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Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
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AMBLESIDE, March, 1855.

FROM my youth upwards I have felt that it was one of the duties of my life to write my autobiography. I have always enjoyed, and derived profit from, reading that of other persons, from the most meagre to the fullest: and certain qualities of my own mind,—a strong consciousness and a clear memory in regard to my early feelings,—have seemed to indicate to me the duty of recording my own experience. When my life became evidently a somewhat remarkable one, the obligation presented itself more strongly to my conscience: and when I made up my mind to interdict the publication of my private letters, the duty became unquestionable. For thirteen or fourteen years it has been more or less a weight on my mind that the thing was not done. Twice in my life I made a beginning; once in 1831, and again about ten years later, during my long illness at Tynemouth: but both attempts stopped short at an early period, answering no other purpose than preserving some facts of my childhood which I might otherwise have forgotten. Of late years, I have often said to my most intimate friends that I felt as if I could not die in peace till this work was done; and there has been no lack of encouragement and instigation on their part: but, while I was in health, there was always so much to do that was immediately wanted, that, as usually happens in such cases, that which was not immediately necessary was deferred. At page: 2 the beginning of this last winter, however, I had hopes of being able to unite my political work with this; and on New Year’s Day I said to myself that the year must not close without my having recorded the story of my life. I was probably strengthened in this purpose by having for some time past felt that my energies were declining, and that I had no longer a right to depend on being able to do whatever I chose. Two or three weeks more settled the business. Feeling very unwell, I went to London to obtain a medical opinion in regard to my health. Two able physicians informed me that I had a mortal disease, which might spare me some considerable space of life, but which might, as likely as not, destroy me at any moment. No doubt could remain after this as to what my next employment should be: and as soon after my return home as I had settled my business with my Executor, I began this autobiography. I thought it best to rewrite the early portion, that the whole might be offered from one point of view, and in a consistent spirit. Without any personal desire about living a few months or weeks more or less, I rather hope that I may be able to finish my story with my own hands. If not, it will be done by another, from materials of more or less value. But one part which ought to be done by myself is the statement of my reasons for so serious a step as forbidding the publication of my private correspondence; and I therefore stop at the Third Period of my Memoir, to write this Introduction, to the following passages of which I request the reader’s earnest attention.

I admit, at the outset, that it is rather a piece of self‐denial in me to interdict the publication of my letters. I have no solicitude about fame, and no fear of my reputation of any sort being injured by the publication of any thing I have ever put upon paper. My opinions and feelings have been remarkably open to the world; and my position has been such as to impose no reserves on a disposition naturally open and communicative; so that if any body might acquiesce in the publication of correspondence, it should be myself. Moreover, I am disposed to think that what my friends tell me is true; that it would be rather an advantage to me than the contrary to be known by my page: 3 private letters All these considerations point out to me that I am therefore precisely the person to bear emphatic practical testimony on behalf of the principle of the privacy of epistolary intercourse; and therefore it is that I do hereby bear that testimony.

Epistolary correspondence is written speech; and the onus rests with those who publish it to show why the laws of honor which are uncontested in regard to conversation may be violated when the conversation is written instead of spoken. The plea is of the utility of such material for biographical purposes; but who would admit that plea in regard to fireside conversation? The most valuable conversation, and that which best illustrates character, is that which passes between two friends, with their feet on the fender, on winter nights, or in a summer ramble: but what would be thought of the traitor who should supply such material for biographical or other purposes? How could human beings ever open their hearts and minds to each other, if there were no privacy guaranteed by principles and feelings of honor? Yet has this security lapsed from that half of human conversation which is written instead of spoken. Whether there is still time to restore it, I know not: but I have done my part towards an attempted restoration by a stringent provision in my Will against any public use whatever being made of my letters, unless I should myself authorize the publication of some, which will, in that case, be of some public interest, and not confidential letters. Most of my friends have burnt my letters,—partly because they knew my desire thus to enforce my assertion of the principle, and partly because it was less painful to destroy them while I was still among them than to escape the importunities of hunters of material after my death. Several eminent persons of this century have taken stringent precautions against the same mischief; and very many more, I fear, have taken the more painful precaution of writing no letters which any body would care to have. Seventy years ago, Dr. Johnson said in conversation “It is now become so much the fashion to publish letters, that, in order to avoid it, I put as little into mine as I can.” Nobody will question the hardship and mischief of a practice page: 4 which acts upon epistolary correspondence as the spy system under a despotism acts upon speech: and when we find that a half a dozen of the greatest minds of our time have deprived themselves and their friends of their freedom of epistolary speech for the same reason, it does seem to be time that those qualified to bear testimony against such an infringement on personal liberty should speak out.

“But,” say unscrupulous book‐makers and readers, “there are many eminent persons who are so far from feeling as you do that they have themselves prepared for the publication of their letters. There was Doddridge:—he left a copy of every letter and note that he ever wrote, for this very purpose. There was Madame D’Arblay:—on her death‐bed, and in extreme old age, she revised and had copies made of all the letters she received and wrote when in the height of her fame as Fanny Burney,—preparing for publication the smooth compliments and monstrous flatteries written by hands that had long become dust. There was Southey:—he too kept copies, or left directions, by which he arranged the method of making his private letters to his friends property to his heirs. These, and many more, were of a different way of thinking from you.”—They were indeed: and my answer is,—what were the letters worth, as letters, when these arrangements became known? What would fireside conversation be worth, as confidential talk, if it was known that the speaker meant to make it a newspaper article the next day? And when Doddridge’s friends, and Southey’s, heard that what they had taken for conversational out‐pouring on paper was so much literary production, to appear hereafter in a book,—what was the worth of those much‐prized letters then? Would the correspondents not as soon have received a page of a dissertation, or the proof of a review article? Surely the only word necessary as to this part of the question is a word of protest against every body, or every eminent person, being deprived of epistolary liberty because there have been some among their predecessors or contemporaries who did not know how to use it, or happen to value it.

We are recommended, again, to “leave the matter to the dis‐ page: 5 cretion discretion of survivors.” I, for my part, have too much regard for my Executors to bequeath to them any such troublesome office as withstanding the remonstrances of any number of persons who may have a mind to see my letters, or of asserting a principle which it is my business to assert for myself. If they were to publish my letters, they would do what I believe to be wrong: and if they refused to publish them, they might be subject to importunity or censure which I have no right to devolve upon them. And why are we to leave this particular piece of testamentary duty to the discretion of survivors, when we are abundantly exhorted, in the case of every other, to do our own testamentary duty ourselves,—betimes, carefully and conscientiously?

Then comes the profit argument,—the plea of how much the world would have lost without the publication of the letters of A. B. and C. This is true, in a way. The question is whether the world has not lost more by the injury to epistolary freedom than it has gained by reading the letters of nonconsenting letter‐writers. There will always be plenty of consenting and willing letter‐writers: let society have their letters. But there should be no others,—at least till privacy is altogether abolished as an unsocial privilege. This grossly utilitarian view does not yet prevail; and I do not think it ever will. Meantime, I claim the sanction of every principle of integrity, and every feeling of honor and delicacy, on behalf of my practice. I claim, over and above these, the sanction of the law.—Law reflects the principles of morals; and in this case the mirror presents a clear image of the right and the duty. The law vests the right of publication of private letters solely in the writer, no one else having any such right during the author’s life, or after his death, except by his express permission. On the knowledge of this provision I have acted, in my arrangements about my own correspondence; and I trust that others, hitherto unaccustomed to the grave consideration of the subject, will feel, in justice to myself and others who act with me, that there can be no wrong, no moral inexpediency, in the exercise of a right thus expressly protected by the Law. If, by what I have done, I have fixed attention upon the morality of the case, this will be a greater social benefit than page: 6 the publication of any letters written by me, or by persons far wiser and more accomplished than myself.

I have only to say further, in the way of introduction, a word or two as to my descent and parentage. On occasion of the Revelation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1688, a surgeon of the name of Martineau, and a family of the name of Pierre, crossed the Channel, and settled with other Huguenot refugees, in England. My ancestor married a young lady of the Pierre family, and settled in Norwich, where his descendants afforded a succession of surgeons up to my own day. My eminent uncle, Mr. Philip Meadows Martineau, and my eldest brother, who died before the age of thirty, were the last Norwich surgeons of the name.—My grandfather, who was one of the honorable series, died at the age of forty‐two, of a fever caught among his poor patients. He left a large family, of whom my father was the youngest. When established as a Norwich manufacturer, my father married Elizabeth Rankin, the eldest daughter of a sugar‐refiner at Newcastle upon Tyne. My father and mother had eight children, of whom I was the sixth: and I was born on the 12th of June, 1802.