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September 2013

A Gossipy Interlude: George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, and John Chapman, Part 3

Smith discusses the significant role played by John Chapman in the lives of Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, and G. H. Lewes.

In 1899, the English writer Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf) wrote to Herbert Spencer asking him to help raise money for an Ethical Lecturers Fund. Spencer declined, noting that, according to the prospectus, only those with a university honors degree would be eligible for financial assistance from the fund. By that standard, Spencer complained, neither he nor his late friend J.S. Mill would have been eligible to apply, since both were home schooled and lacked academic credentials.

Stephen claimed that Spencer had misunderstood the passage in question, which required only the educational equivalent of a university honors degree. Spencer replied:

I do not know what might have been the case with Mill. I can only say that were I young and a candidate, the regulation would rigorously exclude me. Not only could I have shown no education equivalent to a university honours degree, but I could have shown none equivalent to the lowest degree a university gives.

Naturally, such being my position, I demur to the test specified. Moreover, not on personal grounds only but on general grounds, I demur to the assumption that a university career implies a fit preparation.

Stephen persisted. By the time Spencer published Social Statics he surely “had somehow or other attained an amount of knowledge…very much superior to that of the average ‘honour man,’ who satisfies the examiners in his department of study.”

Spencer again protested.

Your assumption is a very natural one, but it is utterly mistaken. When Social Statics was written I had none of that preparation which you suppose.

By the time he finished Social Statics Spencer had read virtually nothing in the fields of ethics and political philosophy. And though he had criticized Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism, “of Bentham I knew only that he was the promulgator of the Greatest Happiness principle.”

The doctrines of other ethical writers referred to were known by me only through references to them here and there met with. I never then looked into any of their books; and, moreover, I have never since looked into any of their books….

If you ask how there comes such an amount of incorporated fact as is found in Social Statics, my reply is that when preparing to write it I read up in those directions in which I expected to find materials for generalization. I did not trouble myself with the generalizations of others.

And that indeed indicates my general attitude. All along I have looked at things through my own eyes and not through the eyes of others.

Comments like these have prompted some historians to accuse Spencer of refusing to acknowledge the sources of some of his theories. But Spencer did acknowledge such sources, when appropriate, while explaining that his best ideas typically arose spontaneously rather than from deliberation. Moreover, Spencer was a social creature who loved to engage in intellectual discussions, and those discussions stimulated his creativity.

Historians of the Enlightenment have long understood the importance of taverns, coffee houses, and salons in the dissemination of radical ideas during the eighteenth century. These and other institutions in the “public sphere” served basically the same purpose that Internet forums serve today; they facilitated the free exchange of ideas among intellectuals, some of whom might have been unwilling or unable to publish. Moreover, these informal settings forged friendships and intellectual connections that can be difficult to trace in hindsight. Thus, then as now, it is a mistake to think of intellectual influences as stemming only from books, pamphlets, and other printed material.

As I discussed in Part 1, when Herbert Spencer moved to London in 1848 to work as sub-editor of The Economist, he found himself across the street from 142 Strand, the location of John Chapman’s boarding house, bookshop, and publishing business. As Spencer noted, John Chapman was the only London publisher who accepted radical books on politics and religion, so he was the best prospect to publish Social Statics—and he did just that in December 1850. But Chapman contributed to Spencer’s career in another way. Spencer regularly attended Chapman’s Friday night soirees, which attracted many cutting edge intellectuals, and it was there that Spencer met and befriended T.H. Huxley (who would later become Darwin’s “bulldog’), as well as other writers and thinkers who stimulated his thinking. We may thus view the Chapman Circle as the Victorian equivalent of eighteenth-century Paris salons.

It was at one of Chapman’s gatherings that Spencer met Marian Evans, who would later achieve fame as the novelist “George Eliot.” In September 1851 Marian informed a friend that she had met some “nice people” at Chapman’s, including “a Mr. Herbert Spencer, who has just brought out a large work on “Social Statics,” which Lewes pronounces the best book he has seen on the subject. You must see the book if possible.” By May 1852 Marian and Herbert had become close friends.

My brightest spot, next to my love of old friends, is the deliciously calm new friendship that Herbert Spencer gives me. We see each other every day, and have a delightful comradery in everything. But for him my life would be desolate enough. What a wretched lot of old shriveled creatures we shall be by-and-by. Never mind,—the uglier we get in the eyes of others, the lovelier we shall be to each other; that has always been my firm faith about friendship.

The “Lewes” mentioned in Marian’s letter was George Lewes (best known as G.H. Lewes)—a prolific journalist and writer, and co-editor of the radical journal The Leader, in which Spencer published some of his early articles on evolution. George and Marian fell madly in love, and they lived together—unmarried, for Lewes was already married—for nearly twenty-five years, until Lewes died in 1878. Although Spencer had recognized Marian’s talent and encouraged her to write novels, it was mainly owing to the encouragement of Lewes that she took up the profession and, with his guidance, became one of the highest paid writers in England.

Here again John Chapman played a critical role. Chapman introduced Spencer to Lewes in the spring of 1850, during one of his weekly meetings. Chapman also introduced Marian to George Lewes during a happenstance encounter (6 October 1851) at Jeff’s Bookshop in London. But it was not until after Spencer made a point of getting the two together at Chapman’s that the romance blossomed.

At one point Marian Evans and John Chapman conspired to find Herbert a suitable mate by arranging a blind date with an attractive poet and heiress who admired Social Statics. As Spencer wrote to a friend: “They have taken upon themselves to choose me a wife; and the various arrangements and delays in effecting an introduction have, as you may suppose, afforded subject matter for much mirth.” Things did not work out, however. Spencer found the lady “morbidly intellectual” and “pretty near as combative as I am. Moreover, she did not seem as if she could laugh.” (Contrary to the stereotypical image of a dour Spencer, he was known among friends for his sense of humor. Indeed, when Spencer wrote a eulogy for J.S. Mill, his only criticism was that Mill did not laugh very often. Laughter, Spencer believed, was vital to one’s health.)

Spencer speculated that his date was also disappointed with him. Expecting profound observations from Spencer, all she got instead were “common-place remarks.” This incident led Spencer to observe that writers rarely live up to the expectations of people who first meet them.

One may say that as a rule no man is equal to his book, though there are, I believe, exceptions. All the best products of his mental activity he puts into his book; where they are separated from the mass of inferior products with which they are mingled in his daily talk. And yet the usual supposition is that the unselected thoughts will be as good as the selected thoughts.

George Lewes was at an emotional low point when he met Spencer. His wife, Agnes, was pregnant with her second child by Thornton Hunt, George’s close friend and co-editor of The Leader. Agnes would eventually have four children by Hunt. George Lewes took care of all of them financially, even during his many years with Marian. He listed himself as the father on their birth certificates, which made it even more difficult than usual to get a divorce, since, in the eyes of English law, he had consented to his wife’s adultery. This was technically correct, since the couple had an open relationship. George had engaged in his share of affairs, but the burden of supporting children who were not his own strained his financial resources. Fortunately, as George wrote years later, his friendship with Herbert Spencer raised his spirits considerably.

I owe [Spencer] a debt of gratitude. My acquaintance with him was the brightest ray in a very dreary, wasted period of my life. I had given up all ambition whatever, lived from hand to mouth, and thought the evil of each day sufficient. The stimulus of his intellect, especially during our long walks, roused my energy once more and revived my dormant love of science. His intense theorizing tendency was contagious, and it was only the stimulus of a theory which could then have induced me to work. I owed Spencer another and a deeper debt. It was through him that I learned to know Marian,—to know her was to love her,—and since then my life has been a new birth. To her I owe all my prosperity and all my happiness. God bless her!

During their many walks and conversations George and Herbert frequently discussed what Spencer called “the development hypothesis,” which later became known as the theory of evolution—a topic that was hotly debated years before Darwin published his path-breaking studies. Lewes suggested at least one idea that Spencer later incorporated into his two-volume Principles of Biology, but more important is the fact that after the two became friends, Spencer read the Biographical History of Philosophy, a popular work by Lewes that was originally published in four volumes (1845-46). As Spencer recalled in An Autobiography, it was by reading Lewes’s book that he acquired most of his early knowledge of philosophy.

Up to that time questions in philosophy had not attracted my attention. On my father’s shelves during the years of my youth and early manhood, there had been a copy of Locke’s Essay which I had never looked into….It is true that…I had in 1844 got hold of a copy of Kant’s Critique, then, I believe, recently translated, and had read its first pages: rejecting the doctrine in which, I went no further. It is also true that though, so far as I can remember, I had read no books on either philosophy or psychology, I had gathered in conversations or by references, some conceptions of the general questions at issue….

I doubt not that the reading of Lewes’s book, while it made me acquainted with the general course of philosophical thought, and with the doctrines which throughout the ages have been the subjects of dispute, gave me an increased interest in psychology, and an interest, not before manifest, in philosophy at large; at the same time that it served, probably, to give coherence to my own thoughts, previously but loose. No more definite effect, however, at that time resulted, because there had not occurred to me any thought serving as a principle of organization.

Spencer was wont to observe that many significant events in his life would never have happened if not for some seemingly insignificant events that preceded them. No one could have predicted the complex personal relationships and intellectual consequences that followed from the friendships that Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, and George Lewes formed with John Chapman.

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