The 19th century ribbon manufacturer, social reformer, and philanthropist Charles Bray was also a dabbler in the cranial art of phrenology – that is, discerning one’s personality and psychological characteristics by mapping the contours of their skull (his 1832 book The Education of the Feelings is based on phrenological notions). He was also an acquaintance of Mary Ann Evans, who moved into his neighbourhood in Coventry in 1841, when she was about 21. Evans – later known to the Victorian literary world as George Eliot – was probably influenced by the freethinking heresies uttered by Bray and the members of his “Rosehill Circle”. At any rate, her interest in phrenology – and phrenological observations occasionally appear in her writings – may come directly from this period. In his 1884 autobiography Phases of Opinion and Experience During a Long Life, Bray recounts that in the 1840s both he and Evans were interested in the subject, and that in 1844 Evans had a cast of her head taken by “Deville, in the Strand,” and later took lessons in “organology” from a Mr Donovan. And what do we know of Mary Ann Evans’s head? Well, here’s what Bray has to say:
Miss Evans’s head is a very large one, 22 1/4 inches round; George Combe [a prominent British phrenologist, and later a correspondent of Evans’s], on first seeing the cast, took if 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. the 3rd volume of Strauss was very heavy work to her, and she required much encouragement to keep her up to it. 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 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 had 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 predominantly 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 and denominations, is probably owing to her little feeling on the subject, – at least, not enough to interfere with her judgment. She all sides, and they are always many, clearly, and without prejudice. (74-5)
Check out the head on that author!
From here Bray continues recounting his history with Evans and other Rosehill folk, but leaves behind the phrenological observations. Still, this passage has proven to be alluring bait for Eliot biographers, many of whom refer back to Bray’s assessment of what truths are revealed by Evans’s skull in order to build their own analyses of the author and her work - surprising, given that phrenology was had few 20th century adherents. Still, I would love to know what happened to the cast of her skull…