2019 in Nuneaton with the George Eliot Fellowship

Nuneaton’s Dairymaid

We must admit, the prospect of a weekend in May in Nuneaton did not have the same attraction as some previous ALS AGM conventions. For instance, we have fond memories of covering the Royal Mile of Edinburgh (hosted by the Wilfred Owen Association and Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship) and a magical walk on the moors at Haworth (with the Bronte Society). However, over the weekend, there was much to celebrate about Nuneaton.

It helped that the town is bucking the trend of some town centres: half closed and depressed, suffering the ravages of the internet trading age. We found that, on a Saturday in Nuneaton, market stalls stretch along both sides of the pedestrianised Market Place and Newdigate Street, and there is a cheery bustle in the town.

The choice of the Town Hall as the AGM venue was inspired. There was the opportunity to see and use the modern facilities of Nuneaton and Bedworth’s Borough Council Chamber (home from home for local government councillors like myself!).

On arrival, delegates were received very attractive goody bags (kindly donated by our friends from Slightly Foxed).

We were given the chance to visit the Mayor’s Parlour and see the long association of Nuneaton with all three military services, and to examine an impressive trophy and silver collection. We learned from the Sergeant-at-Arms that there are two civic chains (one for day-wear and one for special occasions). The other attraction of the Mayor’s Parlour is the montage of pictures to celebrate the bicentenary of George Eliot’s birth (November 1819), donated by the George Eliot Fellowship.

As many readers will know, George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evens, one of Victorian England’s leading novelists. Her first stories appeared in magazines and were followed by novels including Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch. In later years, her novels were especially valued for their detailed portrayals of English rural life.

Social pride may have had a bearing on the story of the dairymaid’s glove, as told by Professor Kathryn Hughes, a Vice President of the Fellowship. We learned from her that George Eliot, for a number of years, told acquaintances that her right hand was bigger than the left, as it had become more muscular from years of churning cheese and butter. Her family, in particular her nephew the Revd Frederick Evans (Rector of Bedworth), vehemently denied the larger right hand claim. The suspicion was that it drew attention to the humble beginnings of the Evans family.

Kathryn Hughes had a show-stopping exhibit for the conclusion of her talk: a right hand glove belonging to Eliot which had been given to a friend. We were able to see for ourselves that it was not unusually large at all. In fact, it was tiny.

John Burton, Chair of the Fellowship, gave an entertaining history of some Eliot commemorations. One hundred years ago, there had been a number of features on the author in Nuneaton’s daily newspaper and there were commemorative postcards. He also spoke of the 18th c schoolhouse at Chilvers Coton, the village where the Evans family once lived. The Council were set to demolish it but it was saved by the Fellowship and is now the Heritage Centre and a good starting point to visit the Church of All Saints and the churchyard which houses the graves of some of the Evans family.

In the AGM itself, Claire Harman addressed the meeting as ALS President. She highlighted the Libraries Connected website, which supports the use and continued opening of libraries in the current, funding-pressured environment.

Another guest speaker was Emma Claire Sweeney, who spoke of the ‘Secret Sisterhood’: friendships between notable women authors. She had discovered that Anne Sharp had been a critical friend of Jane Austen on her writing output, and Mary Taylor had been constructively challenging of Charlotte Bronte’s views on the role of women in society as represented in her novels. It was thought by some that Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf were bitterest rivals. In fact, although they were outwardly critical of each other, they were supportive friends and confidantes, exchanging thoughts and even gifts. Finally, towards the end of George Eliot’s writing life, she had Harriet Beecher Stowe as an encouraging colleague.

At the end of the AGM, there were dramatic extracts by the Sudden Impulse Theatre Company, who have staged a number of adaptations of Eliot’s works.

On Saturday evening, there was the traditional dinner and readings – at Bedworth Civic Hall – and, on Sunday, there was an opportunity to meet at the Heritage Centre, tour the church grounds and then travel to the village of Astley. This entailed a visit to the medieval church of St Mary the Virgin at Astley, an external view of the Landmark Trust’s award-winning refurbishment of Astley Castle, and a trip to the biggest second-hand bookshop in the Midlands (Astley Book Farm) – a perfect finish to the weekend.

Colin and Donna Greatorex