Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)
We are here today to pay our respects and do homage to the memory of a great artist and an astonishing woman. Although she died over a hundred years ago, I know that to many members of the George Eliot Fellowship and to readers around the world, she is still our contemporary and to some, she is more vibrant and alive than many living authors. But what if she really were alive today? What if we were actually here not to lay a wreath but to meet the woman herself. I for one would approach the event with some ambivalence.
For how could we impress on her the magnitude of the impact her work has made on us? She must have had that kind of praise from everyone around her. So what words would we choose to make her realise the strength of our feelings without embarrassing her by our enthusiasm?
I once elbowed my way through a crowd at a cocktail party given in honour of a famous author. I had grown up with his work and it had had a profound influence on me, so I was determined to speak to him. Naturally he was the centre of all attention, so I patiently waited my turn to tell him just how wonderful I thought he was and what pleasure his work had given me over the years. I had rehearsed the phrase in my head from the moment I knew I was to be attending. It wasn't over-enthusiastic, I thought, and certainly not sycophantic. It was in my estimation a quiet but considered declaration of gratitude and respect.
Eventually a lull occurred in the conversation and, seizing my chance, I leapt in with awesome sincerity and far too many decibels. The great author stepped back in alarm, his eyes wide as those of a rabbit caught in head-lights. I tried to reassure him by extending a friendly hand forgetting I had a glass of red wine in it and so compounded my onslaught by slopping some of the contents over his shoes. They were suede I remember, light fawn coloured suede.
By now my embarrassment was so intense, that I had what I suppose amounted to an out of body experience. I was no longer looking in to the terrified face of the guest of honour. Now my plane of vision was roughly in line with the light fittings. I was looking down on him and the people who had been talking to him earlier and the circles of acquaintances and other dignitaries attending the function. A hush had fallen on the room or so it seemed to me and everyone was turned slightly in my direction. And although I could only see the top of my head I knew it was transfused with sweat as I shuffled backwards grinning and mumbling and ducking my head like some half-witted mandarin.
Sad to say my enjoyment of that writer's work has never been quite the same. So I for one am uncertain whether I would really welcome the opportunity of speaking with the woman we honour today.
These painful memories come to mind when I think of a name that until a few years ago was little more to me than a footnote in biographies of George Eliot.
My family and I moved into Holly Lodge five years ago and when I mentioned its connection with The Mill on the Floss to a friend in Arbroath where I went to school, he sent me a small velvet covered sewing case which he said had been given to him by the previous editor of the local newspaper, a position which my friend, George Shepherd, now occupies. According to local legend, the sewing case with Roma emblazoned on its cover had been sent by George Eliot to a local man of letters called Sandy Main who had died in 1918. My correspondent knew very little about the man and even less about why he should have received such a gift.