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Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
page: 90


AT this time,—(I think it must have been in 1821,) was my first appearance in print. I had some early aspirations after authorship,—judging by an anecdote which hangs in my memory, though I believe I never thought about it, more or less, while undergoing that preparation which I have described in my account of my studies and translations. When I was assorting and tabulating scripture texts, in the way I described some way back, I one day told my mother, in a moment of confidence, that I hoped it might be printed, and make a book, and then I should be an authoress. My mother, pleased, I believe, with the aspiration, told my eldest sister; and she, in an unfortunate moment of contempt, twitted me with my conceit in fancying I could be an authoress; whereupon I instantly resolved “never to tell any body any thing again.” How this resolution was kept it is rather amusing now to consider, seeing that of all people in the world, I have perhaps the fewest reserves. The ambition seems to have disappeared from that time; and when I did attempt to write, it was at the suggestion of another, and against my own judgment and inclination. My brother James, then my idolized companion, discovered how wretched I was when he left me for his college, after the vacation; and he told me that I must not permit myself to be so miserable. He advised me to take refuge, on each occasion, in a new pursuit; and on that particular occasion, in an attempt at authorship. I said, as usual, that I would if he would: to which he answered that it would never do for him, a young student, to rush into print before the eyes of his tutors; but he desired me to write something that was in my head, and try my chance with it in the “Monthly Repository,”—the poor little Unitarian periodical in which I have mentioned that Talfourd tried his young powers. What James page: 91 desired, I always did, as of course; and after he had left me to my widowhood soon after six o’clock, one bright September morning, I was at my desk before seven, beginning a letter to the Editor of the “Monthly Repository,”—that editor being the formidable prime minister of his sect,—Rev. Robert Aspland. I suppose I must tell what that first paper was, though I had much rather not; for I am so heartily ashamed of the whole business as never to have looked at the article since the first flutter of it went off. It was on Female Writers on Practical Divinity. I wrote away, in my abominable scrawl of those days, on foolscap paper, feeling mighty like a fool all the time. I told no one, and carried my expensive packet to the post‐office myself, to pay the postage. I took the letter V for my signature,—I cannot at all remember why. The time was very near the end of the month: I had no definite expectation that I should ever hear any thing of my paper; and certainly did not suppose it could be in the forthcoming number. That number was sent in before service‐time on a Sunday morning. My heart may have been beating when I laid hands on it; but it thumped prodigiously when I saw my article there, and, in the Notices to Correspondents, a request to bear more from V. of Norwich. There is certainly something entirely peculiar in the sensation of seeing one’sself in print for the first time:—the lines burn themselves in upon the brain in a way of which black ink is incapable, in any other mode. So I felt that day, when I went about with my secret.—I have said what my eldest brother was to us,—in what reverence we held him. He was just married, and he and his bride asked me to return from chapel with them to tea. After tea he said, “Come now, we have had plenty of talk; I will read you something;” and he held out his hand for the new “Repository.” After glancing at it, he exclaimed, “They have got a new hand here. Listen.” After a paragraph, he repeated, “Ah! this is a new hand; they have had nothing so good as this for a long while.” (It would be impossible to convey to any who do not know the “Monthly Repository” of that day, how very small a compliment this was.) I was silent, of course. At the end of the first column, page: 92 he exclaimed about the style, looking at me in some wonder at my being as still as a mouse. Next (and well I remember his tone, and thrill to it still) his words were—“What a fine sentence that is! Why, do you not think so?” I mumbled out, sillily enough, that it did not seem any thing particular. “Then,” said he, “you were not listening. I will read it again. There now!” As he still got nothing out of me, he turned round upon me, as we sat side by side on the sofa, with “Harriet, what is the matter with you? I never knew you so slow to praise any thing before.” I replied, in utter confusion,—“I never could baffle any body. The truth is, that paper is mine.” He made no reply; read on in silence, and spoke no more till I was on my feet to come away. He then laid his hand on my shoulder, and said gravely (calling me “dear” for the first time) “Now, dear, leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings; and do you devote yourself to this.” I went home in a sort of dream, so that the squares of the pavement seemed to float before my eyes. That evening made me an authoress.

It was not all so glorious, however. I immediately after began to write my first work,—“Devotional Exercises,” of which I now remember nothing. But I remember my brother’s anxious doubting looks, in which I discerned some disappointment, as he read the M.S. I remember his gentle hints about precision and arrangement of ideas, given with the utmost care not to discourage me; and I understood the significance of his praise of the concluding essay (in a letter from Madeira, where he was closing his precious life)—praise of the definiteness of object in that essay, which, as he observed, furnished the key to his doubts about the rest of the book, and which he conveyed only from an anxious desire that I should work my way up to the high reputation which he felt I was destined to attain. This just and gentle treatment, contrasting with the early discouragements which had confused my own judgment, affected me inexpressibly. I took these hints to heart in trying my hand at a sort of theologico‐metaphysical novel, which I entered upon with a notion of enlightening the world through the same kind of interest as was then excited by Mr. Ward’s novel, “Tremaine,” page: 93 which was making a prodigious noise, and which perfectly enchanted me, except by its bad philosophy. I mighty enjoyed the prospect of this work, as did my mother; and I was flattered by finding that Rachel had higher expectations from it than even my own. But, at the end of half a volume, I became aware that it was excessively dull, and I stopped. Many years afterwards I burned it; and this is the only piece of my work but two (and a review) in my whole career that never was published.

Already I found that it would not do to copy what I wrote; and here (at the outset of this novel) I discontinued the practice for ever,—thus saving an immense amount of time which I humbly think is wasted by other authors. The prevalent doctrine about revision and copying, and especially Miss Edgeworth’s account of her method of writing,—scribbling first, then submitting her manuscript to her father, and copying and altering many times over till, (if I remember right) no one paragraph of her “Leonora” stood at last as it did at first,—made me suppose copying and alteration to be indispensable. But I immediately found that there was no use in copying if I did not alter; and that, if ever I did alter, I had to change back again; and I, once for all committed myself to a single copy. I believe the only writings I ever copied were “Devotional Exercises,” and my first tale;—a trumpery story called “Christmas Day.” It seemed clear to me that distinctness and precision must be lost if alterations were made in a different state of mind from that which suggested the first utterance; and I was delighted when, long afterwards, I met with Cobbett’s advice;—to know first what you want to say, and then say it in the first words that occur to you. The excellence of Cobbett’s style, and the manifest falling off of Miss Edgeworth’s after her father’s death (so frankly avowed by herself) were strong confirmations of my own experience. I have since, more than once, weakly fallen into mannerism,—now metaphysically elliptical,—now poetically amplified, and even, in one instance, bordering on the Carlylish; but through all this folly, as well as since having a style of my own,—(that is, finding expression by words as page: 94 easy as breathing air)—I have always used the same method in writing. I have always made sure of what I meant to say, and then written it down without care or anxiety,—glancing at it again only to see if any words were omitted or repeated, and not altering a single phrase in a whole work. I mention this because I think I perceive that great mischief arises from the notion that botching in the second place will compensate for carelessness in the first. I think I perceive that confusion of thought, and cloudiness or affectation in style are produced or aggravated by faulty prepossessions in regard to the method of writing for the press. The mere saving of time and labour in my own case may be regarded as no inconsiderable addition to my term of life.—Some modifications of this doctrine there must of course be in accordance with the strength or weakness of the natural faculty of expression by language: but I speak as strongly as I have just done because I have no reason to believe that the natural aptitude was particularly strong in myself. I believe that such facility as I have enjoyed has been mainly owing to my unconscious preparatory discipline; and especially in the practice of translation from various languages, as above related. And, again, after seeing the manuscripts or proof‐sheets of many of the chief authors of my own time, I am qualified to say that the most marked mannerists of their day are precisely those whose manuscripts show most erasures and their proof‐sheets most alterations.