Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
previous
next
page: 483

SECTION I.

MY life, it has been seen, began with winter. Then followed a season of storm and sunshine, merging in a long gloom. If I had died of that six years’ illness, I should have considered my life a fair average one, as to happiness,—even while thinking more about happiness, and caring more for it, than I do now. I did not know, ten years ago, what life might be, in regard to freedom, vigour, and peace of mind; and, not knowing this, I should have died in the persuasion that I had been, on the whole, as happy as the conditions of human existence allow. But the spring, summer and autumn of life were yet to come. I have had them now,—all rapidly succeeding each other, and crowded into a small space, like the Swedish summer, which bursts out of a long winter with the briefest interval of spring. At past forty years of age, I began to relish life, without drawback; and for ten years I have been vividly conscious of its delights, as undisturbed by cares as my anxious nature, and my long training to trouble could permit me ever to be. I believe there never was before any time in my life when I should not have been rather glad than sorry to lay it down. During this last sunny period, I have not acquired any dread or dislike of death; but I have felt, for the first, time a keen and unvarying relish of life. It seems to be generally supposed that a relish of life implies a fear or dislike of death, except in the minds of those shallow and self‐willed persons who expect to step over the threshold of death into just the same life that they have page: 484 quitted,—with the same associates, employments, recreations,—the same every thing, except natural scenery. But this does not at all agree with my experience. I have no expectation of that kind,—nor personal expectation of any kind after death; and I have a particularly keen relish of life,—all the keener for being late: yet now, while in daily expectation of death, I certainly feel no dislike or dread of it; nor do I find my pleasant daily life at all overshadowed by the certainty that it is near its end. If this seems strange to people who hold other views than mine, their baseless conclusions,—that I must dread death because I enjoy life,—appear no less strange to me. They surely do not refuse to enjoy any other pleasure because it must come to an end; and why this? And if they feel sad as the end of other pleasures draws near, it is because they anticipate feeling the absence and the blank. Thus, we grieve, and cannot but grieve, at the death of a friend, whose absence will leave a blank in our life: but the laying down our own life, to yield our place to our successors, and simply ceasing to be, seems to me to admit of no fear or regret; except through the corruption introduced by false and superstitious associations. I suppose we must judge, each for ourselves, in such matters: but I cannot but remember that I have gone through the Christian experience in regard to the expectation of death, and feel that I understand it, while Christians have not experienced, and I perceive do not understand, my present view and feeling in the expectation of death. But if they care to have my own statement, they are welcome to it. It is what I have said:—that for ten years I have had as keen a relish of life as I believe my nature to be capable of; and that I feel no reluctance whatever to pass into nothingness, leaving my place in the universe to be filled by another. The very conception of self and other is, in truth, merely human, and when the self ceases to be, the distinction expires.

I remember that when the prospect of health and prolonged life opened before me, there was a positive drawback, and a serious one, in the dread of having the whole thing to go over again, some time or other. I had recourse to desperate comforts under page: 485 this apprehension. I hoped I might die by a railway crash, or some other sudden accident; or that I might sink away in mere old age; or I trusted that time might somehow make some change. I little thought how short a time would make so vast a change! I little thought that in ten years I should find myself far more fatally ill, without the slightest reluctance, and with the gayest feeling that really it does not matter whether I feel ill or well,—(short of acute and protracted pain, of which I have still a great dread) if only other people are not made unhappy. All the solemn, doleful feeling about my sufferings, which seemed right and appropriate, if not religious, a dozen years ago, now appears selfish, and low, and a most needless infliction on myself and others. Once become aware of how little consequence it is, and how the universe will go on just the same, whether one dies at fifty or seventy, one looks gaily on the last stage of one’s subjection to the great laws of nature,—notes what one can of one’s state for the benefit of others, and enjoys the amusement of watching the course of human affairs from one’s fresh and airy point of view, above the changes of the elements with which one has no further personal concern. The objective and disinterested contemplation of eternity is, in my apprehension, the sublimest pleasure that human faculties are capable of; and the pleasure is most vivid and real when one’s disinterestedness is most necessary and complete,—that is, when our form of its life is about to dissolve, to make way for another.

After spending a month on the shores of Windermere, I went for a long visit to my dear elder brother’s, some of whose children had grown up from infancy to youth during my illness. He and his wife had attached me to them more than ever by their recent conduct. Thinking me right in my effort to recover health, and wronged in much of the treatment I had received, they upheld me steadily and effectually, while, at the same time, they saw how the wrong was mainly owing to prejudice and want of the knowledge pertinent to the case; and they therefore did not find it necessary to quarrel with any body. I thought then, and I think now, that they were just and kind all round; and I am sure they were no small assistance to me in keeping my tem‐ page: 486 per temper . They took a great interest in the subject of mesmerism, and enjoyed seeing its operation in cases similar to my own, and in many others, in which sufferers, pronounced incurable by the doctors, were restored as I had been. One amusement to us all at that time was the pity with which the doctors regarded me. I could quote several medical men who reasoned that, as my disease was an incurable one, I could not possibly be radically better; that I was then in a state of exhilaration, infatuation, and so forth; and that in six months (or three months or a year, as might be) I should be as ill as ever, and mourning over my having been duped by the mesmerists. Now and then we heard, or saw in the newspapers, that I was as ill as ever, and mourning my infatuation,—though I was walking five or seven miles at a time, and giving every evidence of perfect health. The end of it was that I went off to the East,—into the depths of Nubia, and traversing Arabia on a camel; and then the doctors said I had never been ill! It is very curious,—this difficulty of admitting evidence about any new, or newly revived, fact in nature. I remember Mr. Hallam (the last man open to the charge of credulity) telling me at Tynemouth a story which struck me very much. He told me how he and his friend Mr. Rogers had had the privilege of witnessing that very rare spectacle, “the reception by a great metropolis, of the discovery of a pregnant natural fact.” He told me,—and he has so manfully told plenty of other people, that I am betraying no confidence in repeating the story once more,—that Mr. Rogers and he had, many years before, seen some mesmeric facts in Paris which convinced and impressed them for life. When they returned, they told what they had seen, and were met by such insulting ridicule that they were compelled to be silent, or to quarrel with some of their pleasurest friends. One physician in particular he named, who treated them at his own table in a way which prevented their ever again communicating their knowledge to him, if they wished to remain on civil terms with him. By degrees, in course of years, facts became known; higher scientific authorities on the continent declared themselves convinced, or in favour of that genuine inquiry which has always ended in con‐ page: 487 viction conviction ; and the tone of London society began to change. The physician referred to ceased to gibe and jeer, and sat silent and embarrassed while the subject was discussed; and at length began to ask questions, and show a desire to learn: “and now,” continued Mr. Hallam, “we can say that we are acquainted with nobody who has attended to the subject with any earnestness who does not consider certain facts of mesmerism to be as completely established as any facts whatever in the whole range of science.” He added, “this reception of a great truth is a great thing to have seen.”—In a note I had from Mr. Hallam before I left Tynemouth, he declared his view to be this. “I have no doubt that mesmerism, and some other things which are not mesmerism properly so‐called, are fragmentary parts of some great law of the human frame which we are on the verge of discovering.” It appears to be the method of the London doctors now to admit the facts (being unable longer to suppress them) and to account for them, each according to his own favourite physiological view; and thus the truth is near its full admission. When the facts are admitted in London, the medical men in the provinces will not long continue to scoff and perpetrate slander: and when a score of commentators on a single class of facts offer a score of explanations, the true solution is so much needed that it must soon be obtained.

Amidst the happiness of my visit at my brother’s, I felt a really painful longing to see verdure and foliage. On leaving Newcastle, I had been carried swiftly past a railway embankment covered with broom; and the dark green of that bank made my heart throb at the time, and bred in me a desperate longing to see more. I did not think I could have wished so much for any thing as I did to see foliage. I had not seen a tree for above five years, except a scrubby little affair which stood above the haven at Tynemouth, exposed to every wind that blew, and which looked nearly the same at midsummer and Christmas. It was this kind of destitution which occasioned some of the graceful acts of kindness which cheered my Tynemouth sojourn. An old friend sent me charming coloured sketches of old trees in Sherwood Forest: and an artist who was page: 488 an entire stranger to me, Mr. McIan, stayed away from a day’s excursion at a friend’s house in the country, to paint me a breezy tree. For months the breezy tree was pinned up on the wall before me, sending many a breeze through my mind. But now I wanted to see a real tree in leaf; and I had to wait sadly long for it. The spring of 1846 was the latest I remember, I think,—unless it be the present one (1855). My impatience must have been very apparent, for my sister‐in‐law “fooled” me, when I came down to breakfast on the 1st of April, with lamentations about “the snow under the acacia.” There was no snow there; but the hedges seemed dead for ever; and there was scarcely a tinge of green on them when I left Edgbaston for Nottingham, on the second of May.

There,—at Lenton, near Nottingham,—new pleasures awaited me. Spring is always charming on the Trent meadows at Nottingham, where the clear shoaly river runs between wide expanses of meadow, where crocuses almost hide the grass for a few weeks of the year. It was an unspeakable pleasure to me to move freely about blossoming gardens; but no one but a restored invalid can conceive what it was to ramble for miles, to Clifton woods, or to Woollaton, drinking in the sunshine in the fields, and the cool shade under the green avenues. Now, at the end of ten years, I do not find my thirst for foliage fully quenched, after the long absence at Tynemouth. There were excursions from Nottingham to Newstead and elsewhere,—all delightful; but I don’t know that I had not more pleasure from the common lawn, with the shadows of the trees flickering upon it, than from any change of objects. The surprise to my friends, and also to myself, was that I was so little nervous,—so capable of doing like other people, as if I had not led a sick and hermit life for so many years. This exemption from the penalties of long illness I believe I owe to mesmerism being the means of cure. I had left off all drugs for ten months, except the opiates, which had been speedily reduced from the outset of the experiment, and now discontinued for half a year. I had not therefore to recover from the induced illness and constitutional poisoning caused by drugs; and my nerves had been well strung by the page: 489 mesmerism which I had now discontinued. I certainly felt at first, when at the Lakes and at Edgbaston, by no means sure that I knew how to behave in society; but old associations soon revived, and I fell into the old habit of social intercourse. It was not very long indeed before we proposed,—my friends and I,—to ignore altogether the five years at Tynemouth,—to call me 38 instead of 43, and proceed as if that awful chasm had never opened in my path which now seemed closed up, or invisible as it lay behind. There were things belonging to it, however, which I should have been sorry to forget, or to lose the vivid sense of; and chief among these was the kindness of a host of friends. I have observed, however, at intervals since, that though the sense of that kindness is as vivid as ever, the other incidents and interests of that term of purgatory have so collapsed as to make the period which seemed in experience to be an eternity, like a momentary blank,—a night of uneasy dreams, soon forgotten between the genuine waking interests of two active days.

With this new day of activity arose a strong fresh interest. It was at Lenton, near Nottingham, that I first saw Mr. Atkinson, whose friendship has been the great privilege of the concluding period of my life. I have told above that Mr. and Mrs. Basil Montagu mentioned him to me in the letter in which they besought me to try mesmerism. I had never heard of him before, as far as I know. I have often said, as I am ready to say again, that I owe my recovery mainly to him,—that my ten last happy years have been his gift to me: hut it is not true, as many people have supposed and led others to believe, that I was mesmerised by him at Tynemouth. I am careful in explaining this, because many persons who think it necessary to assign some marvellous reason for my present philosophical views, and who are unwilling to admit that I could have arrived at them by my own means and in my own way, have asserted that Mr. Atkinson was my mesmeriser, and that he infused into me his own views by the power he thus gained over my brain. I might explain that I never was unconscious,—never in the mesmeric sleep,—during the whole process of recovery; but the simplest and most page: 490 incontestible reply is by dates. I was first mesmerised on the 22nd of June, 1844; I was well in the following November: I went forth on my travels in January, 1845, and first saw Mr. Atkinson on the 24th of May of that year. The case was this. Mr. and Mrs. Montagu, earnest that I should try mesmerism, brought about a meeting at their house, in June, 1844, between Mr. Atkinson and an intimate friend of mine who had visited me, and was about to go to me again. They discussed the case: and from that time Mr. Atkinson’s instructions were our guidance. He, too, obtained for me the generous services of the widow lady mentioned above, when my maid’s operations were no longer sufficient; and we followed his counsel till I was well. As for the share he had in the ultimate form assumed by my speculations, on their becoming opinions,—he himself expressed it in a saying so curiously resembling one uttered by a former guide and instructor that it is worth quoting both. The more ancient guide said, when I was expressing gratitude to him, “O! I only helped you to do in a fortnight what you would have done for yourself in six weeks.” Mr. Atkinson said “I found you out of the old ways, and I showed you the shortest way round the corner—that’s all.” I certainly knew nothing of his philosophical opinions when we met at Lenton; and it was not till the close of 1847, when, on my setting about my book on Egypt, I wrote him an account of my opinions, and how I came by them, and he replied by a somewhat similar confidence, that I had any clear knowledge what his views were. I shall probably have more to say about this hereafter. Meantime, this is the place for explaining away a prevalent mistake as to my recovery having been wrought by the mesmerising of a friend whom I had, in fact, never seen.

I vividly remember the first sight of him, when one of my hostesses and I having gone out to meet him, and show him the way, saw him turn the corner into the lane, talking with the gardener who was conveying his carpet‐bag. He also carried a bag over his shoulder. He looked older than I expected, and than I knew he was. His perfect gentlemanliness is his most immediately striking and uncontested attribute. We were struck with this; page: 491 and also with a certain dryness in his mode of conversation which showed us at once that he was no sentimentalist; a conviction which was confirmed in proportion as we became acquainted with his habit of thought. We could not exactly call him reserved; for he was willing to converse, and ready to communicate his thoughts; yet we felt it difficult to know him. It was years before I, in particular, learned to know him, certainly and soundly, though we were in constant correspondence, and frequently met: but I consider myself no rule for others in the matter. All my faults, and all my peculiarities, were such as might and did conspire to defer the time when I might understand my friend as he was perfectly willing to be understood. One of the bad consequences of my deafness has been the making me far too much of a talker: and, though friends whom I can trust aver that I am also a good listener, I certainly have never allowed a fair share of time and opportunity to slower and more modest and considerate speakers. I believe that, amidst the stream of talk I poured out upon him, it was impossible for him to suppose or believe how truly and earnestly I really did desire to hear his views and opinions; and as, in spite of this, he did tell me much which I thought over, and talked over when he was gone, it is plain that he was not reserved with me. A yet greater impediment to our mutual understanding was that I, hitherto alone in my pursuit of philosophy, had no sufficient notion of other roads to it than that which I had found open before me; and Mr. Atkinson’s method was so wholly different that it took me, prepossessed as I was, a very long time to ascertain his route and ultimate point of view. I had, for half my life, been astray among the metaphysicians, whose schemes I had at my tongue’s end, and whose methods I supposed to be the only philosophical ones. I at first took Mr. Atkinson’s disregard of them and their methods for ignorance of what they had done, as others who think themselves philosophers have done since. Let it not be supposed that I set this down without due shame. I have much to blush for in this matter, and in worse. I now and then proffered him in those days information from my metaphysical authors, for which he politely thanked me, leaving me to find page: 492 out in time how he knew through and through the very matters which the metaphysicians had barely sketched the outside of. In truth, he at his Baconian point of view, and I at my metaphysical, were in our attempts to understand each other something like beings whose reliance is on a different sense,—those who hear well and those who see well,—meeting to communicate. When the blind with their quick ears, and the deaf and dumb with their alert eyes meet, the consequences usually are desperate quarrels. In our case, I was sometimes irritated; and when irritated, always conceited and wrong; but my friend had patience with me, seeing what was the matter, and knowing that there were grand points of agreement between us which would secure a thorough understanding, sooner or later. If, amidst my metaphysical wanderings I had reached those points of agreement, there was every reason to suppose that when I had found the hopelessness of the metaphysical point of view, with its uncertain method and infinite diversity of conclusions,—corresponding with the variety of speculators,—I should find the true exterior point of view, the positive method, and its uniform and reliable conclusions. In this faith, and in wonderful patience, my friend bore with my waywardness and occasional sauciness, till at length we arrived at a complete understanding. When our book,—our “Letters on Man’s Nature and Development,”—came out, and was abused in almost every periodical in the kingdom, it amused me to see how very like my old self the metaphysical reviewers were;—how exclusively they fastened on the collateral parts of the book, leaving its method, and all its essential part, wholly untouched. It is a curious fact that, of all the multitude of adverse reviewers of our book that we read, there was not one that took the least notice of its essential part,—its philosophical Method. Scarcely any part of it indeed was touched at all, except the anti‐theological portion, which was merely collateral.

Such was my method of criticism of Mr. Atkinson, on the first occasion of our meeting. As we walked up and down a green alley in the garden, he astonished and somewhat confounded me by saying how great he thought the mistake of page: 493 thinking so much and so artificially as people are for ever striving to do about death and about living again. Not having yet by any means got out of the atmosphere of selfishness which is the very life of Christian doctrine, and of every theological scheme, I was amazed at his question,—what it could signify whether we, with our individual consciousness, lived again? I asked what could possibly signify so much,—being in a fluctuating state then as to the natural grounds of expectation of a future life, (I had long given up the scriptural) but being still totally blind to the selfish instincts involved in such anxiety as I felt about the matter. I was, however, in a certain degree struck by the nobleness of his larger view, and by the good sense of the doctrine that our present health of mind is all the personal concern that we have with our state and destiny: that our duties lie before our eyes and close to our hands; and that our business is with what we know, and have it in our charge to do, and not at all with a future which is, of its own nature, impenetrable. With grave interest and an uneasy concern, I talked this over afterwards with my hostess. At first she would not credit my account of Mr. Atkinson’s view; and then she was exceedingly shocked, and put away the subject. I, for my part, soon became able to separate the uneasiness of contravened associations from that of intellectual opposition. I soon perceived that this outspoken doctrine was in full agreement with the action of my mind for some years past, on the particular subject of a future life; and that, when once Christianity ceases to be entertained as a scheme of salvation, the question of a future life becomes indeed one of which every large‐minded and unselfish person may and should say,—“What does it signify?” Amidst many alternations of feeling, I soon began to enjoy breathings of the blessed air of freedom from superstition,—which is the same thing as freedom from personal anxiety and selfishness;—that freedom, under a vivid sense of which my friend and I, contrasting our superstitious youth with our emancipated maturity, agreed that not for the universe would we again have the care of our souls upon our hands.

At length, the last day of May arrived, and my longings for page: 494 my Lake lodgings were to be gratified. The mossy walls with their fringes of ferns; the black pines reflected in the waters: the amethyst mountains at sunset, and the groves and white beaches beside the lake had haunted me almost painfully, all spring; and my hosts and hostesses must have thought my inconcealable anticipations somewhat unmannerly. They could make allowance for me, however: and they sent much sympathy with me. It was truly a gay life that was before me now. My intention was not to work at all; an intention which I have never been able to fulfil when in health, and which soon gave way now, before a call of duty which I very grudgingly obeyed. On the day of my arrival at Waterhead, however, I had no idea of working; and the prospect before me was of basking in the summer sunshine, and roving over hill and dale in fine weather, and reading and working beside the window overlooking the lake (Windermere) in rainy hours, when lakes have a beauty of their own. My lodging, taken for six months, was the house which stands precisely at the head of the lake, and whose grass‐plat is washed by its waters. The view from the windows of my house was wonderfully beautiful,—one feature being a prominent rock, crowned with firs, which so projected into the lake as to be precisely reflected in the crimson, orange and purple waters when the pine‐crest rose black into the crimson, orange and purple sky, at sunset. When the young moon hung over those black pines, the beauty was so great that I could hardly believe my eyes. On the day of my arrival, when I had met my new maid from Dublin (my Tynemouth nurse being unable to leave her mother’s neighbourhood,) and when I had been welcomed by a dear old friend or two, I found an intoxicating promise of bliss whichever way I turned. I was speedily instructed in the morality of lakers,—the first principle of which is, (at least, so they told me) never to work except in bad weather. The woods were still full of wild anemones and sorrel, and the blue bells were just coming out. The meadows were emerald green, and the oaks were just exchanging their May‐golden hue for light green, when the sycamores, so characteristic of the region, were growing sombre in their massy page: 495 foliage. The friends whom I had met during my winter visit were kind in their welcome; and many relations and friends came that summer, to enjoy excursions with me. It was all very gay and charming; and if I found the bustle of society a little too much,—if I felt myself somewhat disappointed in regard to the repose which I had reckoned on, that blessing was, as I knew, only deferred.

As to this matter,—of society. There is a perpetual change going on in such neighbourhoods in the Lake District as that of Ambleside. Retired merchants and professional men fall in love with the region, buy or build a house, are in a transport with what they have done, and, after a time, go away. In five or six years, six houses of friends or acquaintance of mine became inhabited by strangers. Sorry as I was, on each occasion, to lose good friends or pleasant acquaintances, I did not call on their successors,—nor on any other new‐comers: nor did I choose, from the beginning, to visit generally in Ambleside. When I made up my mind to live there, I declined the dinner and evening engagements offered to me, and visited at only three or four houses; and very sparingly at those. It did not suit me to give parties, otherwise than in the plainest and most familiar way; and I had some idea of the mischiefs and dangers of such society as is found promiscuously cast into a small neighbourhood like this. I had not time to waste in meeting the same people,—not chosen as in London, but such as chanced to be thrown together in a very small country town,—night after night: I was aware how nearly impossible it is to keep out of the gossip and the quarrels which prevail in such places; and there was no adequate reason for encountering them. I foresaw that among a High‐church squirearchy, and Low‐church evangelicals, and the moderate‐church few, who were timid in proportion to their small numbers, I might be tolerated; and even courted at first, on account of my reputation, but must sooner or later give deadly offence by some outbreak of heresy or reforming tendency, stronger than they could bear. I therefore confined my visiting to three or four houses, merely exchanging calls with others: and it is well I did. Of those three or four, page: 496 scarcely one could endure my avowal of my opinions in 1851. Even with them, I had before ceased, or did then cease, to exchange hospitalities. As they had sought me, and even urgently pressed themselves upon me, (one family in particular, whose mere name I had never heard when I arrived) they were especially in need of my compassion at the plight they found themselves in,—with goodness of heart enough to remember that our acquaintance was all of their seeking, but with too much narrowness and timidity to keep up intercourse through such opprobrium as my opinions brought on me among their High‐church neighhours. They had the shame (which I believe them to be capable of feeling) of being aware, and knowing that I was aware, that they sought me, as they are wont to seek and flatter all celebrities, for my fame, and to gratify their own love of excitement; and that their weakness stood confessed before the trial of my plain avowal of honest opinions. It made no difference that, after a time, when the gossip had blown over, and my neighbours saw that I did not want them, and did not depend on their opinions in any way, they came round, and began to be attentive and kind:—their conduct at a moment of crisis proved to me that I had judged rightly in declining Ambleside visiting from the beginning; and their mutual quarrelling, fierce and wide and deep, certainly confirmed my satisfaction with my independent plan of life. My interests lay among old friends at a distance; and I had as much social intercourse as I at all desired when they came into the district. I was amused and instructed by the words of an ingenuous young friend, who, taking leave of me one winter afternoon at her own gate, said: “Ah! now,—you are going home to a comfortable quiet evening by your own fire! Really, I think it is quite hypocritical in us!—We dross and go out, and seem to be so pleased, when we are longing all the time to be at home! We meet the same people, who have only the same talk; and we get so tired!” It was not long before that family withdrew from the Ambleside visiting which I had always declined. A very few faithful friends, whose regard did not depend on the popular nature of my opinions, remained true page: 497 and dear to me; and thus I found that book,—the “Atkinson Letters,”—do me the same good and welcome service in my own valley that it did in the wide world;—it dissolved all false relations, and confirmed all true ones. Finally, now that that business has long been settled, and that all my other affairs are drawing near their close, I may make my declaration that I have always had as much society as I wished for, and sometimes a great deal more. And this leads me to explain why I came to live where I am;—a prodigious puzzle, I am told, to the great majority of my London acquaintance.

When I had been thoroughly and avowedly well for half a year, I found my family had made up their minds, as I had scarcely a doubt that they would, that my mother’s settlement at Liverpool had better not be disturbed. She was among three of her children settled there, and she was suited with a companion better adapted to aid her in her nearly blind condition than any deaf person could be. It would have been a most serious and injurious sacrifice to me to live in a provincial town. The choice for me, in regard to my vocation, was between London and a purely country residence. I was partly amused and partly shocked at the amazement of some of my really intimate friends, to whom I supposed my character fully known, at my choosing the latter. One of these friends wrote to me that she could not at all fancy me “a real country lady;” and another told Mr. Atkinson that she did not believe I had any genuine love of natural scenery. Mr. Hallam told me, some years afterwards, that he and others of my friends had considered my retreat from London, after having known the delights of its society, “a most doubtful and serious experiment,—a most doubtful experiment;” but that they found, by the testimony of mutual friends who had visited me, that it had “answered completely.”—My reasons are easily told. I was now, when at liberty to form my own plan of life, past the middle of its course. I had seen the dangers and moral penalties of literary life in London for women who had become accustomed to its excitements; and I knew that I could not be happy if I degenerated into “a hackney‐coach and company life.” No true woman, married or single, can be happy page: 498 without some sort of domestic life;—without having somebody’s happiness dependent on her; and my own ideal of an innocent and happy life was a house of my own among poor improvable neighbours, with young servants whom I might train and attach to myself; with pure air, a garden, leisure, solitude at command, and freedom to work in peace and quietness. When to all this could be added fine natural scenery, the temptations were such as London could not rival. If I had country, I would have the best; and my mind was made up at once,—to live at the Lakes,—as soon as I was sure of my liberty to choose. I began to look about in the neighbourhood at cottages to let or on sale. The most promising was one at Clappersgate, at the head of Wintermere, which was offered me for £20 a year. It had more rooms than I wanted, and an exceedingly pretty porch; and a little garden, in which was a tempting copper‐beech. But the ceilings were too low for my bookcases, and the house was old; and it commanded no great beauty, except from the attic windows. A friend who went with me to view it said that £20 was the interest of £500; and that for £500 I could build myself a cottage after my own heart. This was strikingly true: and thus the idea of having at once a house of my own was suggested. By the necessity of the case, the matter was soon settled. A dissenting minister, an opulent man who had built a chapel and school, and bought a field for cottage‐building, found life too hard for a dissenter among the orthodox at Ambleside, and especially after he had proposed to supply the want of cottages which is there the screw which the rich put upon the labouring classes; and, after his health had sunk under the treatment he encountered, he was obliged to leave the place to save his life. My house‐viewing friend brought me, on the 27th of June, the plan of this minister’s field, which was to be sold in lots the next day but one. The time was short; but land was becoming rare in the neighbourhood; and I went to see the field. One of the lots was a rocky knoll, commanding a charming view. I knew no one whom I could ask to go and bid; and I could not feel sure of a due supply of water; not knowing then that wherever there is rock, there is a tolerable certainty of water. The other lots page: 499 appeared to me to lie too low for building; and I, in my simplicity, concluded that the pretty knoll would be the first and surest to sell. Next day, I found that that lot, and the one at the foot of the rise remained unsold. I went to the minister for a consultation. His wife satisfied me about the water‐supply; and she moreover said that as the other unsold slip, valued at £70, would not sell by itself, if I would buy the Knoll, I should have the other for £20. I agreed on the spot. There was one other three‐cornered piece, lying between these and the meadows which were entailed land, certain never to be built on: and this bit had been bought at the sale by an exciseman, to graze his pony when he came his rounds. My friends all agreed in lamenting over that sale, and said the exciseman would soon be running up some hideous structure, to make me pay “through the nose” for his nook. I replied that I must stop somewhere; and that the matter seemed settled by the land having been sold. It makes me grateful now to think what pains my friends took on my behalf. Mrs. Arnold consulted the Wordsworths; and they all came to exhort me to try to get the nook, for the sake of myself and my heirs; and my original adviser found up the exciseman, and came back with the news that no conveyance had yet been made out, and that the man would let me have the land for a bonus of £5. I whipped out my five sovereigns; and the whole was mine. It may seem that I have gone into much detail about a trifle: but I am giving an account of myself; and there have been few things in my life which have had a more genial effect on my mind than the possession of a piece of land. Those who consider what some scenes of my life had been,—my being left with a single shilling at the time of our losses, my plodding through London mud when I could not get my series published, and my five years’ confinement at Tynemouth, may conceive what it was to me to go, in the lustrous days of that summer, to meliorate in my field at eventide, and anticipate the heathful and genial life before me. The kind cousin whom I have mentioned as always at my elbow in all time of need, or when a graceful service could be rendered, came with his family to the Lakes at that precise time. Knowing my affairs,—of page: 500 which he generously took the management,—he approved my scheme; and he did more. I asked him plainly whether he thought me justified in building a house of the kind I explained, and of which I showed him the builder’s estimate. He called on me alone one morning,—on business, as he said; and his “business” was this. He told me that he considered me abundantly justified: he added that there could be no difficulty in obtaining, on such securities as I could offer, whatever additional money would be requisite for finishing the house (the land was already paid for,) but that, to save trouble and speculation, I had better send in the bills to him; and he would, to save me from all sense of obligation, charge me with interest till I had paid off the whole. The transaction, of which this was the graceful beginning, was no less gracefully carried on and ended. The amount was (as always happens in such cases) more than we expected; and I was longer, owing to the failure of one of my plans, in repaying the loan; but my cousin cheered me by his approbation and sympathy; and at last presented me with the final batch of interest, to purchase something for the house to remember him by.

Then came the amusement of planning my house, which I did all myself. It was the newest of enterprises to me; and seriously did I ponder all the requisites;—how to plan the bedrooms, so that the beds should not be in a draught, nor face the window nor the fireplace, &c. I did not then know the importance of placing beds north and south, in case of illness, when that position may be of the last consequence to the patient; but it so happens that all my beds stand, or may stand so. The whole scheme was fortunate and charming. There is not a single blunder or nuisance in my pretty house; and now that it is nearly covered with ivy, roses, passion‐flowers, and other climbers, and the porch a bower of honeysuckles, I find that several of my neighbours, and not a few strangers, consider my Knoll,—position and house together,—the prettiest dwelling in the valley;—airy, gay, and “sunny within and without,” as one family are pleased to say. “It is,” said Wordsworth, “the wisest step in her life; for” ... ... ... and we supposed he was page: 501 going on to speak of the respectability, comfort and charm of such a retreat for an elderly woman; but not so. “It is the wisest step in her life; for the value of the property will be doubled in ten years.”

One of those London friends whom I have mentioned as doubting my discretion in settling here, was paying me a morning visit at my lodgings when I was planning my house; and while taking a kind interest in looking over the plan and elevation, she thought it right to make a remonstrance which she has since recalled with a generous amusement. “Now, my dear friend,” said she, “I take a real interest in all this:but,—do be persuaded,—sell your field, and stay where you are, in this nice lodging. Do, now! Why should you not stay here?”

“First,” said I, “because it costs me more to live here in three rooms than it would in a whole house of my own.

“Second: there is no room here for my book‐cases; and I want my library.

“Third: I am paying for house‐room for my furniture at Tynemouth.

“Fourth: this house stands low, and is apt to be flooded and damp in winter.

“Fifth: this house was a barn; and the dust lies a quarter of an inch thick, in some weathers, on every thing in the sitting‐room.

“Sixth: the chimney smokes so that I could not have a fire without keeping a window open.

“Seventh: Being close on the margin of the lake, the house is swarming with rats.

“Eighth: ... ... ... .”

“O! stop—stop!” cried my friend, now quite ready to leave my own affairs in my own hands. She long after spent some days with me at the Knoll, and pronounced my house and my scheme of life perfect for me.

previous
next