Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 35 (2004)
It is now I suppose more than six months since Kathleen asked me to deliver this address and whilst I have given the task much thought, it is only now, a few days before the event, that I am committing myself to paper. I followed my usual course when faced with any task at the museum. I've thought a great deal around the subject often in the middle of the night or on my commute to and from work. I have done my research, scanned books, looked at previous examples and most important of all talked to other people who were patient enough to listen. I also thought about those of her works which I had read at school, during my adult life, and since I took up my post here. I, like many of my predecessors charged with this task, have felt wholly inadequate to it.
My job as a social history curator means I need to find aspects of any given subject and make them relevant to the museum's audiences. A good starting point is generally to find some relevance to myself and work out from there. It is not quite two years since I took up the post of Senior Museum Officer and Nuneaton became my museum home. I inherited a collection of at least 9000 objects, a collection of great variety and scope, many items of which were the everyday items of Eliot's time. I am often asked why I became or continue to be a museum professional. It was as a volunteer more than ten years ago that I was set to work documenting ladies' combinations. I fell in love with the fact that I could handle such old things; I was intrigued at their survival and speculated as to their owners' lives. As time went on I was allowed to work on the trousseaus. I would never forget the fragrance when I lifted the lids from their boxes, so evocative of romance and optimism. Today I am still excited about objects and what they tell us about their makers, users, or owners.
Whilst engaged on some research for our local history gallery I read Asa Briggs's book Victorian Things. In a passage dealing with the rise in cheaply available goods, the result of mechanization, Briggs highlights the varying ways in which Victorian novelists use description of everyday items within their works, and points out George Eliot as the first writer to describe objects. This, as you can imagine, intrigued me and I went back to Eliot's works to consider them in a new light.