Colin Kidd, The World of Mr Casaubon: Britain’s Wars of Mythography, 1700-1870

Colin Kidd, The World of Mr Casaubon: Britain’s Wars of Mythography, 1700–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) vi+232pp. $24.00 Pdf, £38.99 Hb, £19.99 Pb, ISBN 781107027718

While discussing the dangers of old-earth geology in an 1828 issue of Christian Observer, George Bugg drew attention to the ‘Bad effect on the Hindoos’ of this modern science. Most geologists (although not the faithful curate Bugg) assumed the earth was far more ancient than a strictly literal reading of the Bible suggested. Were Christian missionaries therefore ‘to acknowledge that the Hindoos possess much better information respecting the primordial state of the earth and its inhabitants’?1 The vast timescales of Hinduism appeared to tally more accurately with the latest science than the six-or-so thousand years printed inside many Bibles and taken seriously by a significant portion of the British public.

Bugg’s topic would probably have presented an exciting opportunity rather than an unsurmountable problem for the subjects of Colin Kidd’s excellent book. In the eyes of these imaginative theologians, antiquarians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, non-Christian sources were valuable ‘collateral’ testaments to the exact truth of the Bible. Kidd frames his study of these figures around Edward Casaubon, the ponderous scholar and ill-fated husband of Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872). No reader of Middlemarch can forget Casaubon’s flawed attempt to produce a ‘Key to All Mythologies’ that would show how false religions stemmed from distortions of Judeo-Christian truth. In The World of Mr Casaubon, Kidd convincingly shows that Eliot tactically withheld from the reader a full knowledge of the debates that a man of Casaubon’s character could have participated in during the novel’s 1830s setting. Rather than exposing Eliot’s uneven historical accuracy, Kidd actually illustrates the thematic underwiring of Middlemarch.

Although Kidd, whose attention to Eliot is careful and exact, may provide us with new sympathy for Casaubon, his primary goal is not literary criticism. The book begins by contextualising Dorothea’s pedantic husband in light of the Christian mythographic tradition that began in the patristic era, received a boost in the early modern period, and persisted throughout the nineteenth century. Kidd establishes Eliot’s familiarity with these attempts to read ancient religious traditions – whether Babylonian, Greek, Indian – as garbled interpretations of biblical events like the Noachian Flood. Furthermore, he highlights the opposing tendencies of those atheists and deists who sought to discredit Christianity as a repackaging of paganism. Crucially, he observes that ‘[i]t was not so much a question of what the archaeological evidence said, as how its significance was parsed’ (207).

Jumping off in each subsequent chapter with a felicitous reference from Middlemarch, Kidd proceeds through the eighteenth century up to the novel’s publication. In Chapter 3, he reconstructs debates about the continuity between Christianity and Greco-Roman religion. Chapter 4 examines ‘the most significant prototype for Mr Casaubon’, Jacob Bryant, whose ‘helio-arkite’ theory recognised pagan myths as memories of the Flood combined with traits of sun-worship (111). Chapter 5 discuss the British reaction to the sceptical French scholars Charles-François Dupuis and Constantin François de Chassebœuf (or Volney), who saw Christianity and indeed all mythologies as allegories of the sun, the stars, and the seasons. This conflict continued from the 1790s to at least the 1830s and would certainly have been a motivating factor in Mr Casaubon’s ‘mythological enterprise’ (131). Chapter 6 continues through and beyond Casaubon’s death (had he lived), exploring ‘the nineteenth-century debate about fish deities [e.g. the Mesopotamian Oannes and Dagon] as distorted remembrances of the Flood’ (176). Finally, a long epilogue discusses the archaeological and anthropological research that, on the eve of Middlemarch’s publication, appeared ‘in some micawberish quarters of intellectual life’ to inch scholarship closer to a (Christian) key to all mythologies (221). These factors included the unexpected discovery of Trojan ruins and George Smith’s translation of the Chaldean flood narrative (now known as part of the Epic of Gilgamesh).

Kidd tells this potentially convoluted story with skill, leaving readers in no doubt that while ‘Casaubon was – as Eliot indicated – using yesterday’s weapons, so too was a whole battalion of mythographers, and he was certainly not fighting yesterday’s battles’ (169). If citing Roman or Hindu sources might have veered close to infidelity, it came with the advantage that these sources were not biased towards Christianity, making their (contested) historical testimony of the genealogy of Noah or the coming of the Messiah extremely valuable. We see tendencies on the sides of both the faithful and the infidel to condense the organic complexity of mythology to an omnipurpose ‘key’. Even the most flamboyant of mythographers were speaking a similar language to scholars whose intellectual contributions have been more influential. Kidd points out, for instance, that Bryant’s ‘fantastical “helio-arkite” obsession’ and William Jones’s well-known ‘Indo-European linguistics’ emerged from ‘the same syncretic desire to assimilate pagan otherness to the ultimate truths of Biblical history’ (120). Even James Frazer with his positivistic Golden Bough (1890; 1900; 1906–15) ‘turned out to be the unwitting continuator of the unfinished “Key to All Mythologies”’ tradition (226).

Kidd covers a lot of material, so it is unsurprising that he is usually less interested in focusing on the texts as texts than as arguments. This is a minor shame for specialist scholars of literature and science, whose interests will be constantly piqued both by the mention of interesting generic categories and by the pungent prose of the book’s primary quotations. Kidd’s highly readable style can occasionally tend towards a cumulative chewiness: the book accommodates a zoo of metaphors for the serendipitous reliance of Christian mythographers on pagan sources. That being said, his exuberant analogies usually help to keep the reader’s head above the Noachian waves. The World of Mr Casaubon is an important insight into an early modern and nineteenth-century intellectual tradition – and a valuable explanation of why Eliot wished to give this tradition such a bruising. After all, she knew its power. ‘Why always Dorothea’, indeed? 

Richard Fallon, University College London

1 George Bugg, ‘Mr. Bugg on Scriptural and Modern Geology’, Christian Observer, 28 (1828), 235–44 (240)%MCEPASTEBIN%