A Defense of Casaubon or, Hey, Obsessed Scholars Aren’t So Bad!

"I'm in the <i>Guardian</i>?"  Patrick Malahide as Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch

“I’m in the Guardian?”

Fearless Admin recently happened across an interesting article in the Guardian and very kindly drew it to my attention.  Apparently the Guardian is counting down “The 100 Best Novels” and George Eliot’s Middlemarch comes in at number 21.  That’s not so bad, right?  The author, Robert McCrum (not related to this McCrum, surely!), discusses Eliot’s characterization:

Few of Eliot’s characters achieve what they really want, and all have to learn to compromise. Some learn the lessons and achieve a temporary happiness. Others refuse or are incapable of learning, and spend their lives resenting their situation, and blaming others. And others still realise their mistakes but are trapped by a wrong decision and never escape.

Well yes, that’s true of a great many of Eliot’s characters and part of what makes them so fascinating.  They do all have to struggle with things and some of them don’t progress very far.  At this point I thought that he’d be including our friend Edward Casaubon among those who are incapable of learning, because – let’s face it – despite his life as a scholar and devotion to studying, Casaubon does seem to have a hard time learning or adapting to new things and he’s not much of a compromiser.  Okay, that’s fair.

A “Cold-Hearted Monster”??  What?!?

But then McCrum says this:

In the middle of this web we find the character whom all readers of Middlemarch will argue about and identify with, the fascinating figure of Dorothea, wife of the cold-hearted monster Rev Edward Casaubon.

Is this the face of a "cold-hearted monster"?<br>[Answer: No!]

Is this the face of a “cold-hearted monster”?
[Answer: No!]

What??  Hey, waitaminnit!!  “Cold-hearted monster”??  Oh now, that’s hardly fair at all!  And quite wrong, too!  I mean, just look at that face!  Is that the face of a “cold-hearted monster”?  No, it is not!

I will grant you that Casaubon is a difficult and prickly character.  He decides to marry rather late in life, when he’s already well set in his ways (see above:  not a compromiser).  He’s devoted to… studying a rather esoteric set of subjects and he’s determined to produce his magnum opus, The Key to All Mythologies, wherein he’ll draw parallels amongst the myths and legends of the world and show how they influenced each other – sort of a version of The Golden Bough.  Indeed, Casaubon has done little else except collect material for his book for the majority of his adult life.  So, when he suddenly decides to get married – and it is sudden, rather charmingly so – it’s a massive change, one for which he’s definitely not prepared.

Marriage!  What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Getting to know Dorothea, or<br>the World's Most Uncomfortable Speed Date

Getting to know Dorothea, or
the World’s Most Uncomfortable Speed Date

Casaubon decides to get married because he finally meets a woman who doesn’t run screaming into the night when he describes his studies, Dorothea Brooke (Juliet Aubrey).  Okay, Eliot doesn’t really describe it like that, but I do.  Dorothea is fascinated by what she perceives as the vast potential of Casaubon’s intellect, and Casaubon is fascinated by a woman who actually seems interested in his studies.  Moreover, Dorothea says she’d love to have a part in assisting in some great work as her life’s purpose, even if she has to learn Greek and Latin to do it.   As far as Casaubon can tell, she’s the perfect woman for him (that’s his main criteria) and he’s shyly pleased (and probably scared to death) that he has apparently found a kindred spirit.

He can hardly wait!  :-)

He can hardly wait! 🙂

There’s a whirlwind courtship by 1830s standards, during which the first potential problems begin to appear.  Unfortunately for Dorothea, middle-aged bachelor clergymen are pretty unclear on the whole “how to behave with your fiancée” thing. Casaubon is not a physically demonstrative man while Dorothea is a physically affectionate woman, and he looks bewildered every time she swoops in for a kiss; she’s always the one to initiate intimate contact.  However, despite that, he’s sweetly eager when she comes for a visit with her Uncle Brooke (Robert Hardy) and sister Celia (Caroline Harker), gazing out the window and wringing his hands in anticipation like an anxious schoolboy.  He shows Dorothea over Lowick Hall, which is to become her new home, with a distinct air of pride, even though Celia may not be impressed by the housekeeping (and she isn’t).  When showing Dorothea the room that’s to become her “boudoir”, he mentions that it used to be his mother’s in tones of quiet affection; so you see, even “cold-hearted monsters” have mothers they love.  We do sense that there’s some untapped potential inside him.

How Not to Honeymoon

casaubon_world2The extent of their problems really begins to reveal itself on their honeymoon in Rome.  It’s a great location for romance, but perhaps not so much if your new husband spends most of his time cooped up in a library, leaving you to entertain yourself in a city where you don’t speak the language.  When Casaubon does finally decide to pay some attention to Dorothea (making sure to emphasize that he’s cutting into his library time to do it), he seems to have the intent that their sight-seeing must be educational, so he lectures her on statuary and Roman art for her own self-improvement.  I really couldn’t blame her for getting bored.  There’s just a complete disconnect in communication between the two of them, and Casaubon is so new to married life – and to dealing with other people generally – that he has no idea what interaction should be like.  And Dorothea’s too inexperienced to know what to do when her well-intentioned expressions of affection are rebuffed.

Intellectual Jealousy

Are they talking about me...?

Are they talking about me…?

The problem is exacerbated by the appearance of Casaubon’s young cousin (not nephew!) Will Ladislaw (Rufus Sewell), who just happens to be in Rome at the same time.  Unlike his older cousin, Will has no problem connecting with Dorothea and he’s the first one to open her eyes about The Key to All Mythologies:  namely, that much of the scholarship Casaubon is doing has already been done before, and better, by authors who are willing to study German works on the same subjects.  Casaubon doesn’t read German, doesn’t want to learn it, and is sure these authors would have nothing to offer him.  Moreover, Casaubon wasn’t interested in Will’s critiques of the work he’d done so far, in the brief time when Will acted as his secretary.  In short, Will represents a lot of insecurities and uncertainty about Casaubon’s life’s work, and he’s distinctly worried about what Will might be telling Dorothea.  He’s more intellectually than physically jealous.

Being asked uncomfortable questions by Dorothea

Being asked uncomfortable questions by Dorothea

Things don’t improve much on their return home.  Dorothea, failing to sense that there’s some… simmering animosity where her husband’s feelings towards his young cousin are concerned, keeps meeting Will, which in turns keeps feeding Casaubon’s insecurity.  To make matters worse, Dorothea also repeatedly asks when she can begin assisting with The Key to All Mythologies, when the truth is that while Casaubon has become obsessed with the research process and accumulation of material, he has absolutely no idea how to consolidate it or begin the actual production of his work.  In fact, the thought of tackling all of that seems to terrify him, but Dorothea’s the last person he can tell.  After all, she married him with the idea in mind that she’d be able to assist him and that his book was the most important thing to him.  So he begins to lash out at her, because he doesn’t know how to communicate any other way and convey what he’s really feeling – which is, I think, the source of much of Casaubon’s reputation for “monstrosity”.  He doesn’t want Dorothea entertaining Will, he doesn’t want to hear Will’s name, and he especially doesn’t want her to badger him about The Key to All Mythologies!

Distrust and Perceived Betrayal

Finding out the truth about his condition

Finding out the truth about his condition

Matters reach a crisis point when after one particularly bad spat, Casaubon has a heart attack, and this indirectly leads to the sowing of more distrust between him and Dorothea.  He’s been aware for some time that he’s not in the best of health, but the local physican, Dr. Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) tells Dorothea the true extent.  Casaubon could recover, if he gives up his unhealthy scholar’s lifestyle (hah!), or… he could die at any time.  Then, very annoyingly, Lydgate advises Dorothea that Casaubon should not be told the truth of his condition, which guarantees (of course) that he’ll find out about it later, and furthermore, that Dorothea kept the truth from him – but not that Lydgate advised her to do so.  Add to this her persistence about Will, and wouldn’t it be nice if Will had some of his money… and it’s not hard to picture why Casaubon might feel that the one person he trusted has actually betrayed him.

Mortality and an Attempt at Reconciliation

In the mini-series, this leads to an amazing  scene where Patrick Malahide wordlessly portrays Casaubon confronting his own mortality, looking back at Lowick Hall (where he knows Dorothea’s waiting for him) to the side of the river where he’s enjoyed walking when he was able to pry himself away from his books, with an expression that ranges from anger to grief to regret.  He at first shuts Dorothea out when he comes back inside, preferring to isolate himself in his library, but then there are signs of a breakthrough.  He emerges to find that Dorothea has been sitting up waiting for him, in her nightgown on the staircase, and he seems deeply touched.  “Come, my dear, come,” he says, with tears threatening to break through. “You are young and should not expend your life by watching.”

Making a solemn and very open-ended request

Making a solemn and very open-ended request

Casaubon’s time in the library appears to have allowed him to come to some conclusions, because he finally decides that it’s time to allow Dorothea to assist him with The Key to All Mythologies.  They set to work on his numerous notebooks and again, we get a glimpse of what their married life might have been like if Casaubon had been able to unbend sooner; he actually seems to be enjoying himself as they go through the material.  By contrast, Dorothea  seems to be regretting her offer, because she looks bored to death – remember the statues in Rome!   They’re nowhere near finishing the task when he asks her to make him a promise one night:  that she’ll “avoid doing what [he] would deprecate and apply [herself] to do what [he] would desire”.  It’s a rather open-ended request and she’s not allowed to ask what it’s about; Dorothea wants to think about it first, which Casaubon, unfortunately, takes as a sign of distrust.  He’s angry at her hesitation, but he agrees to give her time to think about it.  Of course, we’ve already guessed that it likely involves Dorothea finishing The Key to All Mythologies if Casaubon can’t do it.

A Draconian Codicil

By the time Dorothea makes her decision, it’s too late – [spoiler!] Casaubon has a fatal heart attack and dies.  As a final indication of his insecurity and distrust, he leaves a codicil in his will that Dorothea can have everything (and he’s quite loaded, inheriting from your older brother will do that) as long as… she doesn’t marry Will Ladislaw!  Hardly a steep price to pay, but Dorothea has been growing closer to Will.  Furthermore the codicil serves to ignite village gossip that where’s there’s smoke there must be some fire, damaging Dorothea’s (and Will’s) reputation.

Monster or Not?

I can see how so many come to think of Casaubon as a “cold-hearted monster”.  His last acts are a draconian assertion of control and an attempt to ensure Dorothea’s commitment to a task destined for failure: the completion of The Key to All Mythologies, which will be obsolete before it’s even published.  Yet even these acts are motivated not by meanness, but by a desire to leave something of himself in the world, and (strange as it may seem), a desire to protect Dorothea.  Eliot makes clear that it’s not jealousy that drives Casaubon to write the codicil, but a fear (whether justified or not) that Will might take advantage of Dorothea and fritter away the money Casaubon leaves her.  Which really, left to his own devices, Will probably would (okay, I’m biased).

Twinges of doubt

Twinges of doubt

If Casaubon’s guilty of anything, it’s not intentional mistreatment of Dorothea.  Rather, it’s a fatal case of procrastination in getting around to finally living his life, an unwillingness to learn, and an inability to unbend enough to communicate vulnerability or weakness to the person who, ironically, would probably be the happiest to help him.  If he could communicate these things, it would probably go a long ways towards relieving some (likely not all) of his fears.  Dorothea might have been initially disappointed that Casaubon didn’t have the towering intellect she thought he had, but I think that she’d have bent heaven and earth to do anything she could for him.

Casaubon does behave badly, but I think his reactions have their roots way back when he first started courting Dorothea and couldn’t express himself either physically or emotionally, leading to his mostly ignoring her during the honeymoon (sigh, such a shame) and becoming upset when Will didn’t ignore her.  He becomes distrustful and fearful when it seems that two of the most important things to him – his book and his marriage – are in jeopardy, and then everything snowballs when he believes there’s no one he can trust.

Missed Potential

He's not a monster at all!

He’s not a monster at all!

What makes it all the more maddening is that the signs are all there that he could have grown and developed into a loving, perhaps even charming (in an eccentric way) human being.  He’s awkwardly and shyly infatuated with Dorothea at first; mentions his mother in a very affectionate fashion; is sweetly anxious when Dorothea comes for a visit; and it’s even revealed (not by him, he’s too modest) that he helped support Will’s family financially when they were in dire straits.  He’s proud of his scholarship even though he’s not quite sure what to do with it all, and seems to enjoying bringing Dorothea in on it when he finally decides (too late, procrastination again) that it’s time to actually work on his book.  And I think he does begin to realize just how much Dorothea cares for him when he finds her sitting up waiting for him, and he begins to soften towards her.  If only they’d had more time together to continue in that vein!

Patrick Malahide as Edward Casaubon

The Phantom of the Library

The Phantom of the Library

Of course, I do think that a lot of the credit for bringing forward Casaubon’s humanity and vulnerability has to go to Mr. Malahide.  Without his superb portrayal – indeed, when I re-read the book, I can’t help but hear Casaubon’s lines in Mr. Malahide’s voice – we wouldn’t have nearly the complete picture of Casaubon that we have.  He helps us to understand that even though Casaubon’s flawed, a bit selfish, rather self-absorbed and (metaphorically) short-sighted, and above all, fearful, insecure, and self-doubting, that there’s a real person underneath it all who has understandable reasons for the things he does and is quite capable of being hurt.  So, far from being a “cold-hearted monster”, instead he’s a human being with a lot of missed potential.  And I think that’s what George Eliot was really trying to get across.

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3 Responses to A Defense of Casaubon or, Hey, Obsessed Scholars Aren’t So Bad!

  1. Pingback: Our Favourite Characters (Played by Patrick Malahide)Patrick Malahide, An Appreciation

  2. Dorothy Lopez-Ferreiro says:


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