Herbert Spencer: The London Years
The London Years
During the five years with the Economist, Spencer built up his relations in the world of advanced journalism in London. He met John Chapman, the publisher, G. H. Lewes, the radical writer, and Lewes' future consort George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Soon afterwards he also met the distinguished scientists Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, who were to remain his close friends through most of his life.
While working on the Economist, Spencer finished his first book, Social Statics, which was published in 1851. Expounding ideas first adumbrated in "The Proper Sphere of Government," the book was well received by the radical public, which welcomed him as a new recruit to the creed of laissez faire. Spencer now started to write with some regularity for a variety of journals, from the Benthamite Westminster Review to the Whig Edinburgh Review. A paper on "The Developmental Hypothesis" dating from 1852, seven years before Darwin's Origin of Species, expounded and advocated a theory of evolution based on Lamarckian principles--that is, a pre-Darwinian theory of evolution stressing the notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics--and initiated a concern with evolution that was to last through Spencer's long life.
When his uncle died in 1853, he left Spencer a sizable sum of money. In view of this, as well as the connections he now had at a number of reviews, Spencer felt encouraged to give up his job with the Economist. From then on he lived the life of a private scholar without regular employment or institutional attachment. A lifelong bachelor, having been brought up in the strict abstemious discipline of Derby Dissent, he lived frugally and parsimoniously in successive lodgings and rooming houses about London. For a while it had seemed that his friendship with George Eliot would lead to marriage. Spencer had even gone so far out of his habitual ways as to take her to the opera and to restaurants. But although she seems to have been willing, he finally recoiled. One knows of no later amatory experience; there is every likelihood that Spencer died not only a bachelor but a virgin.
In 1854, Spencer began writing his second book, The Principles of Psychology. It was published the next year but, unlike Social Statics, was not well received. Soon after he suffered from a nervous illness, the nature of which in unclear. (Modern psychiatrists would probably diagnose the illness as a severe neurotic disorder.) All day long he wandered aimlessly about town, unable to concentrate, unable to write, unable even to read. The doctors could find no clear organic cause and talked of overstrain or some obscure lesion of the brain. After a year and a half of enforced idleness Spencer slowly returned to work. But he was to remain a semi-invalid and psychic cripple throughout the rest of his life. Suffering from acute insomnia, which he at times attempted to overcome with a fairly heavy does of opium, Spencer was henceforth never able to work more than a few hours a day. To work longer would lead to undue nervous excitement and hence insomnia.
The retreat into illness was also for Spencer a retreat from social intercourse. Treating himself with a variety of nostrums, watching his every symptom with the assiduity of the hypochondriac, he increasingly led the life of a semi-hermit. Among his many eccentricities was the wearing of a special set of ear stoppers, which allowed him, when necessary, to escape from listening. At his clubs he could be seen browsing through the papers or playing a game of billiards, but otherwise he shunned the company of all but a few trusted friends, admirers, and disciples. In his worst periods he found company almost unbearable, and in his later years even the idea of a public lecture became intolerable.
From Coser, 1977:104-105.