Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 35 (2004)
In this book, which derives its title from Browning's poem 'A Grammarian's Funeral', Professor Nuttall seeks to explore the profound change that he believes took place in the popular conception of scholars (Knowers') and scholarship between the Renaissance when Faustus was seen as an excitingly powerful figure, definitely 'sexy' as the current phrase goes, and the Nineteenth Century when the scholar became a representative of 'sexless deathliness'. Nuttall believes that a qualification needs to be made, however, in that from Francis Bacon onwards the Knower figure was split into two, the scientist and the scholar, with the former retaining elements of Faustian glamour and still being 'sexually charged'. Thus in Middlemarch Lydgate is 'sexy' whereas Mr. Casaubon emphatically is not; as Faust damns himself for Helen of Troy so Lydgate blights his life for Rosamond. Nuttall explores his theme through a series of linked essays. The first, labelled 'Introduction', is on Browning's poem connecting it with Erasmus's Praise of Folly (as did the great American literary scholar R. D. Altick in an important essay on the poem published in 1965 to which Nuttall makes no reference). The second discusses Eliot's characterization of Mr. Casaubon. The third deals with the Victorian scholar and Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, Mark Pattison, who has often been taken (though emphatically not by Gordon Haight) as Eliot's model for her Casaubon. The fourth is on the celebrated Renaissance humanist Isaac Casaubon, of whom Pattison wrote a life. Finally, the 'Conclusion' considers A. E. Housman, approached through Tom Stoppard's 1997 play ('a work of breathtaking brilliance') The Invention of Love in which in his presentation of Housman Stoppard re-integrates sexual passion, albeit unfulfilled, and high scholarship.