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Bird Grove and George Eliot in Coventry

An open letter by John Burton, Chairman of the George Eliot Fellowship

Bird Grove House Foleshill

This is in the form of an open letter to those who I think might be interested in raising the profile of George Eliot in Coventry.

I am writing to express my concern, and that of the George Eliot Fellowship, about the state of Bird Grove, in George Eliot Road, Foleshill. Until fairly recently the building was used to very good effect by the local Bangladeshi community but funding difficulties mean that the events that once took place there and the learning opportunities they afforded are no longer happening. Before that, the building had served as an evangelical church and a baptismal pool was incorporated into the front room.

Our interest of course lies in its much earlier use when from 1841 until 1849 it was lived in by George Eliot, then known only as Mary Ann or Marian Evans, and her father Robert Evans, who moved there from Griff House, midway between Bedworth and Nuneaton, on his semi-retirement from being land agent to the Newdegate family at Arbury Hall. Marian moved with him and acted as his housekeeper, nursing him during his final illness and death in 1849.

There is little doubt in the minds of academics and biographers that those years in Coventry were crucial to the intellectual development of Marian Evans. In Coventry during those years there were well-known radical thinkers and activists - people like Charles Bray and the Hennell family who were important in bringing new ideas to industrial and social planning, and to religious thinking. Bray’s brother-in-law, Charles Hennell wrote a key book on religion in the late 1830s; Bray owned a Coventry newspaper and a ribbon factory, established new ways of treating workers and was a far-sighted thinker about society and its problems. His house at Rosehill was demolished many years ago and the WMC that replaced it is also to be replaced. Even the commemorative tree planted in honour of Charles Bray by the George Eliot Fellowship over forty years ago has gone. Marian Evans knew all these familiies and remained friends with them for the rest of her life.

At present Bird grove is empty and looking very sad. It is a Listed Building which means that the local authority has certain legal responsibilities for it. It appears now to be available to let. Can I float an idea to those of you with either an interest, an influence, authority and possible access to funds, or combinations of all four! I think it could be converted into a centre for literary studies, or European studies (George Eliot was above all a European writer and she travelled extensively all over the continent), or women’s studies, or extended learning, or arts group workshops. There is a long list of things it could become which could help to boost the cultural diversity of Foleshill and of the City. We think the building is of international importance for its literary associations; English Heritage clearly think it of national importance since they listed it, even though the authorities appear to have sanctioned plastic window frames.

At present there is nothing to indicate the historic importance of the building. There used to be a brass plaque over the door but the Bangladeshi community removed it and kept it safe inside the entrance. I have taken many visitors from the USA and Japan to see the building. Occasionally we were allowed to look inside. We hear of taxis of Japanese visitors pulling up outside to look in awe at the former home of George Eliot (the Fellowship has 100 members in Japan). At the very least there should be a display board and a plaque on or adjacent to the building to encourage visitors and local people to be more aware of the author and of her links with the city - Middlemarch is generally said to use Coventry references in its text, and there are many who think it is the finest work of fiction in English. It would be wonderful to think that if the building could be given a useful purpose, perhaps one room, or two, could be reconstructed to resemble the rooms in the 1840s with information available and visitors welcomed. We hope that Coventry University might be interested in such a project and might also be able to draw down funding to make it happen. But I think it requires an expression of interest from several bodies across the city and beyond, to make something happen.

You may well ask why, if the George Eliot Fellowship is so keen, does it not undertake the project itself? The answer is that we are already heavily involved, after five years, in developing a small George Eliot Visitor Centre at Griff House, working with the support of Whitbread who own the building and run it as a Beefeater and Premier Inn. Mary Ann lived at Griff until she was 21 when she moved to Bird Grove in Coventry, and we hope our Visitor Centre will concentrate on the rural and agricultural surrounding she knew as a girl. At present we are fully stretched in ensuring that our project happens. But a second reason for us not having the ability to take on Bird Grove is that we are planning a huge series of events in 2019 in Nuneaton, Coventry, London and Leicester to celebrate the bi-centenary of George Eliot's birth. There could still be time for a functioning, restored Bird Grove to be part of those celebrations. Underlying a lot of our work as a Fellowship is that we don’t like to see Stratford getting all the rewards for a literary figure whilst in the north of the county there is another genius who is under-appreciated - though not in academic circles. Universities all over the world study Eliot and there is at least one major work about her every year. We want to broaden her appeal to local people and encourage them to learn more about her, and to enjoy her.

We think this could be a once in a generation opportunity to make a serious contribution to the recognition of George Eliot in the city that she attended as a schoolgirl from 1832-35 and as a young woman developing into an intellectual genius between 1841 and 1849. We think it would add something of considerable substance and value, and a legacy, to the City of Culture bid in 2021. The Fellowship would be delighted to be involved in any discussions about this suggestion and would be more than happy to provide information and display boards, leaflets etc should such a project materialise.

I enclose some recent pictures of the building, and one from 1885 when it was one half of a pair of substantial houses. Please feel free to forward this email to any others who you think might be interested or influential!

If you want to know more about the George Eliot Fellowship we have a website: www.georgeeliot.org, a Facebook page: George Eliot Fellowship; and a Twitter account: @GeorgeEliotLove. I will also send a copy of our latest (August) Newsletter to anyone who requests one.

Yours sincerely

John Burton

Chairman, The George Eliot Fellowship

Bird Grove House Foleshill

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