Herbert Spencer (1820-1904) seriously dissed George Eliot
(1821-1880) twice. Admittedly, "dissed" is a modern colloquialism that hardly does justice to what Spencer did. He struck first at her femininity.
Then, some years later, he struck "George Eliot" from her. She might
have forgiven him either one of those hugely tactless actions. She did not
forgive him both.
Here, now, a quick review of the first blunder. Herbert and Marian
(as I permit myself to call her here, at least before she acquired fame as George Eliot) met at a party in late 1851. He was a sub-sub-editor of the Economist, a
self-important young man who had come to London hoping to make a living as a writer. Marian was already hard at work as the de
facto managing editor of John Chapman's Westminster
Review. Her cultural range, expanded through work, friendships, and an
arduous translation of David Friedrich Strauss’ controversial Das Leben Jesu, was several orders of
magnitude greater than his. But she was
lonely. They began a friendship. She came to wish for more than friendship. He ultimately
declined on the basis (as he regularly claimed later) that she lacked the
requisite physical attractiveness. Granted, Marian was not a conventionally attractive female. But the failure involved in their fumbling
around in 1852 (for the salacious details, see my book) was not hers. All the
evidence suggests that the failure was his – in a word, that he was impotent.
Yet he found it convenient, especially after she had become famous, to label the entire episode a consequence of her lack of physical allure.
At the time, Marian didn't understand this. She simply saw a
male recoiling in confusion and embarrassment and then, from a safe distance,
permitting her to draw the conclusion that the fault for their failed
relationship rested with her.
The second major blunder came seven years later. Marian was in the process of becoming George Eliot. Her pseudonym was important to her. Spencer managed to trash it. He did so by coyly letting it
be known to others that he knew the true identity of that George Eliot who was
beginning to forge a name for herself as a serious author.
When Spencer, under minimal pressure from John Chapman, betrayed her identity, Marian
was furious. We have the letter that she penned angrily to Chapman the very night that
Spencer, their guest for dinner, confessed to having outed her. That she addressed
this angry missive to Chapman (whom she and Lewes excised on the spot from their
social calendar) doesn't mean she wasn't also angry at Spencer. This time
around, he would not get a pass.
In the seven years between Spencer's first and second blunders, Marian had knotted her famous relationship with G. H. Lewes. And Lewes in that interim had learned many things about his friend Spencer. He had learned that his philosophical friend suffered from an illness. It was one that carried with it in the Victorian age a great deal of stigma. That he had firsthand experience with such an illness was something that Spencer wanted at all costs kept under wraps. That illness was epilepsy.
Spencer's having epilepsy can be
inferred from his own account of the fits he experienced beginning in
his mid-30s upon attempting to read for more than a few minutes.
Previously dismissed as neurotic behavior, these spells derive instead, I argue, from true brain disease. They exemplify what
the modern neurologist would call reading epilepsy--or, more precisely, a
temporal lobe-based variant of that condition.
Lewes, who was developing a serious interest in the central nervous system of animals and in neuropsychiatric disorders, had a hunch that his friend's illness had something to do with Spencer's unerring ineptness with Marian, his life-companion. What Lewes told her about Spencer's condition suggested to Marian a means of dealing Spencer a deliciously complex payback for his bad behavior. In response to his revealing of her pseudonym, she could repay him in kind by unmasking his little secret. And so she wrote The Lifted Veil.
The narrator of The Lifted Veil (hereafter,TLV),
one Latimer, is a decidedly bizarre creature. If I have contributed something
to the critical literature on this tale, it has been by clarifying the precise
nature of his bizarreness. He is not just randomly eccentric; he is not off-the-rack
crazy; he is sick in a diagnostically determinate fashion. Latimer displays a series of unusual fits, each with elements of radical psychological disturbance including hallucinations, a strong affective charge, and distortions of the sense of time. As I demonstrate in some detail, this symptom complex points unequivocally to that brain disease now known as temporal lobe epilepsy. (An alternative name would be partial seizures, either simple or complex, arising from the brain's temporal lobe.)
Latimer, then, comes into focus as a man who suffers from the same stigma-laden infirmity that Herbert Spencer told Lewes (no doubt in confidence) he dealt with. TLV can be read on a variety of different levels; it does not function as an open or simplistic indictment of Spencer. But on one of those levels it carries a strong (though expertly disguised) personal animus: Marian invented Latimer as a means of
lifting the veil on the man who had mistreated her. By indulging and purging that animus, she helped to secure her identity as (and shall hereafter be called) George Eliot.