Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 45 (2014)
First of all, may I say what an enormous honour it is to be asked to speak on this very special occasion. When John asked me in January what I was doing on 24 November, I was obviously not quick enough to think of a reason to duck out of the responsibility! In fact, I wondered he had asked several others more agile with their excuses before he got round to me.
John asked me to speak about 'What George Eliot means to me'. In consequence, my speech will not be an academic one - those who went to the annual conference yesterday will have returned with quite enough food for thought - but a very personal account of George Eliot's significance in my life.
It goes without saying that I was born in George Eliot hospital - or the College for the Poor, Chilvers Coton, in another age. So many people in this room, no doubt, can say the same. I grew up in Bedworth, surrounded by place-names inspired by characters from George Eliot's novels - how could a bookish child like me fail to want to read them? I remember the old library in Bedworth - what a treasure trove it seemed, with its wonderful, polished and creaky staircase leading to yet more riches on the first floor. It was here that I was allowed an adult reading card when I was just nine, as I had worked my way through the children's section by then.
You will guess at what was my first encounter with George Eliot: the marvellous tale of Maggie Tulliver. I'm sure I didn't reach to the heart of the novel at that age! But I was entranced by the character of Maggie, and the story of her misdeeds, especially the cutting of. the hair. The brilliant detail of her hide-away in the attic at Griff, far from the adult world, was meat and drink to a child like me. Who could not empathize with her 'fretting out her illhumours'? When I was eleven - and I don't know how permission was granted from my parents for this - I was allowed to travel all the way in to Coventry by myself, and go to see George Eliot's school room - Nant Glyn - above Loveitts in Greyfriars Green. Heaven knows what the assistant in the estate agents thought that Saturday morning, when approached by a small girl asking to go up the rickety stairs. But up I went, and marvelled, all alone, at the large old wooden desk and the rows of books. How wonderful it would be to grow up to be a writer, I thought!
Like so many others of you here, I attended Nuneaton High School for Girls, travelling each day via Griff Hollows, or the Red Deeps and 'Shepperton' church - no bypass in those days. Our school carol services were always held at 'Milby' church, and more prosaically, the Wimpy Bar in Church Street, not far from Lawyer Dempster's house, was a very familiar teenage haunt!