Smith criticizes an influential book by Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In Return to Yesterday (1932), the English writer, critic, and editor Ford Madox Ford recounted his first meeting with Henry James. The young Ford, who felt “something like awe in the presence” of the great writer, had lunch with James, after which James “let himself go in a singularly vivid display for the persons rather than the works of my family’s circle.” James especially disliked William Rossetti, Ford’s uncle, whom he called an “incredible bore.” To illustrate his point, James told a story that Rossetti had told him about Herbert Spencer and George Eliot–a story that Rossetti claimed to have heard years earlier from an English bureaucrat.

[Rossetti] had once heard the Secretary to the Inland Revenue recount how he had seen George Eliot proposed to by Herbert Spencer on the leads of the terrace at Somerset House.…The Inland Revenue headquarters is housed in that building and the philosopher and the novelist were permitted by the authorities there to walk as a special privilege.

In fact, John Chapman, a friend of both Spencer and Eliot, had a key to the Somerset House, and that’s how the couple gained access to the terrace where, in 1852, they frequently took long walks. But let’s continue with the story.

“You would think,” Mr. James exclaimed with indignation, his dark eyes really flashing, “that a man would make something out of a story like that: But the way he told it was like this,” and heightening and thinning his tones into a sort of querulous official organ Mr. James quoted [Rossetti]: “’I have as a matter of fact frequently meditated on the motives which induced the Lady’s refusal of one so distinguished; and after mature consideration I have arrived at the conclusion that although Mr. Spencer with correctness went down upon one knee and grasped the Lady’s hand he completely omitted the ceremony of removing his high hat, a proceeding which her sense of the occasion might have demanded.…’ Is that,” Mr. James concluded, “the way to tell that story?”

Here we have a bit of gossip about Herbert Spencer and Marian Evans (only later did she call herself “George Eliot”) that was being told long after both had died, a story that had passed from a supposed eyewitness to William Rossetti to Henry James to Ford Madox Ford, and from Ford to his readers. Henry James, who appreciated the significance of this juicy tidbit, could not abide the ponderous and pretentious manner in which Rossetti told the story, but the story itself illustrates the curiosity of many people about the exact nature of the relationship between Herbert and Marian.

The notion that Marian would have refused a marriage proposal from Herbert because he failed to remove his hat is of course preposterous; a more credible explanation would be Marian’s well‐​known opposition to marriage (a position that was fairly common among her circle of Victorian freethinkers). But the account of the marriage proposal is itself almost certainly bogus; if anything, it reverses the roles of Herbert and Marian. Judging from Marian’s letters, it is reasonable to speculate that she loved Herbert and wanted more than a friendship, but Herbert did not reciprocate her feelings.

This, at least, is the standard account found in most biographies of Herbert Spencer and George Eliot, as well as in biographies of G.H. Lewes–a member of the Chapman Circle and Spencer’s close friend who, though married to Agnes Jervis, lived with Marian from 1854 until his death in 1878. However, that relationship, a scandal of major proportions, is beyond the scope of our present gossipy account. (I may get to it later.)

Mark Francis, in his major work, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (Cornell University Press, 2007, p. 57), disagrees with the standard story: “The most important way in which An Autobiography was ‘doctored’ by Spencer was in his concealment of his love affair with and courtship of Eliot.” This supposed concealment provides Francis with abundant fodder for explaining Spencer’s psychology.

The encounter with Eliot forced him to recognize his own failure in masculinity by confronting him with a woman who seemingly possessed every one of the personalized and curious collection of feminine virtues on which he had mused when imagining his ideal woman. From his perspective she was without flaw, yet, when faced with perfection in a woman who truly loved him, he could feel no passion, but only emptiness and pain. During their affair he suffered for many months feeling uncomfortable with his own unresponsiveness; then he took his true love and fobbed her off on his friend, the notoriously sensual and libidinous G.H. Lewes. After such a display of pusillanimity and sexual indecision, Spencer had no choice but to resign himself to being a recluse. His failure to love was the only adult tragedy of his life, and it was one that he was determined to hide. He had no choice in this as he lacked the literary genius that he believed was necessary to transfigure artistically either the passions or the coldness that, he knew, was their substitute inside him. If he had been a poet he might have made his failure to love into an aesthetically satisfying tragedy. However, in the absence of such talent, concealment was the only option.

Obvious psychobabble aside, Francis speaks repeatedly of the “love affair” between Spencer and Eliot, and he refers to Eliot as Spencer’s “lover.” He claims that “the affair lasted through the summer of 1852, and then through the autumn and into the beginning of 1853.” Given the assurance with which Francis makes his revisionist assertions, curious readers may wonder why, in the Introduction to his book (p. 7), Francis says the following:

Spencer’s life was unusual: he had no children, nor did he ever possess a wife or mistress. It is probable that he also died a virgin.

Perhaps Francis meant that Spencer was unable to perform sexually with Marian, however much he tried, so this probably left him a “virgin.” Shortly before his comment about Spencer qua probable virgin, and after his assertion that “Spencer believed that his unhappiness was caused by his Christian upbringing”–a remarkable allegation that is new to me–Francis asserts that Spencer “plunged…into an alienation” that he could not fulfill by his success as a writer, and that Spencer’s “adult experiences reinforced his sense of inadequacy.”

His sole romantic adventure, an attempt to love George Eliot, produced the bitter lesson that happiness was an instinctive satisfaction: a condition from which he was excluded because of his inability to follow his feelings. (My italics.)

I suppose we could interpret the word “attempt” as an indication of sexual impotence, as we could interpret other comments by Francis about Spencer’s “failure” to love Eliot, but that doesn’t seem to be his meaning. Besides, Francis was addressing an adult audience in 2007, so if impotence was what he had in mind, he could easily have said so explicitly–but he doesn’t. Alternatively, by “love affair” and “lover” Francis might not have intended to imply a sexual involvement of any kind, even though such expressions were bound to mislead readers. So what did Francis mean to say? I honestly don’t have a clue.

Moreover, according to Francis (and contrary to the standard story), Spencer “had in fact agreed to marry [Marian] despite his lack of enthusiasm about the match.” In denying both his “love affair” with Marian and his “intention to marry” her, Spencer committed “two of the greatest falsehoods he ever uttered.” Francis (p. 60) explains the source of his information as follows:

The true story of Spencer’s relationship with George Eliot is contained in a series of unpublished and partly published letters that were concealed by his official biographer Duncan and subsequently, in 1935, deposited in the British Museum by the Spencer Trustees, with instructions that they were not to be made public for fifty years. Together with these manuscripts is a lengthy letter written in 1881 to his American friend and publisher E.L. Youmans. In this Spencer gave an almost complete and accurate account of his relationship with the novelist, while asking Youmans to deny it.

Although I have not seen the unpublished letters mentioned and cited by Francis, in most cases I would accept the word of a scholar about their content, especially when they are represented as containing straightforward admissions by Spencer about his true relationship with Marian Evans. But if the shoe were on the other foot and I were the one offering a revisionist account of the Spencer/​Eliot relationship, I would quote substantial chunks of those unpublished letters to substantiate my claims. But with the exception of some brief remarks that don’t prove anything one way or the other, we are left in the dark about the literal content of those unpublished letters, so we must take the word of Mark Francis for what they say.

My suspicions about the reliability of Mark Francis, though they might be completely wrong in this case, are not unfounded. In my 1981 article, “Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Causation” (pdf), I included a lengthy and acerbic comment on an earlier article by Francis, “Herbert Spencer and the Myth of Laissez Faire” (p. 144, note 7). Without repeating my specific charges, suffice it to say that Francis tended to play fast and loose with sources–and after checking a handful of citations in Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life, my skepticism remains as strong as ever. Here are two flagrant examples.

In the last passage I quoted from Francis, he mentions a letter that Spencer wrote to his American friend E.L. Youmans. This concerned the biography that J.W. Cross (who married Marian after the death of G.H. Lewes) was writing about George Eliot. After Spencer became aware of rumors that he had been in love with Eliot, he urged Cross to insert a note in his biography stating that these rumors were untrue. Now, according to Francis, who cites the published (if incomplete) letter to Youmans, Spencer was concerned that Cross “would spread truthful rumors about him. He therefore bullied Cross into inserting a disingenuous note denying them.…” Francis also tells us that Spencer asked Youmans to deny rumors that Spencer himself admitted were true.

People who read the letter in question for themselves will easily see the unreliability of Francis’s account. Spencer did not admit the truth of the rumors and then ask Youmans to lie for him; on the contrary, Spencer insisted that the rumors were “utterly unfounded” and that he simply wanted Cross to correct “such absurd misstatements as those which you [Youmans] told me were current in America.” The accurate explanation given by Spencer’s official biographer, David Duncan, directly contradicts the bizarre account given by Mark Francis.

The death of “George Eliot” in December, 1880, revived the rumors, already heard occasionally in this country and frequently in the United States, that Spencer had been in love with her. These stories had for years caused him great annoyance. Feeling that he could not himself do anything to contradict these absolutely untrue statements, he laid the matter in strict confidence before his friends, Professors Huxley and Tyndall. Mr. Potter, and Dr. Youmans, in order that they, knowing the facts, should, if the rumor were repeated in their hearing, privately contradict it, leaving such private contradiction to have what effect it might in checking its further circulation.

Those readers who think I am being unfair to Mark Francis–after all, even the best scholars make mistakes from time to time–should consider another one of his claims and the source he cites to support it. As usual, Francis wishes to make a psychological point about Spencer–in this case, to show how “Spencer’s failure to reproduce himself spilled into his other thoughts.” Spencer occasionally compared his books and ideas to children, and so, Francis informs us, did George Eliot. Never mind that this metaphor–which appears in Plato’s Symposium, in John Milton’s Areopagitica, and in countless other works–is one of the most hackneyed metaphors in the history of literature. No, never mind any of this, for Mark Francis (p. 57) uses his remarkable psychoanalytic powers to explain its deep significance for Spencer and Eliot.

Spencer shared with his lover, the novelist George Eliot, the image that literary works were authors’ children. Both writers were childless and the use of this metaphor purloined the maternal roles of their old friends while, at the same time, fending off loneliness. Their claim to have given birth is especially parasitic and selfish when it is considered that both used it when writing to old acquaintances who lived in obscurity while they themselves basked in the warmth of public praise.

To illustrate his point, Francis refers to a letter that Spencer “pathetically wrote to one of his women friends, Mrs. Octavius Smith.” Francis then quotes part, but only part, of this letter:

As with parents it ultimately becomes the chief object of life to rear their children and put them forward prosperously in the world, so, as an author’s life advances, the almost exclusive object of anxiety becomes the fulfillment of his literary aims–the rearing of the progeny of the brain.

What is so pathetic about this passage? Francis explains:

The unpleasant part of Spencer’s letter to Mrs Smith can only be savoured fully if it is recognized as an attempt to elicit sympathy from an elderly widow whose life had been bound up with her family, and who was grieving the death of her husband. Spencer’s abiding sense of failure drove him to write such self‐​pitying letters.

Now let’s take a look at the complete text of Spencer’s letter to Mrs. Smith– that pathetic and self‐​pitying letter in which Spencer displayed insensitivity to a grieving widow, according to Mark Francis. But first some context: In 1877, Mrs. Octavius Smith invited Spencer to stay at her estate, Ardtornish, in the Scottish Highlands. After vacationing there for a month, Spencer wrote Mrs. Smith a note of thanks.

To Mrs. Smith (London, 17 Sept. 1877)

I may say that I think I am stronger than I have been since this time last year. Thanks in great measure, and I think chiefly, to Ardtornish and all its pleasures, indoor and outdoor. Again I have to thank you for many happy days in addition to those enjoyed in years gone by. Should any one hereafter use the materials of a biographical kind which will be left behind me, he will probably find clear enough evidence that the most of the happiest days of my life have been spent at Ardtornish. And not only in respect of pleasure and health, but, as a consequence, in respect of working power, I feel my indebtedness. As with parents it ultimately becomes the chief object of life to rear their children and put them forward prosperously in the world, so, as an author’s life advances, the almost exclusive object of anxiety becomes the fulfillment of his literary aims–the rearing of progeny of the brain.

The first thing to note about this letter is the date–17 Sept. 1877. The second thing to note is that Mrs. Smith’s husband, Octavius, died in Feb. 1871, over six years before Spencer wrote his letter, so where Francis got his information about a grieving widow is anyone’s guess. The third thing to note is that this letter is a simple thanks to Mrs. Smith for inviting Spencer to relax for a while at Ardtornish. Spencer was able to recharge his intellectual batteries during his one‐​month vacation there, so he expressed his “indebtedness” to Mrs. Smith.

So how did Mark Francis arrive at his twisted interpretation of Spencer’s innocent, cordial letter to Mrs. Smith? Again, this is anyone’s guess–and I have the same reaction to many of Francis’s interpretations. I do not profess to understand the mind of Mark Francis or his canons of scholarship, nor do I recognize the Herbert Spencer he created with the artistic freedom of a novelist. Perhaps the explanation lies in Francis’s highly peculiar claim (p. 20) that Spencer’s Autobiography is actually “an exercise in ironic self‐​mockery in which historic detail was manipulated the better to illustrate artistic and political metaphor.” Perhaps this perspective encouraged Francis to emulate Spencer and write his own book “in which historic detail was manipulated.” In any case, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life should be read with extreme caution, even in matters of gossip.