Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 17 (1986)
For a long time I have been performing two one-woman shows based on the Victorian novelist George Eliot - Firstly, "The Mill on the Floss", and later a biographical portrait of George Eliot herself. About three years ago, I began to feel that perhaps it was time to move on, and I searched around for another Victorian who might be of interest. One of the names that came to mind was that of Octavia Hill. As it happened, I had confused her with someone else, and when I came to research, discovered that I really knew nothing at all about her.
Here was a woman with enormous influence in her day who had encompassed many vital reforms. She was a Co-Founder of the National Trust, a great conservationist who had devoted a great deal of her time and energy to preserving parks, commons and, in London, finding Open Air sitting rooms, as she called them, for the general public; all this besides her great work on better housing for the poor. She was born in Wisbech and came from a family devoted to work on social problems. Here, indeed, were fresh woods and pastures new!
As I explored and researched, I discovered that much of her early life had been spent in and around the district of Hampstead and Highgate, where I also spent much of my childhood. She moved at the age of 13 to Fitzroy Square, London W. 1. with her mother and sisters. My husband, an architect, had an office there for many years. The name of John Ruskin is closely connected with the world of architecture and he had become Octavia's friend, art teacher and financial backer at the onset of her work on Housing Management. There seemed to be one coincidence after another drawing us together. Octavia's last years were spent in Kent not far from Sevenoaks, and during a walk in some woods at Ide Hill near to the home of some distant relatives, I discovered a National Trust plaque in her memory.
All this naturally made studying her life doubly interesting, and then I discovered, surprisingly, that Florence Nightingale had written of Octavia Hill in a review of the novel Middlemarch. Here she expressed her astonishment that,
"George Eliot could find no better career for Dorothea Brooke than to marry first of all an elderly sort of literary impostor and secondly an inferior fawn, yet close at hand, in actual life, was a woman an idealist too and if we mistake not a connection of the author's who had managed to make her ideal very real indeed. By taking charge of buildings in poorest London, while making herself the rent collector, she found work for those who could not find work for themselves. She organised a system of visitors. She brought sympathy and education to bear from individual to individual. Were there one such woman with power to direct the flow of volunteer help, nearly everywhere running waste in every street in London's East End, almost might the East End be persuaded to become Christian. Could not the sweet sad enthusiast have been set to such work as this?"
So I had, in fact, strayed only a short distance from George Eliot!