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Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
page: 75


I RETURNED home in April, 1819, and continued to reside in Norwich till November, 1832. These thirteen years, extending from my entering upon womanhood to my complete establishment in an independent position, as to occupation and the management of my own life, seem to form a marked period of themselves; and I shall treat them in that way.

My eldest sister’s marriage in 1820 made young women at once of Rachel and myself. It was on all accounts a happy event, though we dreaded excessively the loss of her from home, which she eminently graced. But never did woman grow in grace more remarkably than she did by her marriage. When she had found her own heart, it proved a truly noble one; and the generosity, sweetness, and wisdom of her whole conduct towards her own children showed that her mistakes in her treatment of us were merely the crudities of inexperience. I may say, once for all, that her home at Newcastle was ever open to us, and that all possible kindness from her hospitable husband and herself was always at our command, without hindrance or difficulty, till my recovery from a hopeless illness, in 1844, by Mesmerism, proved too much for the natural prejudice of a surgeon and a surgeon’s wife, and caused, by the help of the ill‐offices of another relation, a family breach, as absurd as it was lamentable. My sister was then under the early symptoms of her last illness; and matters might have ended more happily if page: 76 she had been in her usual state of health and nerve, as they certainly would if advantage had not been taken of her natural irritation against Mesmerism to gratify in another jealousies to which she was herself far superior. My own certainty of this, and my grateful remembrance of the long course of years during which I enjoyed her friendship and generosity, and her cordial sympathy in my aims and successes, incline me to pass over her final alienation, and dwell upon the affectionate intercourse we enjoyed, at frequent intervals, for twenty years from her marriage day.

Our revered and beloved eldest brother had, by this time, settled in Norwich as a surgeon, in partnership with our uncle, Mr. P.M. Martineau, the most eminent provincial surgeon of his day,—in some departments, if not altogether. My brother’s health was delicate, and we were to lose him by death in five years. One of the sweetest recollections of my life is that I had the honour and blessing of his intimate friendship, which grew and deepened from my sister’s marriage to the time of his own death. My mother, too, took me into her confidence more and more as my mind opened, and, I may add, as my deafness increased, and bespoke for me her motherly sympathy. For some years, indeed, there was a genuine and cordial friendship between my mother and me, which was a benefit to me in all manner of ways; and, from the time when I began to have literary enterprises, (and quite as much before I obtained success as after) I was sustained by her trustful, generous, self‐denying sympathy and maternal appreciation. After a time, when she was fretted by cares and infirmities, I became as nervous in regard to her as ever, (even to the entire breaking down of my health;) but during the whole period of which I am now treating,—(and it is a very large space in my life)—there were no limitations to our mutual confidence.

One other relation which reached its highest point, and had begun to decline, during this period was one which I must abstain from discussing. The briefest possible notice will be the best method of treatment. All who have ever known me are aware that the strongest passion I have ever entertained was page: 77 in regard to my youngest brother, who has certainly filled the largest space in the life of my affections of any person whatever. Now, the fact,—the painful fact,—in the history of human affections is that, of all natural relations, the least satisfactory is the fraternal. Brothers are to sisters what sisters can never be to brothers as objects of engrossing and devoted affection. The law of their frames is answerable for this: and that other law—of equity—which sisters are bound to obey, requires that they should not render their account of their disappointments where there can be no fair reply. Under the same law, sisters are bound to remember that they cannot be certain of their own fitness to render an account of their own disappointments, or to form an estimate of the share of blame which may be due to themselves on the score of unreasonable expectations. These general considerations decide me to pass over one of the main relations and influences of my life in a few brief and unsatisfactory lines, though I might tell a very particular tale. If I could see a more truthful, just, and satisfactory method of treating the topic, I should most gladly adopt it.—As for the other members of our numerous family, I am thankful and rejoiced to bear testimony that they have given all possible encouragement to the labours of my life; and that they have been the foremost of all the world to appreciate and rejoice in my successes, and to respect that independence of judgment and action on my part which must often have given them pain, and which would have overpowered any generosity less deeply rooted in principle and affection than theirs.

When I was young, it was not thought proper for young ladies to study very conspicuously; and especially with pen in hand. Young ladies (at least in provincial towns) were expected to sit down in the parlour to sew,—during which reading aloud was permitted,—or to practice their music; but so as to be fit to receive callers, without any signs of blue‐stockingism which could be reported abroad. Jane Austen herself, the Queen of novelists, the immortal creator of Anne Elliott, Mr. Knightly, and a score or two more of unrivalled intimate friends of the whole public, was compelled by the feelings of her family to page: 78 cover up her manuscripts with a large piece of muslin work, kept on the table for the purpose, whenever any genteel people came in. So it was with other young ladies, for some time after Jane Austen was in her grave; and thus my first studies in philosophy were carried on with great care and reserve. I was at the work table regularly after breakfast,—making my own clothes, or the shirts of the household, or about some fancy work: I went out walking with the rest,—before dinner in winter, and after tea in summer: and if ever I shut myself into my own room for an hour of solitude, I knew it was at the risk of being sent for to join the sewing‐circle, or to read aloud,—I being the reader, on account of my growing deafness. But I won time for what my heart was set upon, nevertheless,—either in the early morning, or late at night. I had a strange passion for translating, in those days; and a good preparation it proved for the subsequent work of my life. Now, it was meeting James at seven in the morning to read Lowth’s Prelections in the Latin, after having been busy since five about something else, in my own room. Now it was translating Tacitus, in order to try what was the utmost compression of style that I could attain.—About this I may mention an incident while it occurs. We had all grown up with a great reverence for Mrs. Barbauld (which she fully deserved from much wiser people than ourselves) and, reflectively, for Dr. Aikin, her brother,—also able in his way, and far more industrious, but without her genius. Among a multitude of other labours, Dr. Aikin had translated the Agricola of Tacitus. I went into such an enthusiasm over the original, and especially over the celebrated concluding passage, that I thought I would translate it, and correct it by Dr. Aikin’s, which I could procure from our public library. I did it, and found my own translation unquestionably the best of the two. I had spent an infinity of pains over it,—word by word; and I am confident I was not wrong in my judgment. I stood pained and mortified before my desk, I remember, thinking how strange and small a matter was human achievement, if Dr. Aikin’s fame was to be taken as a testimony of literary desert. I had beaten him whom I had taken for my master. I need not point out that, in the page: 79 first place, Dr. Aikin’s fame did not hang on this particular work; nor that, in the second place, I had exaggerated his fame by our sectarian estimate of him. I give the incident as a curious little piece of personal experience, and one which helped to make me like literary labour more for its own sake, and less for its rewards, than I might otherwise have done.—Well: to return to my translating propensities. Our cousin J.M.L., then studying for his profession in Norwich, used to read Italian with Rachel and me,—also before breakfast. We made some considerable progress, through the usual course of prose authors and poets; and out of this grew a fit which Rachel and I at one time took, in concert with our companions and neighbours, the C.’s, to translate Petrarch. Nothing could be better as an exercise in composition than translating Petrach sonnets into English of the same limits. It was putting ourselves under compulsion to do with the Italian what I had set myself voluntarily to do with the Latin author. I believe we really succeeded pretty well; and I am sure that all these exercises were a singularly apt preparation for my after work. At the same time, I went on studying Blair’s Rhetoric (for want of a better guide) and inclining mightily to every kind of book or process which could improve my literary skill,—really as if I had foreseen how I was to spend my life.

These were not, however, my most precious or serious studies. I studied the Bible incessantly and immensely; both by daily reading of chapters, after the approved but mischievous method, and by getting hold of all commentaries and works of elucidation that I could lay my hands on. A work of Dr. Carpenter’s, begun but never finished, called “Notes and Observations on the Gospel History,” which his catechumens used in class, first put me on this track of study,—the results of which appeared some years afterwards in my “Traditions of Palestine.” It was while reading Mr. Kenrick’s translation from the German of “Helon’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” with which I was thoroughly bewitched, that I conceived, and communicated to James, the audacious idea of giving a somewhat resembling account of the Jews and their country, under the immediate expectation of the page: 80 Messiah, and even in his presence, while carefully abstaining from permitting more than his shadow to pass over the scene. This idea I cherished till I found courage, under a new inspiration some years after, to execute it: and so pleasant was the original suggestion, and so congenial the subject altogether, that even now, at the distance of a quarter of a century, I regard that little volume with a stronger affection than any other of my works but one;—that one being “Eastern Life.”

Dr. Carpenter was inclined also to the study of philosophy, and wrote on it,—on mental and moral philosophy; and this was enough, putting all predisposition out of the question, to determine me to the study. He was of the Locke and Hartley school altogether, as his articles on “Mental and Moral Philosophy,” in Rees’s Cyclopedia, and his work on “Systematic Education” show. He used to speak of Hartley as one who had the intellectual qualities of the seraphic order combined with the affections of the cherubic; and it was no wonder if Hartley became my idol when I was mistress of my own course of study. I must clear myself from all charge of having ever entertained his doctrine of Vibrations. I do not believe that Dr. Carpenter himself could have prevailed with me so far as that. But neither did Hartley prevail with Dr. Carpenter so far as that. The edition of Hartley that I used was Dr. Priestley’s,—that which gives the philosophy of Association, cleared from the incumbence of the Vibration theory. That book I studied with a fervor and perseverance which made it perhaps the most important book in the world to me, except the bible; and there really is in it, amidst its monstrous deficiencies and absurdities, so much that is philosophically true, as well as holy, elevating and charming, that its influence might very well spread into all the events and experience of life, and chasten the habits and feelings, as it did in my case during a long series of years. So far from feeling, as Dr. Channing and other good men have done, that the influence of that philosophy is necessarily, in all cases, debasing, I am confident at this moment that the spirit of the men, Locke and Hartley, redeems much of the fault of their doctrine in its operation on young minds; and moreover, that the conscientious page: 81 accuracy with which they apply their doctrine to the moral conduct of the smallest particulars of human life (Hartley particularly) forms a far better discipline, and produces a much more exalting effect on the minds of students than the vague metaphysical imaginations,—as various and irreconcilable as the minds that give them forth, which Dr. Channing and his spiritual school adopted (or believed that they adopted) as a “spiritual philosophy.” I know this,—that while I read the Germans, Americans and English who am the received exponents of that philosophy with a general and extremely vague sense of elevation and beauty as the highest emotion produced, I cannot at this hour look at the portrait of Hartley prefixed to his work, or glance at his strange Scholia,—which I could almost repeat, word for word,—without a strong revival of the old mood of earnest desire of self‐discipline, and devotion to duty which I derived from them in my youth. While the one school has little advantage over the other in the abstract department of their philosophy, the disciples of Hartley have infinitely the advantage over the dreaming school in their master’s presentment of the concrete department of fact and of action. Compelled as I have since been to relinquish both as philosophy, I am bound to avow, (and enjoy the avowal) that I owe to Hartley the strongest and best stimulus and discipline of the highest affections and most important habits that it is perhaps possible, (or was possible for me) to derive from any book.—The study of Priestley’s character and works (natural to me because he was the great apostle of Unitarianism) necessarily led me to the study of the Scotch school of philosophy, which I took the liberty to enjoy in its own way, in spite of Priestley’s contempt of it. I never believed in it, because it was really inconceivable to me how anybody should; and I was moreover entirely wrong in not perceiving that the Scotch philosophers had got hold of a fragment of sound truth which the other school had missed,—in their postulate of a fundamental complete faculty, which could serve as a basis of the mind’s operations,—whereas Hartley lays down simply the principle of association, and a capacity for pleasure and pain. I ought to have perceived that the Scotch proposition of Common page: 82 Sense would answer much better for purposes of interpretation, if I had not yet knowledge enough to show me that it was much nearer the fact of the case. I did not perceive this, but talked as flippantly as Priestley, with far less right to do so. At the same time, I surrendered myself, to a considerable extent, to the charm of Dugald Stewart’s writings,—having no doubt that Priestley, if then living, would have done so too. About Beattie and Reid I was pert enough, from a genuine feeling of the unsatisfactoriness of their writings; but the truth of detail scattered through Dugald Stewart’s elegant elucidations, the gentle and happy spirit, and the beautiful style, charmed me so much that I must have been among his most affectionate disciples, if I had not been fortified against his seductions by my devotion to Hartley.

It appears to me now that, though my prevailing weakness in study is excessive sympathy, intellectual as well as moral, with my author, I even then felt something of the need which long after became all‐powerful in me, of a clear distinction between the knowable and the unknowable,—of some available indication of an indisputable point of view, whence one’s contemplation of human nature, as of every thing else in the universe, should make its range. It may be that I am carrying back too far in my life this sense of need. When I consider how contentedly I went on, during the whole of this third period, floating and floundering among metaphysical imaginations, and giving forth inbred conceptions as truths of fact, I am disposed to think it probable that I am casting back the light of a later time among the mists of an earlier, and supposing myself sooner capable than I really was of practically distinguishing between a conception and a conviction. But there can be no mistake about the time and manner of my laying hold of a genuine conviction in a genuine manner, as I will presently tell. It would no doubt haste been a fine thing for me,—an event which would have elevated my whole after‐life,—if a teacher had been at hand to show ms the boundary line between the knowable and the unknowable, as I see it now, and to indicate to me that the purely human view of the universe, derived solely from within, and proceeding page: 83 on the supposition that Man and his affairs and his world are the centre and crown of the universe, could not possibly be the true one. But, in the absence of such a teacher,—in my inability to see the real scope and final operation of the discovery of Copernicus and Galileo,—and the ultimate connexion of physical and moral science,—it was the next best thing, perhaps, to obtain by my own forces, and for my own use, the grand conviction which henceforth gave to my life whatever it has had of steadiness, consistency, and progressiveness.

I have told how, when I was eleven years old, I put a question to my brother about the old difficulty of foreknowledge and freewill,—the reconciliation of God’s power and benevolence,—and how I was baulked of an answer. That question had been in my mind ever since; and I was not driven from entertaining it by Milton’s account of its being a favourite controversy in hell, nor even by a rebuke administered to one of our family by Mr. Turner of Newcastle, who disapproved inquiry into what he took for granted to be an unknowable thing. To me it seemed, turn it which way I would, to be certainly a knowable thing,—so closely as it presses on human morality,—to say nothing of man’s religion and internal peace. Its being reconcilable with theology is quite another affair. I tried long to satisfy myself with the ordinary subterfuge;—with declaring myself satisfied that good comes out of evil, and a kind of good which could accrue in no other way: but this would not do. I wrote religious poetry upon it, and wrought myself up to it in talk: but it would not do. This was no solution; and it was unworthy of a rational being to pretend to think it so. I tried acquiescence and dismissal of the subject; but that would not do, because it brought after it a clear admission of the failure of the scheme of creation in the first place, and of the Christian scheme in the next. The time I am now speaking of was, of course, prior to my study of Priestley and of Hartley, or I should have known that there was a recognised doctrine of Necessity.

One summer afternoon, when my brother James (then my oracle) was sitting with my mother and me, telling us some of his experiences after his first session at the York College (the Unita‐ page: 84 rian Unitarian college) I seized upon some intimation that he dropped about this same doctrine of Necessity. I uttered the difficulty which had lain in my mind for so many years; and he just informed me that there was, or was held to be, a solution in that direction, and advised me to make it out for myself. I did so. From that time the question possessed me. Now that I had got leave, as it were, to apply the Necessarian solution, I did it incessantly. I fairly laid hold of the conception of general laws, while still far from being prepared to let go the notion of a special Providence. Though at times almost overwhelmed by the vastness of the view opened to me, and by the prodigious change requisite in my moral views and self‐management, the revolution was safely gone through. My laboring brain and beating heart grew quiet, and something more like peace than I had ever yet known settled down upon my anxious mind. Being aware of my weakness of undue sympathy with authors whom I read with any moral interest, I resolved to read nothing on this question till I had thought it out; and I kept to my resolve. When I was wholly satisfied, and could use my new method of interpretation in all cases that occurred with readiness and ease, I read every book that I could hear of on the subject of the Will; and I need not add that I derived confirmation from all I read on both sides. I am bound to add that the moral effect of this process was most salutary and cheering. From the time when I became convinced of the certainty of the action of laws, of the true importance of good influences and good habits, of the firmness, in short, of the ground I was treading, and of the security of the results which I should take the right means to attain, a new vigour pervaded my whole life, a new light spread through my mind, and I began to experience a steady growth in self‐command, courage, and consequent integrity and disinterestedness. I was feeble and selfish enough at best; but yet, I was like a new creature in the strength of a sound conviction. Life also was like something fresh and wonderfully interesting, now that I held in my hand this key whereby to interpret some of the most conspicuous of its mysteries.

That great event in my life seems very remote; and I have page: 85 been hearing more or less of the free‐will difficulty ever since; and yet it appears to me, now as then, that none but Necessarians at all understand the Necessarian doctrine. This is merely saying in other words that its truth is so irresistible that, when once understood, it is adopted as a matter of course. Some, no doubt, say of the doctrine that every body can prove it, but nobody believes it; an assertion so far from true as not to be worth contesting, if I may judge by my own intercourses. Certainly, all the best minds I know are among the Necessarians;—all indeed which are qualified to discuss the subject at all. Moreover, all the world is practically Necessarian. All human action proceeds on the supposition that all the workings of the universe are governed by laws which cannot be broken by human will. In fact, the mistake of the majority in this matter is usually in supposing an interference between the will and the action of Man. The very smallest amount of science is enough to enable any rational person to see that the constitution and action of the human faculty of Will are determined by influences beyond the control of the possessor of the faculty: and when this very plain fact is denied in words it is usually because the denier is thinking of something else,—not of the faculty of willing, but of executing the volition. It is not my business here to argue out a question which has been settled in my own mind for the greater part of my life; but I have said thus much in explanation of the great importance of the conviction to me. For above thirty years I have seen more and more clearly how awful, and how irremediable except by the spread of a true philosophy, are the evils which arise from that monstrous remnant of old superstition,—the supposition of a self‐determining power, independent of laws, in the human will; and I can truly say that if I have had the blessing of any available strength under sorrow, perplexity, sickness and toil, during a life which has been any thing but easy, it is owing to my repose upon eternal and irreversible laws, working in every department of the universe, without any interference from any random will, human or divine.—As to the ordinary objection to the doctrine,—that it is good for endurance but bad for action,—besides the obvious page: 86 reply that every doctrine is to be accepted or rejected for its truth or falsehood, and not because mere human beings fancy its tendency to be good or bad,—I am bound to reply from my own experience that the allegation is not true. My life has been (whatever else) a very busy one; and this conviction, of the invariable action of fixed laws, has certainly been the main‐spring of my activity. When it is considered that, according to the Necessarian doctrine, no action falls to produce effects, and no effort can be lost, there seems every reason for the conclusion which I have no doubt is the fact, that true Necessarians must be the most diligent and confident of all workers. The indolent dreamers whom I happen to know are those who find an excuse for their idleness in the doctrine of free‐will, which certainly leaves but scanty encouragement to exertion of any sort: and at the same time, the noblest activity that I ever witness, the most cheerful and self‐denying toil, is on the part of those who hold the Necessarian doctrine as a vital conviction.

As to the effect of that conviction on my religion, in those days of my fanaticism and afterwards, I had better give some account of it here, though it will lead me on to a date beyond the limits of this third period of my life.—In the first place, it appeared to me when I was twenty, as it appears to me now, that the New Testament proceeds on the ground of necessarian, rather than free‐will doctrine. The prayer for daily bread is there, it is true; but the Lord’s prayer is compiled from very ancient materials of the theocratic age. The fatalistic element of the Essene doctrine strongly pervades the doctrine and morality of Christ and the apostles; and its curious union with the doctrine of a special providence is possible only under the theocratic supposition which is the basis of the whole faith.—As for me, I seized upon the necessarian element with eagerness, as enabling me to hold to my cherished faith; and I presently perceived, and took instant advantage of the discovery, that the practice of prayer, as prevailing throughout Christendom, is wholly unauthorized by the New Testament. Christian prayer, as prevailing at this day, answers precisely to the description of that pharisaic prayer which Christ reprobated. His own method page: 87 of praying, the prayer he gave to his disciples, and their practice, were all wholly unlike any thing now understood by Christian prayer, in protestant as well as catholic countries. I changed my method accordingly,—gradually, perhaps, but beginning immediately and decidedly. Not knowing what was good for me, and being sure that every external thing would come to pass just the same, whether I liked it or not, I ceased to desire, and therefore to pray for, any thing external,—whether “daily bread,” or health, or life for myself or others, or any thing whatever but spiritual good. There I for a long time drew the line. Many years after I had outgrown the childishness of wishing for I knew not what,—of praying for what might be either good or evil,—I continued to pray for spiritual benefits. I can hardly say for spiritual aid; for I took the necessarian view of even the higher form of prayer,—that it brought about, or might bring about, its own accomplishment by the spiritual dispositions which it excited and cherished. This view is so far from simple, and so irreconcilable with the notion of a revelation of a scheme of salvation, that it is clear that the one or the other view must soon give way. The process in my case was this. A long series of grave misfortunes brought me to the conviction that there is no saying beforehand what the external conditions of internal peace really are. I found myself now and then in the loftiest moods of cheerfulness when in the midst of circumstances which I had most dreaded, and the converse; and thus I grew to be, generally speaking, really and truly careless as to what became of me. I had cast off the torment of fear, except in occasional weak moments. This experience presently extended to my spiritual affairs. I found myself best, according to all trustworthy tests of goodness, when I cared least about the matter. I continued my practice of nightly examination of my hourly conduct; and the evidence grew wonderfully strong that moral advancement came out of good influences rather than self‐management; and that even so much self‐reference as was involved in “working out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling” was demoralizing. Thus I arrived,—after long years,—at the same point of ease or resignation about my spiritual as my page: 88 temporal affairs, and felt that (to use a broad expression uttered by somebody) it was better to take the chance of being damned than be always quacking one’s self in the fear of it. (Not that I had any literal notion of being damned,—any more than any other born and bred Unitarian.) What I could not desire for myself, I could not think of stipulating for others; and thus, in regard to petition, my prayers became simply an aspiration,—“Thy will be done!” But still, the department of praise remained. I need hardly say that I soon drew back in shame from offering to a Divine being a homage which would be offensive to an earthly one: and when this practice was over, my devotions consisted in aspiration,—very frequent and heartfelt,—under all circumstances and influences, and much as I meditate now, almost hourly, on the mysteries of life and the universe, and the great science and art of human duty. In proportion as the taint of fear and desire and self‐regard fell off, and the meditation had fact instead of passion for its subject, the aspiration became freer and sweeter, till at length, when the selfish superstition had wholly gone out of it, it spread its charm through every change of every waking hour,—and does now, when life itself is expiring.

As to the effect that all this had on my belief in Christianity,—it did not prevent my holding on in that pseudo‐acceptance of it which my Unitarian breeding rendered easy. It was a grand discovery to me when I somewhere met with the indication, (since become a rather favourite topic with Unitarian preachers) that the fact of the miracles has nothing whatever to do with the quality of the doctrine. When miracles are appealed to by the Orthodox as a proof of, not only the supernatural orion, but the divine quality of the doctrine, the obvious answer is that devils may work miracles, and the doctrine may therefore be from hell. Such was the argument in Christ’s time; and such is it now among a good many protestants,—horrifying the Catholics and High‐Churchmen of our time as much as it horrified the evangelists of old. The use to which it is turned by many who still call themselves Unitarians, and to which it was applied by me is—the holding to Christianity in a manner as a revelation, after page: 89 surrendering belief in the miracles. I suppose the majority of Unitarians still accept all the miracles (except the Miraculous Conception, of course)—even to the withering away of the fig‐tree. Some hold to the resurrection, while giving up all the rest; and not a few do as I did,—say that the interior evidence of a divine origin of that doctrine is enough, and that no amount of miracles could strengthen their faith. It is clear however that a Christianity which never was received as a scheme of salvation,—which never was regarded as essential to salvation,—which might be treated, in respect to its records, at the will and pleasure of each believer,—which is next declared to be independent of its external evidences, because those evidences are found to be untenable,—and which is finally subjected in its doctrines, as in its letter, to the interpretation of each individual,—must cease to be a faith, and become a matter of speculation, of spiritual convenience, and of intellectual and moral taste, till it declines to the rank of a mere fact in the history of mankind. These are the gradations through which I passed. It took many years to travel through them; and I lingered long in the stages of speculation and taste, intellectual and moral. But at length I recognized the monstrous superstition in its true character of a great fact in the history of the race, and found myself, with the last link of my chain snapped,—a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe.