The truth about Casaubon: a great intellect destroyed by a silly woman

Neal Ascherson
Sunday 20 February 1994 00:02 GMT

MIDDLEMARCH is done. The repeat of the last instalment goes out on BBC1 tomorrow. A nation mops its eyes. But, furtively sounding out friends - male, middle- aged friends - I have discovered that some of us share a grudge. Mr Casaubon is hard done by.

George Eliot, followed by her television adaptors, treats him cruelly. With his sallowness and his warts, his advanced age ('a great bladder for dried peas to rattle in,' said Mrs Cadwallader), his pedantic manner and his shrivelled sexuality, Edward Casaubon is contrasted to Dorothea, darling of the story. She is all freshness and eagerness, the young wife overflowing with generosity, valiant among the bookworms. He is no more than her mistake. And before she is irretrievably blighted, he does her the favour of snuffing it.

But this is only George Eliot's view. Muriel Spark once wrote that novelists are guilty of the most terrible of sins against God: they create human beings who cannot bring about their own salvation. It might be said that all that exists of Casaubon is George Eliot's sentence upon him. This is not good enough.

Casaubon, I suggest, was on his way to become one of the towering, universal geniuses of the 19th century - a giant to be ranked with Darwin and Marx - when he became entangled with Dorothea. Her silliness and interference, her pestering for attention, diverted his tremendous project into the sands. Casaubon, a loner who found all relationships difficult, could not keep his mind on his work. He lost intellectual confidence and then developed a pitiful case of scholar's block. His fatal heart attack was obviously caused by stress. She was his mistake - not the other way round.

What did the world lose, when Dorothea destroyed Casaubon? The novel gives only slanted, derisive glimpses. But we know that the provisional title of his book was The Key to All Mythologies. He intended to show 'that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed'.

By the time that he met Dorothea, in the early 1830s, Casaubon had already completed most of his work on non-classical mythology. On the crucial honeymoon in Rome, he meant to investigate the Greek and Roman material in the Vatican Library. This should have been decisive, winding up the research years and opening the main writing phase. But Casaubon could not keep his mind on his task. The time was short; the tearful scenes with Dorothea unnerved him. At the critical moment, his whole intellectual command of his project was disrupted and broke down.

Casaubon was intending to do something superficially similar to what James Frazer did in The Golden Bough 60 years later. He was preparing an encyclopaedic account of world myths which emphasised their similarities. But Frazer, in 1890, relied on data about primitive peoples, and for him the similarities meant that the human mind developed everywhere through the same evolutionary stages. Casaubon, working in the 1830s, could use only written, overwhelmingly Indo-European texts; anthropology did not exist, and archaeology was in its infancy. For him, the similarities between myths indicated a common origin, which he assumed was God. After all, Casaubon was a clergyman. The 'tradition originally revealed' means that he saw all non-Christian mythology as distorted echoes of the Book of Genesis.

Putting the Christian errors aside, the Key would have been a huge achievement. Casaubon was an early diffusionist. He believed that all culture spread from a single source. Scientists no longer accept this, but the genius of Casaubon had perceived that all human beings enter the world with the same mental equipment. The differences between beliefs are not to do with some false physical distinction between 'primitive' and 'civilised' races, but are the product of environment. If Christians had preserved the original revelation more accurately than pagans, that - for Casaubon - was nothing to do with any inherent cultural superiority, but due to the external accident of divine grace.

Edward Casaubon, had he lived and had he been allowed to get on with it by Dorothea, would have built a direct bridge between the Enlightenment and the 20th- century understanding of human development. The Enlightenment proposed that all human beings were created equal. There followed, in the Victorian age, a long obsession with physical, innate inequality - to which even Darwin contributed. The Key to All Mythologies would have avoided this detour, bringing forward by decades the return of modern anthropol-

ogy to 18th-century truths.

George Eliot allows none of this. Unwisely, she even satirises Casaubon's methodology. 'Mr Casaubon's theory of the elements which made the seed of all tradition was not likely to bruise itself unawares against discoveries: it floated among flexible conjectures . . . it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.'

Poor, sallow Casaubon, so afraid to collide with a contradictory fact] But, if only we had those notebooks, we could show that he had transcended the crude Victorian fallacy that 'objective' facts assemble themselves into a truth. Instead, he was concerned with relationships between discourses, the signs between words. Mr Casaubon, more than a century before his time, was a post-structuralist.

With Casaubon rehabilitated, the rest of Middlemarch gives out more light. My cleverest friend points out that Dr Lydgate's research was exciting, too. He was trying to push forward the work of Bichat, who had discovered that the body's organs were composed of tissues in different combinations. George Eliot drew here on the knowledge of her partner George Henry Lewes, who had written on the subject.

My friend thinks that the sequence of scientific understanding of the body - first that it was made up of organs, then that the organs were made of tissue and, finally, through the work of Rudolf Virchow, that tissue was composed of cells - became Eliot's image of society. If the body were a nation, then its life took place in organic communities like Middlemarch, in the tissue of families such as the Brookes, and in the cells of individual, infinitely variable human beings such as Dorothea.

It is time to forgive Dorothea, for the sake of the last words of Middlemarch. They are very English, about the faith that decent lives imperceptibly improve us all. Russians, writing at the same time, felt that good people were superfluous; after all their striving, the steppe wind blew over their graves and everything remained the same. But George Eliot said goodbye to Dorothea like this:

'. . . the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life . . .'

Nobody would say that now. But it is still true.

The missing chapter, page 23

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