30 years of the Statue
Looking back on the 30th anniversary of the unveiling
The Fellowship decided to mark the 30th anniversary of the unveiling of the George Eliot statue in Newdegate Square Nuneaton.
The story of how we got the statue is an interesting one and it dates back much longer than 30 years. In 1895 an enterprising young man was appointed editor of the Nuneaton Observer. He was Alfred Francis Cross, no relation to George Eliot's husband J W Cross. He was born in Leicestershire in 1863, became a teacher then a journalist. He was an educated intellectual man with a love of literature, poetry and drama. He published a book of his own poems, Charnwood Poems and was an enthusiast for the works of George Eliot who believed that she was undervalued in her home town. In 1904 Cross acquired the Nuneaton Chronicle and remained its proprietor and editor until his death in 1940.
Cross was a keen theatre lover and dramatist; he helped to finance and found the Prince of Wales Theatre, and wrote plays of his own, including in 1924 an adaptation of Romola.
Cross lost no opportunity to tell the world, and Nuneaton, that recognition should be given to the novelist. In 1919 he supported the events locally, mostly held at Arbury Park, to celebrate the centenary and there was a proposal that any profit remaining after the events should go towards placing a statue to Eliot in Nuneaton. Alas, the profits amounted to £19 and the scheme was abandoned.
In 1930, Cross, still editing the Nuneaton Chronicle engaged a Cambridge undergraduate for some sort of internship on the paper and encouraged him to write to many of the literary giants to ask their views about a memorial to George Eliot in her home town. Many expressed surprise that a statue did not already exist, and this encouraged Cross to try again, this time by starting an association, or Fellowship, the word he preferred, of enthusiasts who could lobby for recognition of George Eliot locally and nationally.
No progress was made towards a statue in the 1930s and war prevented any more discussion until 1946. There was some comfort when the obelisk was moved from Arbury Park to the new George Eliot Memorial Gardens in the early 1950s but the Fellowship had few members and no money. The arrival of Kathleen and Bill Adams after 1965 changed everything, numbers rose, publicity was gained, the 150th anniversary was celebrated in style in 1969, a commemorative plaque was installed in Westminster in 1980, and after that the Fellowship turned its attention again to raising funds for a statue. This was achieved in 1986, the Fellowship having commissioned a statue from local sculptor John Letts and raised money for it, with the local authority, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, paying for the plinth. The pictures show the crowds, the musicians, the civic figures gathered on 22nd March 1986 for the unveiling by our president, Jonathan Ouvry, descendant of Geroge Henry Lewes. The picture of John Letts was taken in 2007.
Fellowship Secretary Kathleen Adams described the scene on the day:
"It arrived from the foundry shining like a new penny and several of us were there to receive it. I placed inside the plinth a time capsule... Then the day of the unveiling arrived. On Saturday 22nd March we processed from the Town Hall to Newdegate Square which was packed with people eager to have the first view of the statue. Jonathan Ouvry unveiled it, and we were all able to see what a splendid job John Letts had done. She was seated on a low wall, her right hand resting on a book (which John assured us was Middlemartch) and she was looking down at passers-by... He had not tried to pretty her, nor had he made her grotesque. We are all aware. as she was, of her plain features, but these had not been exaggerated. She looked just as we had imagined her. Clearly there was no-one still alive who could tell us how close a likeness it was to the original, but we were happy with her then and so we are today."
The statue rapidly became part of the scenery of the town centre. Certainly the Fellowship has taken many visitors from all over the world to see and be photographed by the statue. In 2004 disaster struck when a lorry delivering beer to the nearby Felix Holt pub clipped the edge of the statue's plinth. The hollow plinth collapsed and George Eliot made a rapid and undignified descent to ground level. Fortunately she was unharmed but it was a year before the insurance issues were resolved. The front cover of the local authority's magazine for residents published early the next year, reflects the pleasure felt by local residents on the return of the statue to its rightful place.
This year, 2016, the Fellowship decided it would be appropriate to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the unveiling of the statue.
Jonathan Ouvry is still our president so it was wonderful that he was available on the day itself to return and say a few words about the original unveiling. John Letts, sadly, died in 2010, but we were delighted that one of John's sons, Stephen and his wife, were able to come from Derbyshire and to lay a wreath at the statue. The Mayor, Cllr Barry Longden and the Mayoress, attended and provided light refreshments for visitors afterwards. Also present were the Leader of the Council, Cllr Dennis Harvey, and the MD of NBBC, Alan Franks, and a pleasing number of members.
Below (left) Stephen Letts places the wreath at the feet of George Eliot; GEF president Jonathan Ouvry (right).
The chairman concluded the ceremony by reading a short extract from Felix Holt, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year:
"A supreme love, a motive that gives a sublime rhythm to a woman's life, and exalts habit into partnership with the soul's highest needs, is not to be had where and how she wills; to know that high initiation, she must often tread where it is hard to tread, and feel the chill air, and watch through darkness. It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult."
Published on 21 January 2019