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Sep 3, 2013

A Gossipy Interlude: George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, and John Chapman, Part 1

Smith discusses the complex personal relationships among three leading classical liberals in Victorian England.

My discussion of the Land Question has so far consumed nine essays, and more needs to be said. But I’ve grown weary of the topic, and some of my readers probably have as well, so I am exercising my inalienable right to interrupt myself and take a break from that weighty philosophical controversy. Hence this Gossipy Interlude about Herbert Spencer and the future novelist “George Eliot”—the nom de plume of Marian Evans. (I shall use Marian’s real name throughout this essay. She began life as Mary Ann Evans, but she was calling herself “Marian” by the time she met Spencer.)

Rumors about Herbert and Marian abounded in 1852 London. The couple seemed inseparable as they took long walks and attended concerts and plays together, so many onlookers believed that marriage was in the offing. Herbert did his best to quash this rumor; and though he described his friendship with Marian as “intimate,” he denied that they were romantically involved.

Modern biographers of both Herbert Spencer and George Eliot have offered various opinions about the exact nature of their relationship, thereby corroborating my belief that much of what we call “history” is little more than gossip with footnotes. Nevertheless, there is an inherent fascination in the relationship between two of the best minds in Victorian England—and there is no doubt that Marian Evans, in addition to her remarkable talents as a novelist (her first complete novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859), was a top-drawer intellectual. Spencer, who was sparing in his praise of others, did not exaggerate when he referred to her “high philosophical capacity.”

The relationship between Herbert and Marian also enables us to explore a remarkable group of London intellectuals who frequently gathered at the boarding house of John Chapman, the publisher of Spencer’s Social Statics (Dec. 1850) and other radical works on politics and religion.

In An Analytical Catalogue of Mr. Chapman’s Publications (1852) we find an obscure but interesting intersection between Marian and Herbert. Marian Evans wrote this catalogue—which includes a lengthy and excellent summary of Spencer’s Social Statics (pp. 62-66)—while she and Herbert were close friends. Marian was also a close friend of the publisher John Chapman, but their relationship had become strained, so she wrote the Analytical Catalogue with considerable reluctance and hard feelings.

John Chapman first suggested this catalogue to Marian while she was living in the boarding house run by John and his wife, Susanna. At that point Marian had expressed enthusiasm for the Analytical Catalogue, but much had changed since then. And this is where we come to one of many juicy tidbits about members of the “Chapman Circle.”

John Chapman, a handsome and charismatic fellow, was a notorious philanderer—there was a good reason why some friends called him “Byron”—and it is likely that the young Marian succumbed to his charms while she was living with the Chapmans. It is unclear whether Susanna knew about their relationship (though she once caught them holding hands), but she certainly knew about John’s ongoing affair with their attractive housekeeper, Elisabeth. (This sort of arrangement was not all that unusual among Victorian freethinkers.) And it was Mistress #1, Elisabeth, who frequently flew into a rage when John spent time in Marian’s room at unusual hours, sometimes for the ostensible purpose of taking German lessons from Marian.

Things finally reached the breaking point on 22 January 1852. As John Chapman recorded in his personal journal, he invited Marian to take a walk with him after breakfast. After he didn’t get a “decisive answer” from Marian, Elisabeth (Mistress #1) volunteered to go with him instead. “I then invited Miss Evans again, telling her that E. [Elisabeth] would go, whereupon she declined rather rudely.” Then Susanna volunteered to go on the walk as well. John thus found himself in a fix, for his plan to be alone with Marian had morphed into a walk with the two other women in his life. John, never very good at domestic diplomacy, attempted to solve his problem by suggesting that Susanna and Elisabeth go ahead without him; he would catch up with them later. But Mistress #1 was not fooled. As John wrote, Elisabeth took the suggestion as an “insult from me and reproached me in no measured terms accordingly, and heaped upon me suspicions and accusations I do not in any way deserve.”

Things went downhill for Marian after this incident, as Susanna joined forces with Elisabeth to drive Marian out of the boarding house. We don’t know all the details because John cut a number of key pages from his journal, but we do know that Marian left for Coventry on 24 March 1852. John wrote in his journal:

M. departed today. I accompanied her to the railway. She was very sad, and hence made me feel so.—She pressed me for some intimation of the state of my feelings—(I told her that I felt great affection for her, but that I loved E. and S. also, though each in a different way.) At this avowal she burst into tears. I tried to comfort her, and reminded [her] of the dear friends and pleasant home she was returning to,—but the train whirled her away very very sad….Susanna…reproached me, and spoke very bitterly about M.

We now return to the plan to have Marian write the Analytical Catalogue for John Chapman. Marian had begun working on this project before she left the Chapman household, so, after her departure, John wanted to know if she would continue that work. But John also made it known that his wife disapproved; Susanna suspected that Marian had agreed to write the catalogue so she could spend time with John.

Marian, who had done a good deal of high quality work for Chapman as a translator and writer, was deeply offended by Susanna’s attack on her motives; so, in a letter to John (4 April), she curtly refused to have anything more to do with the Analytical Catalogue. Marian immediately had second thoughts, however: after sealing her first letter she wrote a second letter and sent both at the same time. Marian made her feelings clear in the second letter.

On further consideration I consent to continue the Catalogue, since I am ashamed of perpetual vacillations, on condition that you state or rather, I should hope, re-state to Mrs. C. the fact that I am doing it, not because I ‘like’, but in compliance with your request. You are aware that I never had the slightest wish to undertake the thing on my own account. If I continue it, it will be with the utmost repugnance, and only on the understanding that I shall accept no remuneration.

Few people, including historians, know of the existence of An Analytical Catalogue of Mr. Chapman’s Publications; even fewer know that it was written by a woman who was destined to become one of England’s greatest novelists; and fewer still know anything about the tumultuous personal entanglements that almost led to the catalogue not being written at all. But this background, gossipy and scandalous though it may be, is the sort of thing that can make history fun.

Now let’s turn to Herbert Spencer’s relationship with John Chapman.

As Spencer recalled in An Autobiography, he first met Marian Evans during the summer of 1851, and he got to know her better during Chapman’s “weekly soirées.” Herbert described his high regard for Marian in a letter to a friend (23 April 1852):

Miss Evans [is] the most admirable woman, mentally, I ever met. We have been for some time past on very intimate terms. I am very frequently at Chapman’s and the greatness of her intellect conjoined with her womanly qualities and manner, generally keep me by her side most of the evening.

If you look at the title page of the first printing of Social Statics, you will find the publisher, John Chapman, listed at “142 Strand.” This address is significant, for it was almost directly across the street from the offices of The Economist, located at 340 Strand. When Social Statics was published Spencer was not only working as a sub-editor of The Economist (the same periodical published today) but was also living in a couple of spare rooms in the offices. (James Wilson, the owner and publisher of The Economist, had suggested this arrangement to Spencer so the young writer could save on expenses while working on his first book.) Spencer’s workplace and makeshift home gave him easy access to 142 Strand—the location of the Chapmans’ boarding house and also, on the ground floor, the location of Chapman’s business offices, bookshop, and printing facilities.

Although Spencer probably began writing Social Statics in 1847, most of it was written after December 1848, when he began working for The Economist. Progress was slow, however. In early 1849, Spencer wrote to his father:

I cannot say that I make satisfactory progress with my book. From one cause or another I meet with so many interruptions that I do not spend half the time at it that I wished and intended to do.

Spencer appears to have completed a rough draft of Social Statics by December 1849, for by that time, as indicated in another letter to his father, he had “commenced revising.”

In some measure the slowness of my progress was due to the labor I spent over the composition. Somewhere I had met with the saying that a book is saved by its style; and had taken the saying to heart. Probably it would have influenced me but little had I not been constitutionally fastidious. But having in most things a high ideal, and being by nature prone to look for faults, alike in the performance of others and in my own, I was commonly not satisfied by the first expressions which suggested themselves; and never rested so long as I thought that a sentence might be made clearer or more forcible.

By the spring of 1850 “the completion of the work was within sight,” so Spencer began negotiations with the publisher across the street. Spencer anticipated “considerable difficulty in getting the book published” because Chapman could not afford to lose money “supposing the book should not pay.” Spencer lacked the funds needed to compensate Chapman for any losses, so “the only question with Chapman [was] to what extent it would be safe to give me credit.” Chapman had insufficient capital to extend credit, but he told Spencer about a friend, Mr. Woodfall, who was interested in the dissemination of libertarian ideas and so might extend credit to Spencer for two years, especially if he could provide Woodfall with some assurance of being repaid. After Spencer pledged the 80 pounds he had coming from “a railway claim” (from a previous employer who had gone bankrupt), the “agreement was then made and the printing proceeded.” Spencer reflected on these circumstances as follows:

The moral of these facts is that in the absence of a sympathetic printer, and a sympathetic publisher (for Chapman was anxious to bring out the book), and in the absence of this partial security I was enabled to give, the book would not have been issued at all; or, at any rate, would have remained unissued for years, waiting until I had accumulated a sufficient sum to meet the cost.

Whatever one may think of John Chapman’s personal life—and such matters are unimportant in the grand scheme of things—he was a courageous libertarian and freethinking publisher who, despite unending financial problems, was determined to make controversial books on politics, religion, and science available to the general public.

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