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Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
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MY first recollections are of some infantine impressions which were in abeyance for a long course of years, and then revived an inexplicable way,—as by a flash of lightning over a far horizon in the night. There is no doubt of the genuineness of the remembrance, as the facts could not have been told me by any one else. I remember standing on the threshold of a cottage, holding fast by the doorpost, and putting my foot down, in repeated attempts to reach the ground. Having accomplished the step, I toddled (I remember the uncertain feeling) to a tree before the door, and tried to clasp and get round it; but the rough bark hurt my hands. At night of the same day, in bed, I was disconcerted by the coarse feel of the sheets,—so much less smooth and cold than those at home; and I was alarmed by the creaking of the bedstead when I moved. It was a turn‐up bedstead in a cottage, or small farm‐house at Carleton, where I was sent for my health, being a delicate child. My mother’s account of things was that I was all but starved to death in the first weeks of my life,—the wetnurse being very poor, and holding on to her good place after her milk was going or gone. The discovery was made when I was three months old, and when I was fast page: 8 sinking under diarrhœa. My bad health during my whole childhood and youth, and even my deafness, was always ascribed by my mother to this. However it might be about that, my health certainly was very bad till I was nearer thirty than twenty years of age; and never was poor mortal cursed with a more beggarly nervous system. The long years of indigestion by day and night‐mare terrors are mournful to think of now.—Milk has radically disagreed with me, all my life: but when I was a child, it was a thing unheard of for children not to be fed on milk: so, till I was old enough to have tea at breakfast, I went on having a horrid lump at my throat for hours of every morning, and the most terrific oppressions in the night. Sometimes the dim light of the windows in the night seemed to advance till it pressed upon my eyeballs, and then the windows would seem to recede to an infinite distance. If I laid my hand under my head on the pillow, the hand seemed to vanish almost to a point, while the head grew as big as a mountain. Sometimes I was panic struck at the head of the stairs, and was sure I could never get down; and I could never cross the yard to the garden without flying and panting, and fearing to look behind, because a wild beast was after me. The starlight sky was the worst; it was always coming down, to stifle and crush me, and rest upon my head. I do not remember any dread of thieves or ghosts in particular; but things as I actually saw them were dreadful to me; and it now appears to me that I had scarcely any respite from the terror. My fear of persons was as great as any other. To the best of my belief, the first person I was ever not afraid of was Aunt Kentish, who won my heart and my confidence when I was sixteen. My heart was ready enough to flow out; and it often did: but I always repented of such expansion, the next time I dreaded to meet a human face.—It now occurs to me, and it may be worth while to note it,—what the extremest terror of all was about. We were often sent to walk on the Castle Hill at Norwich. In the wide area below, the residents were wont to expose their feather‐beds, and to beat them with a stick. That sound,—a dull shock,—used to make my heart stand still: and it was no use my standing at the rails above, and page: 9 seeing the process. The striking of the blow and the arrival of the sound did not correspond; and this made matters worse. I hated that walk; and I believe for that reason. My parents knew nothing of all this. It never occurred to me to speak of anything I felt most: and I doubt whether they ever had the slightest idea of my miseries. It seems to me now that a little closer observation would have shown them the causes of the bad health and fitful temper which gave them so much anxiety on my account; and I am sure that a little more of the cheerful tenderness which was in those days thought bad for children, would have saved me from my worst faults, and from a world of suffering.

My hostess and nurse at the above‐mentioned cottage was a Mrs. Merton, who was, as was her husband, a Methodist or melancholy Calvinist of some sort. The family story about was that I came home the absurdest little preacher of my years (between two and three) that ever was. I used to nod my head emphatically, and say “Never ky for tyfles:” “Dooty fust, and pleasure afterwards,” and so forth: and I sometimes got courage to edge up to strangers, and ask them to give me—“a maxim.” Almost before I could join letters, I got some sheets of paper,and folded them into a little square book, and wrote, in double lines, two or three in a page, my beloved maxims. I believe this was my first effort at book‐making. It was probably what I picked up at Carleton that made me so intensely religious as I certainly was from a very early age. The religion was of a bad sort enough, as might be expected from the urgency of my needs; but I doubt whether I could have got through without it. I pampered my vain‐glorious propensities by dreams of divine favor, to make up for my utter deficiency of self‐respect: and I got rid of otherwise incessant remorse by a most convenient confession and repentance, which relieved my nerves without at all, I suspect, improving my conduct.

To revert to my earliest recollections:—I certainly could hardly walk alone when our nursemaid took us,—including my sister Elizabeth, who was eight years older than myself,—an unusual walk; through a lane, (afterwards called by us the page: 10 “Spinner’s Lane”) where some Miss Taskers, acquaintances of Elizabeth’s and her seniors, were lodging, in a cottage which had a fir grove behind it. Somebody set me down at the foot of a fir, where I was distressed by the slight rising of the ground at the root, and by the long grass, which seemed a terrible entanglement. I looked up the tree, and was scared at its height, and at that of so many others. I was comforted with a fir‐cone; and then one of the Miss Taskers caught me up in her arms and kissed me; and I was too frightened to cry till we got away.—I was not more than two years old when an impression of touch occurred to me which remains vivid to this day. It seems indeed as if impressions of touch were at that age more striking than those from the other senses. I say this from observation of others besides myself; for my own case is peculiar in that matter. Sight, hearing and touch were perfectly good in early childhood; but I never had the sense of smell; and that of taste was therefore exceedingly imperfect. On the occasion I refer to, I was carried down a flight of steep back stairs, and Rachel (a year and half older than I) clung to the nursemaid’s gown, and Elizabeth was going before, (still quite a little girl) when I put down my finger ends to feel a flat velvet button on the top of Rachel’s bonnet. The rapture of the sensation was really monstrous, as I remember it now. Those were our mourning bonnets for a near relation; and this marks the date, proving me to have been only two years old.

I was under three when my brother James was born. That day was another of the distinct impressions which flashed upon me in after years. I found myself within the door of the best bedroom,—an impressive place from being seldom used, from its having a dark, polished floor, and from the awful large gay figures of the chintz bed hangings. That day the curtains were drawn, the window blinds were down, and an unknown old woman, in a mob cap, was at the fire, with a bundle of flannel in her arms. She beckoned to me, and I tried to go, though it seemed impossible to cross the slippery floor. I seem to hear now the paltering of my feet. When I arrived at her knee, the page: 11 nurse pushed out with her foot a tiny chair, used as a footstool, made me sit down on it, laid the bundle of flannel across my knees, and opened it so that I saw the little red face of the baby. I then found out that there was somebody in the bed,—seeing a nightcap on the pillow. This was on the 21st of April, 1805. I have a distinct recollection of some incidents of that summer. My mother did not recover well from her confinement, and was sent to the sea, at Yarmouth. On our arrival there, my father took me along the old jetty,—little knowing what terror I suffered. I remember the strong grasp of his large hand being some comfort; but there were holes in the planking of the jetty quite big enough to let my foot through; and they disclosed the horrible sight of waves flowing and receding below, and great tufts of green weeds swaying to and fro. I remember the sitting room at our lodgings, and my mother’s dress as she sat picking shrimps, and letting me try to help her.—Of all my many fancies, perhaps none was so terrible as a dream that I had at four years old. The impression is as fresh as possible now; but I cannot at all understand what the fright was about. I know nothing more strange than this power of re‐entering, as it were, into the narrow mind of an infant, so as to compare it with that of maturity; and therefore it may he worth while to record that piece of precious nonsense,—my dream at four years old. I imagine I was learning my letters then from cards, where each letter had its picture,—as a stag for S. I dreamed that we children were taking our walk with our nursemaid out of St. Austin’s Gate (the nearest bit of country to our house.) Out of the public‐house there came a stag, with prodigious antlers. Passing the pump, it crossed the road to us, and made a polite bow, with its head on one side, and with a scrape of one foot, after which it pointed with its foot to the public‐house, and spoke to me, inviting me in. The maid declined, and turned to go home. Then came the terrible part. By the time we were at our own door it was dusk, and we went up the steps in the dark; but in the kitchen it was bright sunshine. My mother was standing at the dresser, breaking sugar; and she lifted me up, and set me in the sun, and gave me a bit of sugar. page: 12 Such was the dream which froze me with horror! Who shall say why? But my panics were really unaccountable. They were a matter of pure sensation, without any intellectual justification whatever, even of the wildest kind. A magic‐lantern was exhibited to us on Christmas‐day, and once or twice in the year besides. I used to see it cleaned by daylight, and to handle all its parts,—understanding its whole structure; yet, such was my terror of the white circle on the wall, and of the moving slides, that, to speak the plain truth, the first apparition always brought on bowel‐complaint; and, at the age of thirteen, when I was pretending to take care of little children during the exhibition, I could never look at it without having the back of a chair to grasp, or hurting myself, to carry off the intolerable sensation. My bitter shame may be conceived; but then, I was always in a state of shame about something or other. I was afraid to walk in the town, for some years, if I remember right, for fear of meeting two people. One was an unknown old lady who very properly rebuked me one day for turning her off the very narrow pavement of London Lane, telling me, in an awful way, that little people should make way for their elders. The other was an unknown farmer, in whose field we had been gleaning (among other trespassers) before the shocks were carried. This man left the field after us, and followed us into the city,—no doubt, as I thought, to tell the Mayor, and send the constable after us. I wonder how long it was before I left off expecting that constable. There were certain little imps, however, more alarming still. Our house was in a narrow street; and all its windows, except two or three at the back, looked eastward. It had no sun in the front rooms, except before breakfast in summer. One summer morning, I went into the drawing‐room, which was not much used in those days, and saw a sight which made me hide my face in a chair, and scream with terror. The drops of the lustre on the mantle‐piece, on which the sun was shining, were somehow set in motion, and the prismatic colors danced vehemently on the walls. I thought they were alive,—imps of some sort; and I never dared go into that room alone in the morning, from that time forward. I am afraid page: 13 I must own that my heart has beat, all my life long, at the dancing of prismatic colors on the wall.

I was getting some comfort, however, from religion by this time. The Sundays began to be marked days, and pleasantly marked, on the whole. I do not know why crocuses were particularly associated with Sunday at that time; but probably my mother might have walked in the garden with us, some early spring Sunday. My idea of Heaven was of a place gay with yellow and lilac crocuses. My love of gay colors was very strong. When I was sent with the keys to a certain bureau in my mother’s room, to fetch miniatures of my father and grandfather, to be shown to visitors, I used to stay an unconscionable time, though dreading punishment for it, but utterly unable to resist the fascination of a certain watch‐ribbon kept in a drawer there. This ribbon had a pattern in floss silk, gay and beautifully shaded; and I used to look at it till I was sent for, to be questioned as to what I had been about. The young wild parsley and other weeds in the hedges used to make me sick with their luscious green in spring. One crimson and purple sunrise I well remember, when James could hardly walk alone, and I could not therefore have been more than five. I awoke very early, that summer morning, and saw the maid sound asleep in her bed, and “the baby” in his crib. The room was at the top of the house; and some rising ground beyond the city could be seen over the opposite roofs. I crept out of bed, saw James’s pink toes showing themselves invitingly through the rails of his crib, and gently pinched them, to wake him. With a world of trouble I got him over the side, and helped him to the window, and upon a chair there. I wickedly opened the window, and the cool air blew in; and yet the maid did not wake. Our arms were smutted with the blacks on the window‐sill, and our bare feet were corded with the impression of the rush‐buttomed chair; but we were not found out. The sky was gorgeous, and I talked very religiously to the child. I remember the mood, and the pleasure of expresing it, but nothing of what I said.

I must have been a remarkably religious child, for the only page: 14 support and pleasure I remember having from a very early age was from that source. I was just seven when the grand event of my childhood took place,—a journey to Newcastle to spend the summer (my mother and four of her children) at my grandfather’s; and I am certain that I cared more for religion before and during that summer than for anything else. It was after our return, when Ann Turner, daughter of the Unitarian Minister there, was with us, that my piety first took a practical character; but it was familiar to me as an indulgence long before. While I was afraid of everybody I saw, I was not in the least afraid of God. Being usually very unhappy, I was constantly longing for heaven, and seriously, and very frequently planning suicide in order to get there. I knew it was considered a crime; but I did not feel it so. I had a devouring passion for justice;—justice, first to my own precious self, and then to other oppressed people. Justice was precisely what was least understood in our house, in regard to servants and children. Now and then I desperately poured out my complaints; but in general I brooded over my injuries, and those of others who dared not speak; and then the temptation to suicide was very strong. No doubt, there was much vindictiveness in it. I gloated over the thought that I would make somebody care about me in some sort of way at last: and, as to my reception in the other world, I felt sure that God could not be very angry with me for making haste to him when nobody else cared for me, and so many people plagued me. One day I went to the kitchen to get the great carving knife, to cut my throat; but the servants were at dinner, and this put it off for that time. By degrees, the design dwindled down into running away. I used to lean out of the window, and look up and down the street, and wonder how far I could go without being caught. I had no doubt at all that if I once got into a farm‐house, and wore a woollen petticoat, and milked the cows, I should be safe, and that nobody would inquire about me any more.—It is evident enough that my temper must have been very bad. It seems to me now that it was downright devilish, except for a placability which used to page: 15 annoy me sadly. My temper might have been early made a thoroughly good one, by the slightest indulgence shown to my natural affections, and any rational dealing with my faults: but I was almost the youngest of a large family, and subject, not only to the rule of severity to which all were liable, but also to the rough and contemptuous treatment of the elder children, who meant no harm, but injured me irreparably. I had no self‐respect, and an unbounded need of approbation and affection. My capacity for jealousy was something frightful. When we were little more than infants, Mr. Thomas Watson, son of my father’s partner, one day came into the yard, took Rachel up in his arms, gave her some grapes off the vine, and carried her home, across the street, to give her Gay’s Fables, bound in red and gold. I stood with a bursting heart, beating my hoop, and hating every body in the world. I always hated Gay’s Fables, and for long could not abide a red book. Nobody dreamed of all this; and the “taking down” system was pursued with me as with the rest, issuing in the assumed doggedness and wilfulness which made me desperately disagreeable during my youth, to every body at home. The least word or tone of kindness melted me instantly, in spite of the strongest predeterminations to be hard and offensive. Two occasions stand out especially in my memory, as indeed almost the only instances of the enjoyment of tenderness manifested to myself individually.

When I was four or five years old, we were taken to a lecture of Mr. Drummond’s, for the sake, no doubt, of the pretty shows, we were to see,—the chief of which was the Phantasmagoria of which we had heard, as a fine sort of magic‐lantern. I did not like the darkness, to begin with; and when Minerva appeared, in a red dress, at first extremely small, and then approaching, till her owl seemed coming directly upon me, it was so like my nightmare dreams that I shrieked aloud. I remember my own shriek. A pretty lady who sat next us, took me on her lap, and let me hide my face in her bosom, and held me fast. How intensely I loved her, without at all knowing who she was! From that time we knew her, and she filled a large space in my life; and above forty years after, I had the honor of having her for my page: 16 guest in my own house. She was Mrs. Lewis Cooper, then the very young mother of two girls of the ages of Rachel and myself, of whom I shall have to say more presently.—The other occasion was when I had a terrible ear‐ache one Sunday. The rest went to chapel in the afternoon; and my pain grew worse. Instead of going into the kitchen to the cook, I wandered into a lumber room at the top of the house. I laid my aching ear against the cold iron screw of a bedstead, and howled with pain; but nobody came to me. At last, I heard the family come home from chapel. I heard them go into the parlor, one after another, and I knew they were sitting round the fire in the dusk. I stole down to the door, and stood on the mat, and heard them talking and laughing merrily. I stole in, thinking they would not observe me, and got into a dark corner. Presently my mother called to me, and asked what I was doing there. Then I burst out,—that my ear ached so I did not know what to do! Then she and my father both called me tenderly, and she took me on her lap, and laid the ear on her warm bosom. I was afraid of spoiling her starched muslin handkerchief with the tears which would come; but I was very happy, and wished that I need never move again. Then of course came remorse for all my naughtiness; but I was always suffering that, though never, I believe, in my whole childhood, being known to own myself wrong. I must have been an intolerable child; but I need not have been so.

I was certainly fond of going to chapel before that Newcastle era which divided my childhood into two equal portions: but my besetting troubles followed me even there. My passion for justice was baulked there, as much as any where. The duties preached were those of inferiors to superiors, while the per contra was not insisted on with any equality of treatment at all. Parents were to bring up their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and to pay servants due wages; but not a word was ever preached about the justice due from the stronger to the weaker. I used to thirst to hear some notice of the oppression which servants and children had (as I supposed universally) to endure, in regard to their feelings, while duly clothed, page: 17 fed, and taught: but nothing of the sort ever came; but instead, a doctrine of passive obedience which only made me remorseful and miserable. I was abundantly obedient in act; for I never dreamed of being otherwise; but the interior rebellion kept my conscience in a state of perpetual torture. As far as I remember my conscience was never of the least use to me; for I always concluded myself wrong about every thing, while pretending entire complacency and assurance. My moral discernment was almost wholly obscured by fear and mortification.—Another misery at chapel was that I could not attend to the service, nor refrain from indulging in the most absurd vain‐glorious dreams, which I was ashamed of, all the while. The Octagon Chapel at Norwich has some curious windows in the roof;—not skylights, but letting in light indirectly. I used to sit staring up at those windows, and looking for angels to come for me, and take me to heaven, in sight of all the congregation,—the end of the world being sure to happen while we were at chapel. I was thinking of this, and of the hymns, the whole of the time, it now seems to me. It was very shocking to me that I could not pray at chapel. I believe that I never did in my life. I prayed abundantly when I was alone; but it was impossible to me to do it in any other way; and the hypocrisy of appearing to do so was a long and sore trouble to me.—All this is very painful; but I really remember little that was not painful at that time of my life.—To be sure, there was Nurse Ayton, who used to come, one or two days in the week, to sew. She was kind to me, and I was fond of her. She told us long stories about her family; and she taught me to sew. She certainly held the family impression of my abilities,—that I was a dull, unobservant, slow, awkward child. In teaching me to sew, she used to say (and I quite acquiesced) that “slow and sure” was the maxim for me, and “quick and well” was the maxim for Rachel. I was not jealous about this,—it seemed to me so undeniable. On one occasion only I thought Nurse Ayton unkind. The back of a rickety old nursing‐chair came off when I was playing on it; and I was sure she could save me from being scolded by sewing it on again. I insisted that she could sew anything. This made my mother page: 18 laugh when she came up; and so I forgave nurse: and I believe that was our only quarrel.

My first political interest was the death of Nelson. I was then four years old. My father came in from the counting‐house at an unusual hour, and told my mother, who cried heartily. I certainly had some conception of a battle, and of a great man being a public loss. It always rent my heart‐strings (to the last day of her life,) to see and hear my mother cry; and in this case it was clearly connected with the death of a great man. I had my own notions of Bonaparte too. One day, at dessert, when my father was talking anxiously to my mother about the expected invasion, for which preparations were made all along the Norfolk coast, I saw them exchange a glance, because I was standing staring, twitching my pinafore with terror. My father called me to him, and took me on his knee, and I said “But, papa, what will you do if Boney comes?” “What will I do?” said he, cheerfully, “Why, I will ask him to take a glass of Port with me,”—helping himself to a glass as he spoke. That wise reply was of immense service to me. From the moment I knew that “Boney” was a creature who could take a glass of wine, I dreaded him no more. Such was my induction into the department of foreign affairs. As to social matters,—my passion for justice was cruelly crossed, from the earliest time I can remember, by the imposition of passive obedience and silence on servants and tradespeople, who met with a rather old‐fashioned treatment in our house. We children were enough in the kitchen to know how the maids avenged themselves for scoldings in the parlor, before the family and visitors, to which they must not reply; and for being forbidden to wear white gowns, silk gowns, or any thing but what strict housewives approved. One of my chief miseries was being sent with insulting messages to the maids,—e.g., to “bid them not be so like carthorses overhead,” and the like. On the one hand, it was a fearful sin to alter a message; and, on the other, it was impossible to give such an one as that: so I used to linger and delay to the last moment, and then deliver something civil, with all imaginable sheepishness, so that the maids used to look at one another page: 19 and laugh. Yet, one of my most heartfelt sins was towards a servant who was really a friend of my mother’s and infinitely respected, and a good deal loved, by us children,—Susan Ormsby, who came to live with us just before James was born, and staid till that memorable Newcastle journey, above four years afterwards. When she was waiting at dinner one day, I stuck my knife upright, in listening to something, so that the point cut her arm. I saw her afterwards washing it at the pump; and she shook her head at me in tender reproach. My heart was bursting; but I dared not tell her how sorry I was. I never got over it, or was happy with her again; and when we were to part, the night before our journey, and she was kissing us with tears, it was in dumb grief and indignation that I heard her tell my mother that children do not feel things as grown people do, and that they could not think of any thing else when they were going a journey.

One more fact takes its place before that journey,—the awakening of a love of money in me. I suspect I have had a very narrow escape of being an eminent miser. A little more, or a little less difficulty, or another mode of getting money would easily have made me a miser. The first step, as far as I remember, was when we played cards, one winter evening, at our uncle Martineau’s, when I was told that I had won twopence. The pavement hardly seemed solid when we walked home,—so elated was I. I remember equal delight when Mrs. Meadows Taylor gave us children twopence when we expected only a halfpenny, to buy string for a top: but in this last case it was not the true amor nummi, as in the other. The same avarice was excited in the same way, a few years later, when I won eighteen‐pence at cards on a visit. The very sight of silver and copper was transporting to me, without any thought of its use. I stood and looked long at money, as it lay in my hand. Yet I do not remember that this passion ever interfered with my giving away money, though it certainly did with my spending it otherwise. I certainly wa very close, all my childhood and youth. I may as well mention here that I made rules and kept them, in regard to my expenditure, from the time I had an allowance. I believe we gave away page: 20 something out of our first allowance of a penny a week. When we had twopence, I gave away half. The next advance was to half‐a‐guinea a quarter, to buy gloves and sashes: then to ten pounds a year (with help) for clothes; then fifteen, and finally twenty, without avowed help. I sewed indefatigably all those years,—being in truth excessively fond of sewing, with the amusement of either gossiping, or learning poetry by heart, from a book, lying open under my work. I never had the slightest difficulty in learning any amount of verse; and I knew enough to have furnished me for a wandering reciter,—if there had been such a calling in our time,—as I used to wish there was. While thus busy, I made literally all my clothes, as I grew up, except stays and shoes. I platted bonnets at one time, knitted stockings as I read aloud, covered silk shoes for dances, and made all my garments. Thus I squeezed something out of the smaller allowance, and out of the fifteen pounds, I never spent more than twelve in dress; and never more than fifteen pounds out of the twenty. The rest I gave away, except a little which I spent in books. The amount of time spent in sewing now appears frightful; but it was the way in those days, among people like ourselves. There was some saving in our practice of reading aloud, and in mine of learning poetry in such mass: but the censorious gossip which was the bane of our youth drove prose and verse out of the field, and wasted more of our precious youthful powers and dispositions than any repentance and amendment in after life could repair. This sort of occupation, the sewing however, was less unfitting than might now appear, considering that the fortunes of manufacturers, like my father, were placed in jeopardy by the war, and that there was barely a chance for my father ever being able to provide fortunes for his daughters. He and my mother exercised every kind of self‐denial to bring us up qualified to take care of ourselves. They pinched themselves in luxuries to provide their girls, as well as their boys, with masters and schooling; and they brought us up to an industry like their own;—the boys in study and business, and the girls in study and household cares. Thus was I saved from being a literary lady who could not sew; and when, in page: 21 after years, I have been insulted by admiration at not being helpless in regard to household employments, I have been wont to explain, for my mother’s sake, that I could make shirts and puddings, and iron and mend, and get my bread by my needle, if necessary,—(as it once was necessary, for a few months), before I won a better place and occupation with my pen.