English, Department of



Marianne Burton

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 45 (2014)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


There are some literary hypotheses which so suit readers' impressions of a text that they become accepted almost as literary fact, as if they were stated in the text itself or had been confirmed by the author in an interview, letter or notebook. This seems to have become the case with Edward Casaubon's sexual impotence in Middlemarch. Gordon Haight complained that undergraduates 'despite a generation of sex-education' never failed to describe Casaubon as impotent simply by virtue of his age. Casaubon was around forty-eight. Haight was seventy-three when he wrote this essay, and indignantly listed the famous men who had sired children at advanced ages (1974: 255).

So closely does impotence fit perceptions of Casaubon's marriage with Dorothea Brooke that it may seem a whimsical notion that it should be reconsidered. Some commentators treat the matter as if it were a settled case, as in Diana Culbertson's bold statement that 'there are clear suggestions that Casaubon is impotent' (1989: 106), while others, such as Edward Alexander, go further and describe him as 'the impotent Casaubon' (2012: 187), in the manner of classical writers using repeated formulaic epithets to convey characters' overriding characteristics, such as 'swift-footed Achilles' or 'pious Aeneas’. A. D. Nuttall, in his suggestively entitled study of scholars and sex, Dead from the Waist Down (2003), argues that although the reader cannot be certain, since the sex was clearly so disastrous, Casaubon may as well be deemed impotent. So are there 'clear suggestions' indicating Casaubon's sexual impotence? Or is this just a literary libel that has become semi-accepted as literary truth?