Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 18 (1987)
No-one who has read George Eliot's novels can be unaware of her interest in the clergy as characters for her fiction - Amos Barton, Mr. Gilfil, Mr. Tryan, Mr. Irwine, Rufus Lyon - or of her knowledge of various expressions of faith - Evangelical, Methodist, Independent, through to ..Judaism in her final novel, Daniel Deronda. She writes of the clergy with a minimum of caricature, some criticism, but she is never without compassion.
Reading her letters confirms this interest as well as her Iife-Iong search for knowledge of the subject and, because her quest is so well documented, her views and her doubts appear to lay her wide open both to her admirers and her critics. Many of her admirers belong to the George Eliot Fellowship her critics often do not. But critics, both inside and outside the membership, have made their views known about what they see as an indulgence by the Fellowship in religious practice - from Grace before the Birthday Luncheon to the placing of a memorial in a church. We were soundly scolded for putting a plaque in Chilvers Coton Church (her 'Shepperton' Church in Scenes of Clerical Life) and for being associated with the one in Holy Trinity, Coventry. The memorial stone in Vestminster Abbey caused a storm of protest, not least in The Guardian. We know that we have members who stay away from our Wreath-laying Ceremonies because of their religious content - not because of their own religious feelings but what they believe to be George Eliot's. At the Nuneaton ceremony we have usually celebrated George Eliot with assistance from the clergy and choir of her baptismal church of Chilvers Coton. At Westminster Abbey the presence of the clergy and some form of religious service is unavoidable. If the nation's national literary shrine were to be somewhere other than Westminster Abbey, our celebration would be, doubtless, without benefit of clergy - like George Eliot's union with G.H. Lewes!
We have tried to answer each protest as it has arisen and hope that our answers have been convincing. The latest criticism arose in the New Humanist, whose editor, Jim Herrick, attended the Celebration Luncheon after the unveiling of the George Eliot statue in Nuneaton last March. He wrote, 'Less appropriately, the lunch began with grace. ... Although George Eliot was far from being a radical free-thinker, grace at a celebration in her honour is surely a betrayal of the principles of a woman who suffered considerably in order to remain true to her agnosticism.' My dictionary includes in the meaning of 'agnostic': one who accepts knowledge of material phenomena only. This alone can hardly relate to George Eliot, but there is neither time nor space to go more deeply into meanings here.