Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Identifying the originals of George Eliot's characters has always fascinated readers. And none of her characters has inspired speculation about an original more than Edward Casaubon, George Eliot's scholar and clergyman in Middlemarch. In 1973, Richard Ellmann published an essay, 'Dorothea's Husbands: Some Biographical Speculations' ,re-examining the claims made for various persons George Eliot had known, as the original of Casaubon: Mark Pattison, Herbert Spencer, Dr. Robert Herbert Brabant, Jacob Bryant, Robert William Mackay, and George Eliot herself. Since then readers have focused on other contenders, mostly literary figures. 2 Of the traditional contenders, Mark Pattison, a scholar who wrote the Life of [saac Casaubon and married one twenty-seven years younger than himself, has been the most hotly contested candidate,3 and D. B. Nimrno's thorough examination of the case has left him a credible candidate: Gordon S. Haight makes a plausible case for Dr. Brabant; probably only his view, repeatedly set forth, that Brabant is the most likely candidate can be challenged.'
No one, however, has seriously considered Herbert Spencer as a contender for the dubious honor of the original of Casaubon. Neither the aged husband of a young girl nor a mere pedant - praised by George Eliot in 1853 as one 'for whose moral as well as intellectual character I have a very high respect' - Spencer has been seen as resembling Casaubon in only one respect. As Ellmann writes, 'For sexual low pressure, Herbert Spencer was probably the best example'. But Ellmann typically dismisses him as a likely candidate, saying that George Eliot was not in doubt about Spencer's ability.' Even in a recent book exploring the relation between George Eliot and Spencer, the author never makes the connection between Spencer and Casaubon.' Yet we cannot ignore the fact that Beatrice Potter Webb, whom Spencer called his 'oldest and dearest friend' ,9 referred to him as Casaubon.
Marian Evans, as George Eliot called herself before 1857, knew Spencer well. In love with him in 1851-52, she maintained friendly relations with him to the end of her life. He frequently took advantage of the standing invitation he had to lunch with the Leweses, and he often appears in the lists of their guests on more formal occasions. If her long relationship with him left him 'our good friend Mr. Spencer' (GEL, IV:30), it also exposed one who, like Casaubon, 'was not unmixedly adorable' 12 - one whom we can see George Eliot caricaturing in Casaubon.
There is no doubt that Spencer shared with Casaubon his 'sexual low pressure'. Casaubon, like Spencer, is a bachelor by nature, though one who marries late in life, feeling societal pressures to conform and imagining that he will 'adorn his life with the graces of female companionship’ (vii, 62). '[H]e determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was' (vii, 62). Thus, even before marriage, he discovered 'that though he had won a lovely and noble-hearted girl he had not won delight'. '[H]e was in danger of being saddened by the very conviction that his circumstances were unusually happy: there was nothing external by which he could account for a certain blankness of sensibility which came over him just when his expectant gladness should have been liveliest' (x, 83, 84). Totally inadequate as a lover, he enters into marriage that leaves him as lonely as before - marriage that, in fact, is a horror for both him and his wife. Asked what she thought of a honeymoon in Rome, Dorothea inwardly says, 'No one would ever know what she thought of a wedding journey to Rome' (xxviii, 270).