The Phantom of the Library: Rev. Edward Casaubon

The Reverend Edward Casaubon

The Reverend Edward Casaubon

The Reverend Edward Casaubon has to be one of the most fascinating, contradictory characters Patrick Malahide has ever played – or at least I find him so.  He appears in the first three episodes of the BBC’s 1994 production of “Middlemarch“, based on the 1871 novel of the same name by George Eliot (nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans).  The novel itself is set in an earlier period than Eliot’s own, the years 1830 to 1832, and to some extent Casaubon embodies values that are even older yet.

First Meetings

We first meet Casaubon as a dinner guest at Tipton Grange,  home of sisters Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey) and Celia Brooke (Caroline Harker) and their uncle and guardian Arthur Brooke (Robert Hardy).  Before he even appears on screen, Casaubon is admiringly described as “the most learned man in the county” by Dorothea.  She is idealistic, socially concerned, and acutely aware of issues of class disparity, as opposed to her fashion-conscious and socially aware (“socially” as in “socializing”) sister, Celia.

A meeting of minds, maybe

A meeting of minds, maybe

When we do finally see him, he seems the sort to be voted Least Likely to Catch a Maiden’s Eye (Ever).  In contrast to the young and handsome Sir James Chettam (Julian Wadham), Casaubon is an older man, dresses in sombre black, wears somewhat outdated fashions, isn’t good at dinner-table chitchat, and is completely unaware of such current, frivolous topics as popular poets and writers since he devotes most of his time to his scholarship, admitting that he “lives too much with the dead”.  Surely not a statement to set a maiden’s heart racing, yet Dorothea is intrigued.  He’s different than the other men she’s met; he admires a woman who’s interested in scholarly pursuits and he has a vast intellect at his command.  The one thing he is enthusiastic about is his work in progress, The Key to All Mythologies, a tome (you can already tell it’s going to be a tome) which he hopes will draw together elements of philosophy, theology, and cosmology into one unified theory.  Casaubon seems both startled and rather gratified to find a woman (especially a young one) who shows some (any!) interest in his studies.  We get to see some painfully awkward attempts (extremely well played by Malahide) to smile at and interact pleasantly with a girl, a thing Casaubon seems to have done rarely, if ever, before.  Cue the most unlikely whirlwind romance ever!

Whirlwind Courtship

On the surface of it, it doesn’t seem like that bad of a match.  While incredibly shy and socially awkward, Casaubon is intelligent and reasonably attractive (Chettam’s and others’ judgements aside – but I’m biased).  Dorothea is bookish herself, feels driven to provide some sort of valuable service to her fellow man, and is particularly looking forward to experiencing the “wide vistas of knowledge” she will surely encounter by assisting Casaubon’s work.  One would expect the ideal wife/partner for a reverend to be unselfish and unworldly by nature, and indeed Casaubon’s proposal letter (reproduced verbatim from the novel) emphasizes her suitability and ideality for him, rather than the other way around, even while he offers her “an affection hitherto unwasted” by any previous loves or attachments.  Red flag number one!  Dorothea doesn’t see it.  She accepts his proposal.

Bewildered by human contact

Bewildered by human contact

There are a few more hints that this marriage may not be the best idea.  Malahide conveys very effectively what Eliot implies but does not directly describe:  Casaubon physically shies away from contact with his fiancée, even after they’re formally engaged, and indeed any affectionate physical contact is always initiated by her.  Even his body language implies this; he visibly leans away from a kiss on the cheek.  This is a man who is woefully unequipped for entering into a relationship and has no real idea what to do now that he’s in one, although he’s certain it’s something he wants.  He’s spent his entire life thus far (and he’s “over five-and-forty”, as Uncle Brooke says) studying dusty books and he’s never had to spend much time interacting on a personal level with anyone, still less a fiancée who, however unworldly she is, seems to expect something (anything!) from him.  Eliot describes his internal confusion at his situation:  he can’t have made a mistake, can he?  He chose her, she’s ideally suited; how could she be otherwise, when he did the choosing?

Red Flags

The next red flags appear on their honeymoon in Rome, and set the stage for the Casaubon we see hereafter.  While they tour the sights, we learn that Casaubon has spent most of the previous weeks (weeks!! while on his honeymoon!!  in the city of romance!!)  in the libraries of the Vatican, working on material for The Key to All Mythologies.  He’s not been with his beautiful young bride, but in libraries!  And in a particularly saddening scene, obliquely hinted at by Eliot but realized by screenwriter Andrew Davies, we see a sleeping Casaubon turning away from Dorothea’s kiss in bed.  When he does tour the sights with her, he does it from a sense of duty rather than enjoyment, and he’s quite blunt about telling her so.  He simultaneously crams as much boring detail as he can into one day of viewing artworks and sucks the life out of the experience for her.  This gives rise to their first serious spat, when a frustrated Dorothea asks when he will be ready to begin consolidating his work and if she can be of assistance of him, and she is distressed when he angrily replies that it’s for him to decide, not her. We then catch a glimpse of him at work, plagued by doubt while Dorothea’s voice echoes in his head.  Her motives are of the best, but they serve to aggravate one of Casaubon’s defining characteristics:  his insecurity.

Twinges of doubt

Twinges of doubt

For while he has devoted most of his life to this tome, he’s begun to realize he really has no idea how to complete it.  He has become so engrossed by the process of research and the amassing of detail that the process itself has become the objective, rather than producing the work.  It’s a huge, unwieldy albatross of an undertaking that, while he was a bachelor, he could safely tell people was his life’s work without having to go further.  But in her desire to be of use to him in his studies (and maybe spend more time with him that way), Dorothea has begun to raise uncomfortable questions about just how he plans to go about achieving the logical next stage of his book.  This is where Malahide’s acting becomes invaluable; while we see Casaubon angrily reacting to Dorothea’s well-meant offer, we also see his internal suffering from doubts about his life’s purpose.

A Fly in the Ointment

The other fly in the ointment… is the presence in Rome of Casaubon’s much younger cousin, Will Ladislaw (Rufus Sewell).  Will is a black sheep from a family of black sheep, and is currently pursuing, although without much seriousness, a career as an artist.  However, Dorothea is able to have the sort of conversations with Will that she can’t have with Casaubon and she gets along well with him.  This sets off twinges of incipient jealousy in Casaubon – as Eliot describes, not because he’s worried about a physical affair (that never enters his mind), but because he begins to worry that he might lose his young wife’s unconditional adoration if she listens too much to Will’s opinion of him and his studies.  Dorothea learns from Will that German scholars are far advanced in Casaubon’s areas of study (he would know this and benefit from their work if he was willing to read German), and that when Will acted as his secretary, as Dorothea hopes to, he was very resistant to Will’s suggestions about ways  to improve his manuscript.  She begins to realize that her husband may indeed have some flaws, and that the “wide vistas of knowledge” she was expecting to find by communing with his mind may not be there after all.

No Improvement at Home

More spats

More spats

The situation does not improve upon their return to Lowick.  Casaubon is increasingly angered and frustrated by Dorothea’s offers of assistance, and she is bewildered and upset by his angry refusals.  Old-fashioned sort that he is, Casaubon cannot unbend enough to actually discuss things with Dorothea (granted, it would be highly unusual for a pre-Victorian husband to do so), and she has no idea where his anger is coming from when she just wants to be a good wife and aid his work – one of her reasons for marrying him, after all.  It’s impossible for her to know that he’s reacting out of deep-seated fear, insecurity, and worry over what a closer examination of his studies, instigated by Will, might reveal.  Malahide conveys Casaubon’s anger and fearfulness extremely well (he’s very scary in a bad temper), and even though it’s sometimes difficult to find sympathy for him, we still do.  The situation reaches a peak when after one particularly bad fight, Dorothea hears a noise and returns to the library to find Casaubon suffering a heart attack.

Illness and Convalescence

Following the heart attack, Dorothea learns from Dr. Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) (I haven’t mentioned Dr. Lydgate’s story before and I won’t; this is Casaubon’s page) that Casaubon’s condition is serious enough that he could have another attack at any time, or with proper care and changes to his physical activities (ie. no more sedentary studying!) he could live for years to come.  Lydgate cautions Dorothea not to tell Casaubon the true nature of his ailment, a soap opera/Victorian novel/movie trope that has always annoyed me.

"So it seems I am to look forward to a second childhood?"

“So it seems I am to look forward to a second childhood?”

The convalescing process calls a temporary truce to Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s arguments, and puts him at the unwelcome mercy of overly hearty Uncle Brooke, who suggests Casaubon take up wood-turning or making children’s toys as a hobby.  In one of the most priceless moments of the series, Casaubon eyes Brooke with  a withering glare after this suggestion and says, “So it seems I am to look forward to a second childhood?”  No one can do a Glare of Death like Malahide.  😉

Casaubon is destined not to have a peaceful convalescence in more ways than one.  For starters, he finds that his perceived nemesis, Will, has been invited to stay at Tipton Grange by Uncle Brooke.  He mistakenly believes Dorothea to be responsible; Uncle Brooke phrases the announcement of Will’s arrival in such a way that it’s unclear he (Brooke)  disregarded Dorothea’s request not to invite him, and of course neither Dorothea nor Casaubon can discuss with the other what the true situation is. Will’s re-appearance also coincides suspiciously with a couple of visits to Lowick in Casaubon’s absence and a sudden series of inquiries from Dorothea about Will perhaps deserving a greater share of Casaubon’s fortune in the interests of fairness.  As Eliot makes clear, Casaubon sees a pattern forming; these inquiries further set off his suspicions and jealousy and he reacts angrily again, viewing Dorothea’s request as a “criticism of his procedure” precipitated by Will’s influence.  The terrible irony is that Dorothea is actually the most faithful and loyal of wives, has no intention of siphoning off his fortune, and is effectively walking on eggshells as she tries to negotiate the mire; but she has no idea where the difficulties lie, nor has her previous (short) experience of married life given her any hint as to why Casaubon reacts the way he does.

Casaubon attempts to deal with the matter himself, writing an excruciatingly polite but viciously cutting letter to Will stating that if he is to be employed in such a low occupation (editor of Uncle Brooke’s paper and political agitator) he is forbidden to be received at Lowick.  Will’s defiant reply is no less polite but equally scathing, stating that if he is lawfully employed, he can live and visit as he likes.  Dorothea is ignorant of the entire exchange until enlightened by Will and cannot understand where all the animosity came from, but she nonetheless remains loyal to Casaubon.

Confronting Mortality

Getting the news from Dr. Lydgate

Getting the news from Dr. Lydgate

Unfortunately, Casaubon receives more bad news regarding his health from Lydgate.  He consults the doctor because he’s worried that his illness might be fatal, even though Lydgate has not yet implied it might be so. Casaubon’s chief concern is that The Key to All Mythologies, his legacy and “all that [he] will be remembered for”, be published either by himself or others.  Lydgate tells him what he has already told Dorothea – that he might live for several more years or he could die very suddenly.  Casaubon asks if Dorothea has already been told this information (remember the annoying trope from earlier?) and Lydgate answers that yes, she has.  Casaubon thanks him and remarks upon the fineness of the day.

Confronting mortality

Confronting mortality

What follows is a wordless, incredibly moving scene as Casaubon stands before the lake on his property, alone, and confronts his own mortality.  In a sequence not written by Eliot, we see a range of emotions pass across his face (again, touchingly well-portrayed by Malahide) as he seems at first on the verge of tears, then glances back at the house where Dorothea waits, then his expression seems to become a mixture of bitterness, anger, and regret.  He is facing his worst fears.  Add to this that Lydgate’s information seems to point a finger of suspicion at Dorothea regarding the disposition of his fortune and estate, and he feels there’s no one he can trust.

He returns to the house and shuts Dorothea out, both physically and emotionally, barely able to keep from throwing off her affectionate touch (scorning her pity, perhaps?) as he retreats behind his library’s closed door.  When he emerges many hours later he finds, to his surprise, that she’s been waiting up most of the night for him.  He appears pale and tired, but his mood is actually much more kind and open, maybe even forgiving.  “Come, my dear, come,” he says, almost tearfully. “You are young and should not expend your life by watching.”  In a rare display of affection, and a tiny but maddening hint as to what their life together could have been if they were only able to communicate with each other, they proceed arm-in-arm to their bedroom.

A Change of Heart

Finally working on the notebooks

Finally working on the notebooks

We discover the next day that Lydgate’s information has triggered a change and Casaubon has reached an extremely important decision.  He finally accepts Dorothea’s assistance in consolidating the material in his notebooks.  “I have diverted too long,” he quietly admits in a moment of self-awareness, “and I would gladly see it completed.”  The series collapses into one night what occurs in the novel over several days, but in both instances Casaubon actually seems quite energetic and happy to be making headway at last.  For her part, Dorothea begins to realize the Herculean nature of the task she has been begging for since their marriage and her enthusiasm begins to flag, perhaps augmented by what Will has already told her about the obsolescence of Casaubon’s scholarship.  Nonetheless, there are no arguments for a while, until…

A Final Request

Making a final request (and actually initiating physical contact)

Making a final request (and actually initiating physical contact)

Dorothea awakes in the pre-dawn hours to discover Casaubon already sitting up, having been roused out of sleep by “some discomfort”.  He actually initiates physical contact in a rare display (the first and only time he does so), taking her hand and telling her that he has a request for her.  In deadly seriousness, he asks if she would “avoid doing what he would deprecate and apply herself to do what he would desire”, phrased as a sort of blanket request with no indication of what scope or activities he might intend.  He expects unquestioning obedience and is frustrated and angry with Dorothea when she says it is “too solemn” and she doesn’t readily acquiesce.  He is seeking to safeguard his legacy and, as he sees it and the novel describes, to provide for and protect Dorothea’s future as is only proper for him to do as her husband.  He does, however, at least agree to give her until the following morning to give him her answer.

Too late

Too late

Dorothea is caught between two equally difficult and undesirable outcomes.  Her instincts tell her not to agree to Casaubon’s demand because she’d be pledging her word to an unknown quantity, but she has a strong desire to please him, even if it means she’ll be shackled to the Sisyphean Key to All Mythologies for the rest of her life.  Having made her decision (neither the reader nor viewer is initially told what this is), she goes to meet Casaubon in the garden only to discover that it’s too late; he’s had a fatal heart attack.  She weeps and caresses his lifeless form – probably one of the few times she’s able to touch him without his resistance.

One More Shoe

But wait!!  That’s not all!  The final shoe doesn’t drop until some weeks later.  Dorothea genuinely mourns Casaubon and her family at first tries to keep it from her, but she finally learns that one of his final acts was to add a codicil to his will that her entire inheritance of his fortune and estate will be forfeit if she marries… Will Ladislaw… at any point following his death.  Not any other man, just Will.  In a single move, and under the motivation of protecting her, he’s attempted to control her life from beyond the grave (and Will’s, too) and smeared both of their reputations, since the obvious conclusion is that he must have had some reason to include such a clause.  Dorothea also finds an envelope in his desk, addressed to her, concerning the final disposition of The Key to All Mythologies.  What Dorothea and Will do with this situation occupies a large chunk of the rest of “Middlemarch” (both book and series) and I leave it for the reader (or viewer) to discover him- or herself.  😉

What’s So Great About this Guy?

Back to Casaubon!  Why on earth is this guy a “cherished character”??  What’s so fascinating about him??  He sounds like a nasty old curmudgeon on the surface of it: he’s mean and nasty, jealous and self-centered, kind of obsessive and controlling, distrustful, doesn’t talk to his wife, shows little affection for her, won’t allow her to assist in his life’s work until it’s literally too late, and attempts to control her destiny after his death.  Hardly an ideal husband.  He isn’t particularly nice to anyone else, either.

The Phantom of the Library

The Phantom of the Library

A large part of Casaubon’s appeal comes right back to Patrick Malahide.  He takes a flawed character and makes him very human.  Even while he’s behaving awfully, we never lose sight (for too long) that he’s driven by his own fears; fears that many share and can understand.  He’s far from perfect but Malahide’s performance makes him accessible and allows us to see beneath the surface.  It’s in scenes like his initial, awkward meeting with Dorothea, the writing of the best proposal letter ever, his shyly (but proudly) showing her around what will be her new home, his delight in posing as Thomas Aquinas (must be seen), his energy and joy at finally working on his notebooks, and perhaps best of all, the scenes where he faces the likelihood of his own death with his legacy unfinished and when he realizes that Dorothea cares – still cares – enough to wait up all night for him.  These are where we see Casaubon at his most reachable, most vulnerable, and indeed, most appealing.

In Malahide’s own words (from

Casaubon’s a fearful man. He has great ideas of his own destiny, but when he comes face to face with it, he’s overcome by fear. The fear leads to suspicion and then the suspicion leads to bitterness. And he dies an embittered man. What I found so interesting was that George Eliot never condemns him, never pillories him even though he behaves so appallingly.

A big part of Casaubon’s appeal is the performance of the man who portrayed him, and helped us to understand him.

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2 Responses to The Phantom of the Library: Rev. Edward Casaubon

  1. Elspeth says:

    Thanks for this. After reading and watching Middlemarch, I felt drawn to Mr C and was glad to find a place where his story is laid out, and that he is not simply called a negative character. I feel great sadness that his work is not published, that his marriage was not as he hoped, and I was shocked at the suddenness of his death. I’ve lots of thoughts on MM which I’ll be sharing on my own blog, but I wanted to thank you for giving this insight.

    Just a point – there’s a couple of mistakes – it’s a 1994 TV series, Juliet AubrEy has an E, and Victoria wasn’t on the throne in this period – it’s the end of the Georgian era. But I too got annoyed at the trope of not telling the wife what her husband’s will says!

    May I make a link to your website?

    • RFodchuk says:

      Hi Elspeth,

      Thanks for your comments! I know I’ve spelled Ms. Aubrey’s name correctly elsewhere on the site (she also guest-starred as an assassin, if you can believe it, in another of Mr. Malahide’s series, “Hunted”) so I’m not sure why I misspelled it here. In any case, that and the date have been corrected, as have the references to “Victorian”. I knew “Middlemarch” took place in Georgian times (and even said so in the opening paragraph), but apparently my subconscious insisted on something else.

      I’ve read and watched “Middlemarch” several times, getting something more out of it every time, and in particular I think Casaubon is one of the more interesting and nuanced characters in literature. I do think it’s a mistake to simply label him as an uncaring, nasty husband, although it’s easy to take him that way if you’re not paying attention. One of the things I especially appreciated about Mr. Malahide’s performance was his ability to bring sympathy for Casaubon to the fore, to make you consider him more as a character and realize he has reasons for being the way he is – even if they might not be the best reasons.

      I checked with Fearless Admin, whose blog this is, and she has no problems with you linking to us. I look forward to reading your blog post on “Middlemarch”. 🙂

      PS – I’ve written about Casaubon here as well: A Defense of Casaubon or, Hey, Obsessed Scholars Aren’t So Bad!

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