Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
When I was asked to come here to open this lovely garden I wondered what on earth I could say about George Eliot that you hadn't thought, read, written or said already - and then I decided that I should talk about the one thing that you don't know about, and that is what has meant to be George Eliot's great- great- great-niece.
It wasn't a thing I questioned when I was little, it just was; at home the book shelves were full of leather bound volumes of her novels and the downstairs loo had pictures on the wall of her early homes. I would sometimes sit at my father's desk, curled up in what I have only just discovered was Robert Evans's chair.
I did know, from an early age, that I was supposed to be proud and I can remember going to school and telling all my friends that George Eliot was my great- great- great-aunt, even though, at six I had no idea why this was an impressive thing, and nor had they - but they were terribly impressed by the fact that I had an aunt who seemed to be a man.
Round about this time I got rather confused. I knew that my father, as a little boy, had come from Africa to live in England with an aunt (George Eliot, I presumed). I knew that he lived near Coventry during the war (and that was where she came from wasn't it?). I was left with a vision of an aunt, who seemed to be a man, sitting with my father in an air raid shelter, both of them in their pajamas.
A bit later on being George Eliot's niece meant going to Westminster Abbey to see the dedication of the plaque in Poets' Comer. I remember the slippery wood of the pew and the roof of the Abbey and not being able to see anything else because of the sea of ladies in huge hats sitting in front of me.
When I grew up and became an actor like my father, being related to George Eliot seemed to mean that my father and I were the only members of Equity never to have appeared in a television adaptation of her novels, but we've consoled ourselves with the thought that those poke bonnets wouldn't have done anything for either of us.
Being George Eliot's great- great- great-niece has its marvellous moments. It's no longer a thing that I show off about but a golden nugget of information that I save to tell people that I know would really appreciate it.