O May I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirr’d to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.
In “The Choir Invisible” George Eliot gave an indication of what she hoped her literary afterlife might look like. I joined Professor Ruth Livesey on the AHRC “Provincialism” project in September and since then I’ve been considering where George Eliot lives in 21st century cultural discourse. Over the past couple of months, I have been using the George Eliot collections at Nuneaton Library and Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, who are partners on the project, to delve into the nature and trajectory of Eliot’s literary fame. One of the outputs of my post is to produce a scholarly article on this work, but I thought on this, the bicentenary of Eliot’s birth, I might share some gems from the Nuneaton collections and some reflections on the research so far. So, where does George Eliot live in 2019?
Eliot lives in the legacy of material culture she left in her wake. From the exquisite collection of her works at Nuneaton Library to local and national monuments, Eliot has been commemorated in ways large and small since her death in 1880. Public monuments include the George Eliot granite obelisk in the George Eliot Memorial Gardens in Nuneaton; the statue in Nuneaton Town centre (erected in 1986) and the memorial stone in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abby, unveiled to coincide with the centenary of her death in 1980. But Eliot lives too in smaller ways in historical collections of local ephemera: in postcards of local places she uses in her works, in bookmarks, commemorative envelope covers, a Royal Mail postage stamp, in souvenir programmes of the week-long celebration in Nuneaton to mark the centenary of her birth in 1919. Tracking local newspaper reporting about Eliot since her first published fiction appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1857, reveals a recurrent concern after her death, that she should not be forgotten. This concern was reflected early on, in the words on the George Eliot memorial obelisk in Nuneaton: “Lest we forget”. The raising of funds for a permanent memorial was the stated aim behind the events of the 1919 Eliot celebrations in Nuneaton and was finally brought to fruition through the work of the George Eliot Fellowship fifty years after its founding.
Eliot also lives in objects and artefacts. I was delighted to find she had a Royal Holloway connection, having attended Maths classes at Bedford College in 1850-1851.
I have been particularly drawn however to the small, every-day, commonplace Eliot artefacts contained in the collections at Nuneaton Museum, such as a simple receipt, signed by “Marian Lewes” which records the income she received from the trustees of her fathers’ estate on 8 December 1857. The receipt demonstrates the right Eliot claimed to name herself, but what makes the receipt even more remarkable is that it is addressed by the trustees to “Mrs Marian Lewes”. It is a visceral example of Eliot’s breath-taking self-determination. When she signed the receipt her first fictional writing Amos Barton, had just appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine and her literary incognito was still intact.
Fragile pages of blotting paper, also in the Nuneaton Museum collection, are extraordinary survivors of Eliot’s workaday life as a writer.
An empty mourning envelope, date stamped two days after Eliot’s death, addressed to her brother Isaac Evans at Griff, their childhood home, was arresting, bringing their relationship, bookended by rejection and loss, into sharp focus.
Eliot lives, of course, in academic discourse, in scholarly endeavour and debate but she has always lived in popular culture in film, radio and TV, in theatrical performances, public readings, pageants even musicals. During the week-long centenary celebrations in 1919, 2000 people took part in an open-air theatrical performance of “The George Eliot Centenary Pastoral Play” written by A. Farmer. This year the GE 2019 website testifies to a rich array of local, national and international events, readings, panel discussions, tours and theatre performances in her honour.
Eliot lives at the points of intersection between academia and popular culture. Two events yesterday at Senate House (George Eliot at 200) and the British Library (What’s So Great About George Eliot?) highlighted the impact of Eliot on the personal and professional lives of contemporary writers, broadcasters, actors, direct family descendants, George Eliot Fellowship members and Eliot scholars.
Eliot lives in mass digital repositories. During this research the scrapbook, a collection of ephemera, newspaper clippings, photographs, pamphlets and event invitations, drawn together over time, has come to resonate with me in a very 21st century way. This is not purely because they are a physical medium I have been consulting at Nuneaton Library, but because I have been searching for Eliot in mass digital repositories, seeking out fleeting references from forgotten, seemingly unimportant sources which only become significant when brought collectively before the eye: Eliot, there is no doubt, lives in the digital age.
Eliot lives, as she most hoped she might, in people, in expressions of humanity and in the richness of life seen through multiple perspectives. She is the subject but perhaps too the method underpinning the multiple perspectives of Gillian Wearing’s ground-breaking film “Everything is Connected: George Eliot’s Life” available on BBC iplayer.
I have during my time in Nuneaton seen George Eliot’s legacy in the quiet, unfailing kindness of the staff of Nuneaton Library and Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, to all who enter their doors. Eliot may yet to reach the dizzying global profile of Dickens, but her legacy lives.
Copyright in all the images displayed in this blog belongs to the copyright owners identified beneath each image. They are used here courtesy of Nuneaton Library, Nuneaton Library and Museum and Royal Holloway, University of London Archives.