It is now almost axiomatic, in some circles, to hold up Middlemarch as ‘the best British novel of all time’. George Eliot’s tome, adored by Virginia Woolf and Michael Gove alike, would have a sturdier claim to that accolade were it not for the fact that its most interesting and engaging character drops dead half-way through. Edward Casaubon is killed off at the end of the book that Eliot fittingly named ‘Waiting for Death’. After that point, for the remaining five books, Middlemarch meekly meanders like an epic without a hero.
In the corpus of English literature, there are few figures as unjustly maligned as Edward Casaubon. His name is usually accompanied by adjectives like ‘stale’, ‘dry’, or ‘pedantic’. The general critical response to Casaubon is not far off from the way he is perceived by the characters in the novel itself. To Mrs Cadwallader, the town gossip, he is ‘a great bladder for dried peas to rattle in’; Sir James Chettam, a ‘blooming Englishman of the red-whiskered type’, looks upon the frail, bookish Casaubon with ‘concentrated disgust’. Each already has an axe to grind. Sir James is embittered by the fact that Dorothea Brooke chose to marry Casaubon instead of him; Mrs Cadwallader is embarrassed that the match between Dorothea and Sir James, which she had smugly envisaged and engineered, was not to be. Casaubon indirectly wounded both of their egos, and he suffers in their minds because of it.
In the corpus of English literature, there are few figures as unjustly maligned as Edward Casaubon.
‘Poor Casaubon!’, the narrator often exclaims – and poor Casaubon, indeed. The superficial, nosey denizens of Middlemarch simply won’t leave him alone. Sir James, stewing in his incredulous envy, finds Casaubon’s ‘want of muscular curve… morally painful’, and Casaubon’s ‘blinking eyes and white moles’ are ‘objectionable to Celia’, Dorothea’s sister. Sir James and Celia eventually end up together (in their shallowness, they deserve each other); but they never really consider that Dorothea’s love for Casaubon could be genuine, or that he truly is, in her eyes, an ‘affable angel’. At the beginning of the novel we find her casting about for a John Locke or a Milton, and in Casaubon she finds one.
If Middlemarch falters so significantly after Casaubon’s death, it is in part because Casaubon’s replacement in the narrative, and in Dorothea’s bed – his vapid cousin, Will Ladislaw – is so inferior to him. Ladislaw is ‘dilettantish’, a wet-wipe: Romantic, perhaps, but not romantic. Though he is disrespected by the narrow-minded xenophobes of Middlemarch, on account of his Slavic pedigree, still he petulantly bites the only hand that feeds him. Casaubon sustains him, shelters him, bankrolls his endless gap year. Ladislaw is able to piss about with other so-called artists in Italy only because of his cousin’s generous financial support. We might think that Casaubon deserves at least some measure of grace and gratitude from his cousin, but when he goes to Rome, with Dorothea in arm, Ladislaw and his friend Naumann elect instead to mock him. Casaubon’s continued generosity is a mark of his magnanimity; Ladislaw’s gratuitous acidity is the mark of a very small man.
Much like Sir James, who can’t get his head around the fact that Dorothea simply isn’t interested in him, Ladislaw is bewildered by Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon. So he does what small men do, in his desperation to undermine the marriage, by ranting to Dorothea about how Casaubon’s academic search for a ‘Key to All Mythologists’ – quite an ordinary hobbyhorse for early nineteenth-century anthropologists and divines – is actually fatuous and passé. He hopes somehow to convince Dorothea that her husband is an intellectual charlatan. The pettiness is pathetic – but Ladislaw is pathetic.
Casaubon’s infamous codicil in his will, preventing Dorothea from inheriting his property in the instance that she marries Ladislaw, is an undeniable encroachment on her freedom and agency. It is the sort of petulant behaviour one would naturally expect more from his cousin. But it comes from a place that is recognisably, if regrettably, human; Casaubon might be vindictive in his contempt for Ladislaw, but his contempt, at least, is justified.
At its core, Middlemarch is a novel about small-town nastiness, and Casaubon is its ultimate victim. He is bullied for his looks and his manner, but he loves Dorothea, and she loves him. Her devastation at her early widowhood is, like her initial attraction to Casaubon, real. The foil with Ladislaw entitles him, at the very least, to our sympathy. Certainly he already has the narrator’s, who reminds us that he is ‘as spiritually a-hungered as the rest of us’. He is the real hero of Middlemarch, and it is a shame that he doesn’t stick around for longer. It is a shame, equally, that Ladislaw gets a happy ending, doing what talentless wasters often do by being elected to parliament. Casaubon deserves our respect, and perhaps even our fondness. Coincidences of nominative determinism abound in Victorian novels, so it is hardly surprising that Edward Casaubon should turn out to be a case of good.