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Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
page: 22


BUT it is time to set out on the second period of my childhood,—beginning with that memorable Newcastle journey. That period was memorable, not only from the enlarging of a child’s ideas which ensues upon a first long journey, but because I date from it my becoming what is commonly called “a responsible being.” On my return home I began to take moral charge of myself. I had before, and from my earliest recollections, been subject to a haunting, wretched, useless remorse; but from the time of our return from Newcastle, bringing Ann Turner with us, I became practically religious with all my strength. Ann was, I think, fourteen when I was seven; and that she made herself my friend at all was a great thing for me; and it fell out all the more easily for her tendencies being exclusively religious, while I was only waiting for some influence to determine my life in that direction.

Travelling was no easy matter in those days. My mother, our dear, pretty, gentle aunt Margaret, sister Elizabeth, aged fifteen, Rachel, myself, and little James, aged four, and in nankeen frocks, were all crammed into a post‐chaise, for a journey of three or four days. Almost every incident of those days is still fresh: but I will report only one, which is curious from showing how little aware we children were of our own value. I really think, if I had once conceived that any body cared for me, nearly all the sins and sorrows of my anxious childhood would have been spared me; and I remember well that it was Ann Turner who first conveyed the cheering truth to me. She asked me why my mother sat sewing so diligently for us children, and sat up at night to mend my stockings, if she did not care for me; and I was convinced at once;—only too happy to believe it, and being unable to resist such evidence as the stocking‐mending page: 23 at night, when we children were asleep. Well: on our second day’s journey, we stopped at Burleigh House, and the three elders of the party went in, to see the picture gallery.—Children were excluded; so we three little ones were left to play among the haymakers on the lawn. After what seemed a long time, it suddenly struck us that the elders must have forgotten us, and gone on to Newcastle without us. I, for my part, was entirely persuaded that we should never be missed, or remembered more by any body; and we set up a terrible lamentation. A good‐natured haymaker, a sunburnt woman whose dialect we could not understand, took us in hand, and led us to the great door, where we were soon comforted by my mother’s appearance. I remember wondering why she and aunt Margaret laughed aside when they led us back to the chaise.

Of course it was difficult to amuse little children so cooped up for so long. There was a little quiet romping, I remember, and a great deal of story telling by dear aunty: but the finest device was setting us to guess what we should find standing in the middle of grandpapa’s garden. As it was something we had never seen or known about, there was no end to the guessing. When we arrived at the gates of the Forth, (my grandfather’s house) the old folks and their daughters came out to meet us, all tearful and agitated: and I, loathing myself for the selfishness, could not wait, but called out,—“I want to see what that thing is in the garden.” After an enlightening hint, and without any rebuke, our youngest aunt took me by the hand, and led me to face the mystery. I could make nothing of it when I saw it. It was a large, heavy, stone sundial. That dial is worth this much mention, for it was of immeasurable value to me. I could see its face only by raising myself on tiptoe on its step: and there, with my eyes on a level with the plate, did I watch and ponder, day by day, painfully forming my first clear conceptions of Time, amidst a bright confusion of notions of day and night, and of the seasons, and of the weather. I loved that dial with a sort of superstition; and when, nearly forty years after, I built a house for myself at Ambleside, my strong wish was to have this very dial for the platform below the terrace: but it was not page: 24 to be had. It had been once removed already,—when the railway cut through the old garden; and the stone mass was too heavy, and far too much fractured and crumbled for a second removal. So a dear friend set up for me a beautiful new dial; and I can only hope that it may possibly render as great a service to some child of a future generation as my grandfather’s did for me.

It seems to me now that I seldom asked questions in those days. I went on for years together in a puzzle, for want of its ever occurring to me to ask questions. For instance, no accounts of a spring‐gun answered to my conception of it;—that it was a pea‐green musket, used only in spring! This absurdity at length lay by unnoticed in my mind till I was twenty! Even so! At that age, I was staying at Birmingham; and we were returning from a country walk in the dusk of the evening, when my host warned us not to cross a little wood, for fear of spring‐guns; and he found and showed us the wire of one. I was truly confounded when the sense of the old mistake, dormant in my mind till now, came upon me. Thus it was with a piece of mystification imposed on me by my grandfather’s barber in 1809. One morning, while the shaving‐pot was heating, the barber took me on his knee, and pretended to tell me why he was late that morning. Had I ever heard of a failing star? Yes, I had. Well: a star had fallen in the night; and it fell in the Forth lane, which it completely blocked up, beside Mr. Somebody’s orchard. It was quite round, and of the beautifullest and clearest crystal. “Was it there still?” O yes,—or most of it: but some of the crystal was shivered off, and people were carrying it away when he arrived at the spot. He had to go round by Something Street; and it was that which made him late. “Would there be any left by the time we went for our walk?” He hoped there might. I got through my lessons in a fever of eagerness that morning, and engaged the nurse maid to take us through that lane. There was the orchard, with the appletree stretching over the wall: but not a single spike of the crystal was left. I thought it odd; but it never occurred to me to doubt the story, or to speak to any body about it, except the bar‐ page: 25 ber. barber I lay in wait for him the next morning; and very sorry he professed to be;—so sorry that he had not just picked up some crystals for me while there were so many; but no doubt I should come in the way of a fallen star myself, some day. We kept this up till October, when we bade him good bye: and my early notions of astronomy were cruelly bewildered by that man’s rhodomontade. I dare not say how many years it was before I got quite clear of it.

There is little that is pleasant to say of the rest of that absence from home. There was a naughty boy staying at my grandfather’s, who caused us to be insulted by imputations of stealing the green fruit, and to be shut out of the garden, where we had never dreamed of touching a gooseberry: and he led little James into mischief; and then canted and made his own part good. Our hearts swelled under the injuries he caused us. Then, we were injudiciously fed, and my nightmare miseries were intolerable. The best event was that my theological life began to take form. I had a prodigious awe of clergymen and ministers, and a strong yearning towards them for notice. No doubt there was much vanity in this; but it was also one investment of the religious sentiment, as I know by my being at times conscious of a remnant of the feeling now, while radically convinced that the intellectual and moral judgment of priests of all persuasions is inferior to that of any other order of men. The first of the order who took any direct notice of me was, as far as I know, good Mr. Turner of Newcastle, my mother’s pastor and friend before her marriage. At Newcastle, we usually went to tea at his house on Sunday evenings; and it was then that we began the excellent practice of writing recollections of one of the sermons of the day. When the minister preaches what children can understand, this practice is of the highest use in fixing their attention, and in disclosing to their parents the character and imperfections of their ideas on the most important class of subjects. On occasion of our first attempt,—Rachel’s and mine,—I felt very triumphant beforehand. I remembered the text; and it seemed to me that my head was full of thoughts from the sermon. I scrawled over the whole of a large slate, page: 26 and was not a little mortified when I found that all I had written came into seven or eight lines of my mother’s handwriting. I made sure that I had not been cheated, and then fell into discouragement at finding that my grand “sermon” came to nothing more. However, my attempt was approved; I was allowed to “sit up to supper,” and the Sunday practice was begun which continued till I grew too deaf to keep up my attention successfully. For some years of that long period, our success was small, because Mr. Madge’s, (our minister’s) sermons conveyed few clear ideas to children, though much sweet and solemn impression. Dr. Carpenter’s were the best I ever listened to for the purpose:—so good that I have known him carry a “recollection” written by a cousin of mine at the age of sixteen, to Mrs. Carpenter, as a curiosity,—not a single sentence of his sermon being altogether absent from the hearer’s version of it.—Another religious impression that we children brought from Newcastle is very charming to me still. Our gentle, delicate aunt Mary, whom I remember so well in her white gown, with her pink color, thin silky brown hair, and tender manner towards us, used to get us round her knees as she sat in the window‐seat at the Forth, where the westerly sun shone in, and teach us to sing Milton’s hymn “Let us with a gladsome mind.” It is the very hymn for children, set to its own simple tune; and I always, to this day, hear aunt Mary’s weak, earnest voice in it. That was the gentle hymn. The woe‐breathing one was the German Evening Hymn. The heroic one, which never failed to rouse my whole being was “Awake, my soul; stretch every nerve,” sung to Artaxerxes. In those days, we learned Mrs. Barbauld’s Prose Hymns by heart; and there were parts of them which I dearly loved: but other parts made me shiver with awe. I did not know what “shaking bogs” were, and was alarmed at that mysterious being “Child of Mortality.” On the whole, however, religion was a great comfort and pleasure to me; and I studied the New Testament very heartily and profitably, from the time that Ann Turner went south with us, and encouraged me to confession and morning and nightly prayer.