About the Fellowship
A brief history
The George Eliot Fellowship was founded by Mr A F Cross on 9 November 1930. Mr Cross was the editor of the Nuneaton Chronicle newspaper and had been campaigning for some 25 years for a memorial to George Eliot in her native town, Nuneaton. During the summer of 1930 Mr Cross handed over the Editorial chair of the Nuneaton Chronicle to a Cambridge undergraduate. The undergraduate in turn managed to elicit contributions from eminent literary men of the day such as George Bernard Shaw by asking them the question, "Should Nuneaton erect a memorial to George Eliot? If so, what form should it take?" The majority of the writers he approached were surprised that a memorial did not already exist.
Mr Cross concluded that Nuneaton's apathy should be allowed to continue no longer. He was certain that corporate action was now more important than individual effort and that the formation of a literary society was the answer. The title of 'Fellowship' rather than society was a personal choice of Mr Cross, as he felt it to be most suited to admirers of a woman who still had a message for present and future generations.
At about the same time, correspondence arose in the London Press about George Eliot's work and mention was made of the possibility of a George Eliot Society being formed. As a result letters began to arrive at the Nuneaton Chronicle from all over England from people eager for more information. Mr Cross needed no more encouragement, and a preliminary meeting was held in the Council Chamber in Nuneaton in October 1930. The idea of a Fellowship was accepted and Miss Elizabeth Haldane, a distinguished early biographer of George Eliot was elected as the first President. Plans were made for a dinner to be held on George Eliot's birthday at the Newdegate Arms. The principal guest was Mr J Lewis and it was he who proposed the toast to the 'Immortal Memory of George Eliot', a toast that is raised every year at the Birthday Luncheon. A week after the dinner a notice appeared in the Nuneaton Chronicle about a meeting to elect officers. At the meeting, held on 15 January 1931 officers were elected; Mr Cross was to be Chairman, and members of the Council included Mr S Pratt, Mr J Benfell, Councillor G Taylor and Miss K Grant.
The second Birthday Supper, on 23rd November 1931 Our founder, A F Cross
Most of the activities in the 1930s seem to have revolved around an annual supper, with speeches. At the first one there were 14 speakers. All no doubt had important things to say. In 1934 the Fellowship held its first wreath-laying. The official group met first at Griff House and then went to Arbury Park where the obelisk was situated. Sprigs of rosemary were distributed (this practice has been revived in recent years) and a wreath of eleven bronze and yellow chrysanthemums set in laurel leaves was laid. The Mayor, Councillor S Deeming, expressed regret in his address that he had not read much George Eliot, but hoped to do better in future - sentiments we have heard many, many times since!
By 1939 the Fellowship owed £20 to its Treasurer for unpaid expenses. The start of war meant that the Fellowship suspended its activities until October 1947 and in the early post-war years we were active in persuading the Council to create the George Eliot Memorial Gardens on the site alongside the river which had previously been back gardens of houses bombed in 1941 in Church Street (one of which featured as Lawyer Dempster's house in Orchard Street in Janet's Repentance) The first post-war Birthday Dinner was held in 1953 at the Masonic Hall, and the toast to the Immortal Memory was proposed by Dr Gordon S Haight.
By 1957 the Fellowship was "in a state of quiet slumber", with only two events during the year, though in 1958 the speaker at the Dinner was Barbara Hardy. Membership seems to have been in decline too, and by the end of 1967 we had 21 ordinary members and five life members. But help was at hand. Bill Adams attended the AGM that year, and soon found himself on the committee. In 1968 Bill's wife Kathleen also got involved and in that year she took over as Secretary, a post she was to hold with great distinction for 40 years, ably supported always by Bill, both unofficially as a husband and helper, but for over 20 years as Chairman.
Kathleen Adams reading the funeral of Milly Barton scene in Chilvers Coton churchyard
In her history of the Fellowship (which will eventually be available as a download) Kathleen Adams comments that "After so many years in the doldrums, the Fellowship suddenly burst into life in 1969". The reason for this she ascribes to the 150th anniversary of Eliot's birth. But she is too modest. The reason for new life in the Fellowship was because of the work of Kathleen and Bill, who set about transforming, enlarging and rejuvenating the Fellowship. Bill was a tax inspector, so valued accuracy. Kathleen was a school secretary, so could type and had access to Gestetner printers (remember them, and the ink that always got onto your hands and clothes?) I mention it because the first George Eliot Reviews were printed on such a duplicating machine, collated and stapled by Kathleen and Bill - a real labour of love.
There can be little doubt that without the work of Kathleen and Bill the Fellowship would have gone into terminal decline. The pattern of meetings and events we still maintain was devised by them, though in recent years we have added extra events. Two examples will suffice to explain the impact they had on the Fellowship and the world. After the wonderful events of 1969 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Eliot's birth, the Fellowship decided that it was time to have a memorial to her in Westminster Abbey. Negotiations were started in 1973 which would lead to the unveiling of the plaque in the floor of Poets' Corner in the Abbey in 1980, to mark the centenary of Eliot's death. Guest of honour was Gordon Haight at a ceremony in front of 700 people. This was only one of many other centenary events. Every year for 25 years we held a wreath-laying in the Abbey. Since 2005 we have held it every other year. The picture shows guest of honour Revd. Edward Pogmore in 2012.
The second example of the impact of Kathleen and Bill Adams was a few years later when it was decided that Nuneaton had talked about a memorial to George Eliot for long enough and now was the time to commission a statue. The superb piece of sculpture by local artist John Letts now stands in Newdegate Square, Nuneaton, a tribute to the fund-raising, the hard work and determination of Kathleen and Bill to honour George Eliot. It was unveiled in March 1986 by our President, Jonathan Ouvry to great acclaim. The statue was paid for by the Fellowship, the plinth by Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council.
There is a quiet pensiveness about the statue which seems entirely fitting. The picture above shows sculptor John Letts, photographed in 2007 with a copy of the Fellowship edition of the 150th anniversary edition of Scenes of Clerical Life.
Bill stepped down as Chairman in 2006, Kathleen in 2008 after she had completed 40 years as Secretary. The Fellowship members made a very generous gift to her, part of which purchased a special chair, and a retirement party was held at Arbury Hall, so appropriate after the numerous times they had taken visitors to the stately home which is very dear to them both. Earlier, we had also given them a framed copy of the watercolour of Chilvers Coton church (Shepperton) which we had used on the cover of our anniversary edition. The photograph shows Kathleen and Bill outside their living room window with it.
As if they did not have enough to do, in 1973 Kathleen and Bill had founded The Alliance of Literary Societies, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013, and whose AGM in 2019 will be held in Nuneaton, to coincide with our bicentenary celebrations.
Elsewhere on the website there will be a longer history of the Fellowship. The present Fellowship Council is as keen as ever to continue the work of the past 80 years, but it is humbling to come up with new ideas, only to find that Kathleen and Bill had done something similar 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They, as well as George Eliot, inspire us still.
The Fellowship Council
John Burton - Chair
"George Eliot was just one of the many novelists one read as part of a degree, but it was coming to Nuneaton and Coventry as a teacher that drew me to look more deeply and with increasing interest into this extraordinary writer who lived locally for the first half of her life. My interests in local history and photography have provided complementary support for the work I now do for the Fellowship. I was a member for many years before joining the Fellowship Council and some years later, in 2006, agreed to take over as Chairman. The line of 150th anniversaries has helped us to steer a pretty straightforward course so far, and we are now looking forward to the bi-centenary in 2019. What makes all the hard work so worthwhile for me is going back to Eliot's texts and being constantly amazed at her wisdom and compassion for us poor mortals."
Vivienne Wood - Vice Chair
"My connection with Nuneaton started in 1988 when I came to teach English at King Edward VI College, a sixth form college in Nuneaton. Although I had read a few George Eliot novels, most memorably reading Middlemarch during the last month of pregnancy with my son, it was not until I attended one of the literary tours of the area run by Rose Selwyn, the tourism officer for Nuneaton & Bedworth Borough Council, and Kathleen and Bill Adams, Secretary and Chair of the GEF that I was really hooked. I lost no time in joining the George Eliot Fellowship, firstly becoming a co-opted member of the council, then elected council member and now Vice Chair.
I started to teach Eliot's novels at 'A' level; The Mill on the Floss was a favourite with students. I soon found that Eliot's works lent themselves to young people interpreting and acting out scenes. As students from the North Warwickshire area they also seemed to find her words easy to learn having grown up hearing and absorbing some of the local idioms, dialect and inflections of her speech.
With support and encouragement from Rose, together with a grant from Nuneaton & Bedworth Borough Council I was commissioned to write and produce a play for King Edward VI College students to perform for the local community (Adam Bede). Adapting Eliot's novels is not hard for she gives you so much 'natural' dialogue & dialect, some of it hilarious, all of it pacey. Like Mark Twain, she portrays the wisdom and experience of the 'ordinary' through the vernacular.
The George Eliot Fellowship has continued to support me in the writing of subsequent adaptations. The award winning director Simon N Winterman directed the students in these plays. Two of them have been published and, it was a great thrill when Simon and I were invited to the English department of the University of Geneva to speak on the subject of adapting and directing Eliot for the stage.
The George Eliot Fellowship is an innovative literary society which is committed not only to promoting the works of George Eliot to all, but also to new research and reinterpretations of her works for subsequent generations. We run tours, reading groups, musical evenings and work closely with the local library which houses important Eliot collections, also our local museum in Nuneaton and The Herbert Museum & Art Gallery in Coventry. More recently we have been working with the playwright Vanessa Oakes whose latest play, funded by an Arts Council grant, 'A Ploughed Heart', will be performed initially as a read-through at Coventry University 26 September.
There's always a lot going on - do consider joining us!"
Elaine Peake - Council Member
"Nuneaton born and bred, I won a copy of Adam Bede as a prize for a junior school George Eliot project, and later wrote a dissertation for my English degree on the male protagonists in George Eliot's major novels. My career in arts marketing took me all round the country until I returned to live in the Nuneaton area in the 1990s. A few years ago I went along to some fellowship events, got chattting to John Burton, became enthused once more and was recruited to the Fellowship council!"
Denis Baylis - Council Member
"Moving to North Warwickshire from a working life in London, I have discovered the George Eliot Fellowship and begun to read her more seriously. What a discovery! Here is a woman writing a century and half ago who addresses issues that deeply concern me so cogently, and comes across as so amazingly up to date and relevant. I am working my way through the novels, in chronological order, and have reached Romola. It has enriched my thinking about what makes the good life, religion, relations between the sexes and a host of other things. I love her quiet wit, keen sense of irony and penetration. I like the way she makes us pay close attention to get at the full richness of the meaning, how careful she is in her choice of words. I don't always agree with her and at times have it out with her. That's where the Fellowship comes in: we have one another to argue with, swop reactions, learn from each other's insights. And we invariably find something in her challenging; she is stubbornly herself, she has learned to define herself by her own standards; she won't let us remake her in our own image."
Juliet Hopper - Membership Secretary
"My association with the George Eliot Fellowship began in 2008. Through my job at King Edward VI College I came in to contact with Vivienne Wood, we became friends and as I spoke of my interest in local history Viv introduced me to the George Eliot Fellowship and suggested I become a member. My association with the Fellowship has brought me into contact with many interesting people. But of course the person I have to admire the most is George Eliot herself. How can you not admire a woman who overcame so much prejudice to produce such splendid novels for people to enjoy for generations to come?"
Jill Bridgewater - Honorary Treasurer
Susan Healey - Co-opted Council Member