A Very Large Head: The Phrenology of George Eliot
By Maria Popova
“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” Mary Ann Evans, better-known as George Eliot, wrote in a letter to a friend in 1844. Learning how to be happy, of course, is predicated on first learning how to be — a journey of self-knowledge and self-awareness that is sometimes disorienting, frequently uncertain, and always evolving. In our chronic discomfort with ambiguity and with the fluid nature of our character, we often yearn to anchor ourselves in something concretizing by seeking out answers from outside ourselves to tell us who we are. Eliot, despite her undeniable intellect, was no exception to this frailty of the human condition.
In George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections (public library), the famed British ribbon manufacturer and social reformer Charles Bray reflects on his nine years of close friendship with George Eliot, in whom he saw the same kind of generosity of spirit that Susan Sontag did in Borges. Bray writes:
I consider her the most delightful companion I have ever known: she knew everything. She had little self-assertion; her aim was always to show her friends off to the best advantage — not herself. She would polish up their witticisms, and give the credit to them.
But one particularly unusual thing brought Bray and Eliot together: Their shared interest in phrenology. Yes, phrenology — the same 19th-century pseudoscience that gave rise to the “high-brow” vs. “low-brow” mythology of popular culture and has since been relegated to fodder for pop-culture caricature and derision — the epitome of grasping for easy, tangible, and invariably misleading answers to the intangible complexity of the human soul. To know that even Eliot was susceptible to this is oddly assuring, as well as a testament to the fact that we’re all, at least to some degree, a product of our time with all its singular irrationalities and biases.
In 1844, Eliot went as far as having a cast taken of her head by the leading British phrenologist James De Ville, who had also cast the heads of such luminaries as William Blake, Richard Dale Owen, and Prince Albert. It was then used for the “diagnosis” of her character by the Scotsman George Combe, the leader of the phrenology movement. Bray recounts:
Miss Evans’s head is a very large one, 22¼ inches round; George Combe, on first seeing the cast, took it for a man’s.* The temperament, nervous lymphatic, that is, active without endurance, and her working hours were never more than from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. … In her brain development the Intellect greatly predominates; it is very large, more in length than in its peripheral surface. In the Feelings, the Animal and the Moral regions are about equal; the moral being quite sufficient to keep the animal in order and in due subservience, but would not be spontaneously active. The social feelings were very active, particularly the adhesiveness. She was of a most affectionate disposition, always requiring some one to lean upon, preferring what has hitherto been considered the stronger sex, to the other and more impressible. She was not fitted to stand alone. Her sense of Character — of men and things, is a predominantingly intellectual one, with which the Feelings have little to do, and the exceeding fairness for which she is noted, towards all parties, towards all sects of denominations, is probably owing to her little feeling on the subject, — at least not enough to interfere with her judgment. She saw all sides, and they are always many, clearly, and without prejudice.
To be sure, Eliot didn’t take it all without a grain of salt. Two years earlier, she had written in a letter:
I am pronounced to possess a large organ of “adhesiveness,” a still larger one of “firmness,” and a large of conscientiousness. Hence if I should turn out a very weather cock and a most pitiful truckler you will have data for the exercise of faith maugre [notwithstanding] common sense, common justice, and the testimony of your eyes and ears.
In August of 1851, Eliot and a small group of friends visited with George Combe himself — the reigning godfather of phrenology for more than twenty years, and a great admirer of Eliot’s work. The evening of the visit, he revisited the subject of her head in his journal, after remarking that she was “the most extraordinary person in the party.”** Peeking from underneath the pseudoscience, however, is a very real observation about what lent Eliot her mesmerism — and what makes a person compelling in general:
She has a very large brain, the anterior lobe is remarkable for length, breadth, & height, the coronal region is large, the front rather predominating; the base is broad at Destruct[iveness]: but moderate at Aliment[iveness] & the portion behind the ear is rather small in the regions of Comb[ativeness], Amat[iveness] & Philopro[gentiveness]. Love of approb. and Concentrativeness are large. Her tempera[ment] is nervous lymphatic. She is rather tall, near 40 apparently,*** pale & in delicate health. She is an excellent musician. … She [showed] great analytic power & an instinctive soundness of judgment. … She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.
George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections is full of such unexpected curiosities shedding light on one of the most enigmatic and enthralling personae in literary history. Complement it with what Eliot teaches us about the life-cycle of happiness.
* In another recollection from the book, a woman named Susanna Chapman, the wife of publisher John Chapman, describes meeting Eliot for the first time and remarks, with rather ungenerous anatomical bluntness, on her head size: “She had such fine eyes, and the upper part of her face was so good, that it quite redeemed the lower part, which was large for a woman, and heavy set. I remember being struck to find how short she was when she rose from the tea-table.”
** Even Combe was cognizant of the limitations of his “science.” Three years later, upon finding out that Eliot had eloped to Germany with the married George Henry Lewes, with whom she went on to live for 20 years, Combe’s high opinion of her sound judgment and gentleness crumbled, and he even revisited this journal entry to add the following note: “This was written from eye-observation. She has gone off as the mistress of Mr. Lewes, a married man with 6 children.”
*** She was 31.
Published October 29, 2013