In this section, I introduce the four remarkable 19th-century characters who figure in my book. The best-known of the four is George Eliot, the extraordinary novelist. George Eliot, let's be clear, was a pen name that a young woman named Marian Evans adopted under which to publish her classic works of fiction. She cherished her pseudonym and did not want it taken from her. When somebody did so, she became angry. She then got even. How she got even is one nodal point of the story I tell in The Complicity of Friends.
Portrait courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London: George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross (née Evans)) by Sir Frederic William Burton; chalk, 1865; 20 1/4 in. x 15 in. (514 mm x 381 mm); given by the sitter's husband and Charles Lee Lewis, 1883; Primary Collection, NPG 669.
The other three of our four principals have stories of their own. One
was George Eliot's partner for nearly a quarter-century, George Henry
Lewes. Yes, they were partners when she took the name George as her own nom de plume.
But she did not do so simply as a compliment to her lover. (Surely she was also thinking of George Sand, the French novelist.) Although deeply in agreement on many issues, Lewes and George Eliot hardly marched in lockstep. Indeed they converged and diverged in interesting ways when dealing with the secret indicated in my book.
Portrait courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London: George Henry Lewes by John Watkins; albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s; 3 5/8 in. x 2 3/8 in. (92 mm x 60 mm) image size; purchased, 1959; Photographs Collection, NPG Ax17822.
The next notable in our story,
one whose friendship with George Eliot and George Henry Lewes has been almost entirely overlooked, was John Hughlings-Jackson. This man is well known
to historians of the neurosciences as one of the luminaries, indeed one
of the founders in England, of the medical discipline called neurology.
Why Eliot and Lewes developed a friendship with the clinician Hughlings-Jackson--and why this friendship has been lost to view--are important questions to which I propose answers.
Photo of bust of John Hughlings-Jackson courtesy of the Queen Square Library, Archive and Museum. Copyright National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery.
us to the fourth character. He is the one who has the dubious
distinction of selling out George Eliot's pseudonym. Up until the moment
he did so, they were friends. (They had even been, after a fashion,
lovers.) But he had already sorely tried her composure some years earlier by the awkward manner in which he had handled her offer of love.
Dispossessing her of her pen name was his second major blunder. In
response, she struck back, carrying out a kind of mirror-image of his
own action: she unearthed a fact about him that he had wanted
to remain buried. She did so in such a canny fashion that her action was
ignored until I wrote about it.
The name of
the almost-lover, friend, despoiler of George Eliot's pseudonym, and
victim of her act of literary revenge, is Herbert Spencer. Yes, Spencer,
the Victorian who had quite a reputation as a philosopher and social
thinker for a brief season in the closing third of the 19th century--until it (the reputation) fell off a cliff about 1900. Deservedly so--for his work, despite occasional scholarly attempts at combing through
the rubble at the bottom of the cliff for meaningful nuggets, is deeply wrong-headed. Our story touches indirectly on how Spencer managed to be so comprehensively misguided.
Spencer, then, interests me much less as a
philosopher than as a major irritant in the lives and
productions of three other highly innovative Victorians. He functioned as
such an irritant (and as an example of a certain kind of
social cluelessness) not only for George Eliot but also for Lewes as well as for
Hughlings-Jackson. The clinician, I argue, knew him as a patient suffering the consequences of a specific
neuropsychiatric illness. Curiously, Lewes and George Eliot made the
correct diagnosis of that illness years before Hughlings-Jackson came along.
Anticipating some modern views on the relationship between brain and
behavior, they developed a remarkable insight into the connection
between Spencer the social bumbler and Spencer the patient.
Portrait courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London: Herbert Spencer by Harry Furniss; pen and ink, 1880s-1900s; 7 1/8 in. x 7 5/8 in. (181 mm x 194 mm); purchased, 1948; Primary Collection, NPG 3609.