her life were explored by the three speakers: the 'Industrial Context' of the London that Marian Evans first encountered; 'George Eliot the Woman' which presented the various relationships she made; and a section entitled 'Gossip' which concentrated on her unconventionality, on the 'salt and spice' in her nature refreshingly recalled by William Hale White. Her experiences with Chapman, Herbert Spencer and Lewes must have intensified her penetrating insight into complex relationships between men and women. In an all-too-brief appearance, Professor Gillian Beer discussed why Marian Lewes called herself 'George Eliot', one reason for the 'veil' being of course her liaison with George Henry Lewes. The adjustments of society to her unconventional life, her own adjustment to convention in her marriage to John Cross, and her reinstatement in 1980 when she was given her rightful place in Westminster Abbey brought the story of her life to a close. I have only minor quibbles: why the suddenly displaced picture of the Memorial stone? surely an incorrect portrait of John Cross was shown, and surely 142 Strand was demolished recently and not at the end of the nineteenth century?