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Title: Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 3 of 3) - Essay 6: Harriet Martineau
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 3 of 3) - Essay 6: Harriet Martineau" ***

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    Introductory                                     175

    Early days                                       178

    Literary ordeal                                  180

    Success of the Tales on Political Economy        181

    Her feeling, not literary, but truly social      182

    London Society (1832)                            184

    Character of her judgments on Men                187

    The Whigs                                        188

    Carlyle's influence                              189

    Interest in American slavery                     192

    Her first novel                                  194

    The Atkinson Letters                             196

    Her new religious opinions                       197

    Eastern travels                                  199

    Retirement to the Lakes                          200

    Her manner of life                               202

    Translation of Comte                             204

    Her right estimate of literary work              205

    Her Biographic Sketches                          208

    Characteristics                                  210


In 1850 Charlotte Brontë paid a visit to Harriet Martineau at Ambleside,
and she wrote to her friends various emphatic accounts of her hostess.
'Without adopting her theories,' Miss Brontë said, 'I yet find a worth
and greatness in herself, and a consistency, benevolence, perseverance
in her practice, such as wins the sincerest esteem and affection. She is
not a person to be judged by her writings alone, but rather by her own
deeds and life, than which nothing can be more exemplary or noble.'

The division which Miss Brontë thus makes between opinions and
character, and again between literary production and character, is at
the root of any just criticism of the two volumes of autobiography which
have just been given to the public. Of the third volume, _The
Memorials_, by Mrs. Chapman, it is impossible to say anything serious.
Mrs. Chapman fought an admirable fight in the dark times of American
history for the abolition of slavery, but unhappily she is without
literary gifts; and this third volume is one more illustration of the
folly of entrusting the composition of biography to persons who have
only the wholly irrelevant claim of intimate friendship, or kinship, or
sympathy in public causes. The qualification for a biographer is not in
the least that he is a virtuous person, or a second cousin, or a dear
friend, or a trusty colleague; but that he knows how to write a book,
has tact, style, taste, considerateness, sense of proportion, and a good
eye for the beginnings and ends of things. The third volume, then, tells
us little about the person to whom they relate. The two volumes of
autobiography tell all that we can seek to know, and the reader who
judges them in an equitable spirit will be ready to allow that, when all
is said that can be said of her hardness, arbitrariness, and insularity,
Harriet Martineau is still a singular and worthy figure among the
conspicuous personages of a generation that has now almost vanished.
Some will wonder how it was that her literary performances acquired so
little of permanent value. Others will be pained by the distinct
repudiation of all theology, avowed by her with a simple and courageous
directness that can scarcely be counted other than honourable to her.
But everybody will admit, as Charlotte Brontë did, that though her books
are not of the first nor of the second rank, and though her
anti-theological opinions are to many so repugnant, yet behind books and
opinions was a remarkable personality, a sure eye for social realities,
a moral courage that never flinched; a strong judgment within its
limits; a vigorous self-reliance both in opinion and act, which yet did
not prevent a habit of the most neutral self-judgment; the commonplace
virtues of industry and energy devoted to aims too elevated, and too
large and generous, to be commonplace; a splendid sincerity, a
magnificent love of truth. And that all these fine qualities, which
would mostly be described as manly, should exist not in a man but a
woman, and in a woman who discharged admirably such feminine duties as
fell to her, fills up the measure of our interest in such a character.

                   *       *       *       *       *

Harriet Martineau was born at Norwich in 1802, and she died, as we all
remember, in the course of the summer of 1876. Few people have lived so
long as three-quarters of a century, and undergone so little substantial
change of character, amid some very important changes of opinion. Her
family was Unitarian, and family life was in her case marked by some of
that stiffness, that severity, that chilly rigour, with which Unitarians
are sometimes taxed by religionists of a more ecstatic doctrine. Her
childhood was very unhappy; the household seems to have been unamiable,
and she was treated with none of that tenderness and sympathy for which
firm and defiant natures are apt to yearn as strongly as others that get
the credit of greater sensibility. With that singular impulse to suicide
which is frequent among children, though rarer with girls than boys, she
went one day into the kitchen for the carving-knife, that she might cut
her throat; luckily the servants were at dinner, and the child
retreated. Deafness, which proved incurable, began to afflict her
before she was sixteen. A severe, harsh, and mournful kind of
religiosity seized her, and this 'abominable spiritual rigidity,' as she
calls it, confirmed all the gloomy predispositions of her mind. She
learned a good deal, mastering Latin, French, and Italian in good time;
and reading much in her own tongue, including constant attention to the
Bible, with all sorts of commentaries and explanations, such as those of
us who were brought up in a certain spiritual atmosphere have only too
good reasons never to forget. This expansion of intellectual interest,
however, did not make her less silent, less low in her spirits, less
full of vague and anxious presentiment. The reader is glad when these
ungracious years of youth are at an end, and the demands of active life
stirred Harriet Martineau's energies into vigorous work.

In 1822 her father died, and seven years later his widow and his
daughters lost at a single blow nearly all that they had in the world.
Before this event, which really proved to be a blessing in the disguise
of a catastrophe, Harriet Martineau had written a number of slight
pieces. They had been printed, and received a certain amount of
recognition. They were of a religious cast, as was natural in one with
whom religious literature, and religious life and observance, had
hitherto taken in the whole sphere of her continual experience.
_Traditions of Palestine_ and _Devotional Exercises_ are titles that
tell their own tale, and we may be sure that their authoress was still
at the antipodean point of the positive philosophy in which she ended
her speculative journey. She still clung undoubtingly to what she had
been brought up to believe when she won three prizes for essays intended
to present Unitarianism to the notice of Jews, of Catholics, and of
Mahometans. Her success in these and similar efforts turned her mind
more decidedly towards literature as a profession.

Miss Martineau is at some pains to assure us on several occasions that
it was the need of utterance now and always that drove her to write, and
that money, although welcome when it came, was never her motive. This
perhaps a little savours of affectation. Nobody would dream of
suspecting Miss Martineau of writing anything that she did not believe
to be true or useful merely for the sake of money. But there is plenty
of evidence that the prospect of payment stirred her to true and useful
work, as it does many other authors by profession, and as it does the
followers of all professions whatever. She puts the case fairly enough
in another place (i. 422):--'Every author is in a manner an adventurer;
and no one was ever more decidedly so than myself; but the difference
between one kind of adventurer and another is, I believe, simply
this--that the one has something to say which presses for utterance, and
is uttered at length without a view to future fortunes; while the other
has a sort of general inclination towards literature, without any
specific need of utterance, and a very definite desire for the honours
and rewards of the literary career.' Even in the latter case, however,
honest journeyman's work enough is done in literature by men and women
who seek nothing higher than a reputable source of income. Miss
Martineau did, no doubt, seek objects far higher and more generous than
income, but she lived on the income which literature brought to her; and
there seems a certain failure of her usually admirable common sense in
making any ado about so simple a matter. When doctors and counsel refuse
their guineas, and the parson declines a stipend, it will be quite soon
enough for the author to be especially anxious to show that he has a
right to regard money much as the rest of the human race regard it.

Miss Martineau underwent the harsh ordeal which awaits most literary
aspirants. She had a scheme in her head for a long series of short tales
to illustrate some of the propositions of political economy. She trudged
about London day after day, through mud and fog, with weary limbs and
anxious heart, as many an author has done before and since. The times
were bad; cholera was abroad; people were full of apprehension and
concern about the Reform Bill; and the publishers looked coldly on a
doubtful venture. Miss Martineau talks none of the conventional nonsense
about the cruelty and stupidity of publishers. What she says is this: 'I
have always been anxious to extend to young or struggling authors the
sort of aid which would have been so precious to me in that winter of
1829-1830, and I know that, in above twenty years, I have never
succeeded but once.' One of the most distinguished editors in London,
who had charge of a periodical for many years, told us what comes to the
same thing, namely, that in no single case during all these years did a
volunteer contributor of real quality, or with any promise of eminence,
present himself or herself. So many hundreds think themselves called so
few are chosen. In Miss Martineau's case, however, the trade made a
mistake. When at length she found some one to go halves with her in the
enterprise, on terms extremely disadvantageous to herself, the first of
her tales was published (1832), and instantly had a prodigious success.
The sale ran up to more than ten thousand of each monthly volume. In
that singular autobiographical sketch of herself which Miss Martineau
prepared for a London paper, to be printed as her obituary notice, she
pronounced a judgment upon this work which more disinterested, though
not more impartial, critics will confirm. Her own unalterable view, she
says, of what the work could and could not effect, 'prevented her from
expecting too much from it, either in regard to its social operations or
its influence on her own fame. The original idea of exhibiting the great
natural laws of society by a series of pictures of selected social
action was a fortunate one; and her tales initiated a multitude of minds
into the conception of what political economy is, and how it concerns
everybody living in society. Beyond this there is no merit of a high
order in the work. It popularised in a fresh form some doctrines and
many truths long before made public by others.' James Mill, one of the
acutest economists of the day, and one of the most vigorous and original
characters of that or any other day, had foretold failure; but when the
time came, he very handsomely admitted that his prophecy had been rash.
In after years, when Miss Martineau had acquired from Comte a conception
of the growth and movement of societies as a whole, with their economic
conditions controlled and constantly modified by a multitude of other
conditions of various kinds, she rated the science of her earlier days
very low. Even in those days, however, she says: 'I believe I should not
have been greatly surprised or displeased to have perceived, even then,
that the pretended science is no science at all, strictly speaking; and
that so many of its parts must undergo essential change, that it may be
a question whether future generations will owe much more to it than the
benefit (inestimable, to be sure) of establishing the grand truth that
social affairs proceed according to general laws, no less than natural
phenomena of every kind' (_Autob._ ii. 245).

Harriet Martineau was not of the class of writers, most of them terribly
unprofitable, who merely say literary things about social organisation,
its institutions, and their improvement. Her feeling about society was
less literary than scientific: it was not sentimental, but the
business-like quality of a good administrator. She was moved less by
pity or by any sense of the pathos and the hardness of the world, than
by a sensible and energetic interest in good government and in the
rational and convenient ordering of things. Her tales to illustrate the
truths of political economy are what might be expected from a writer of
this character. They are far from being wanting--many of them--in the
genuine interest of good story-telling. They are rapid, definite, and
without a trace of either slovenliness or fatigue. We are amazed as we
think of the speed and prompt regularity with which they were produced;
and the fertile ingenuity with which the pill of political economy is
wrapped up in the confectionery of a tale, may stand as a marvel of true
cleverness and inventive dexterity. Of course, of imagination or
invention in a high sense there is not a trace. Such a quality was not
in the gifts of the writer, nor could it in any case have worked within
such limitations as those set by the matter and the object of the

Literary success was followed in the usual order by social temptation.
Miss Martineau removed from Norwich to London, and she had good reasons
for making the change. Her work dealt with matters of a political kind,
and she could only secure a real knowledge of what was best worth saying
by intercourse with those who had a better point of view for a survey of
the social state of England than could be found in a provincial town
like Norwich. So far as evening parties went, Miss Martineau soon
perceived how little 'essential difference there is between the extreme
case of a cathedral city and that of literary London, or any other
place, where dissipation takes the turn of book-talk instead of dancing
or masquerading.' She went out to dinner every night except Sundays, and
saw all the most interesting people of the London of five-and-forty
years ago. While she was free from presumptuousness in her judgments,
she was just as free from a foolish willingness to take the reputations
of her hour on trust. Her attitude was friendly and sensible, but it was
at the same time critical and independent; and that is what every frank,
upright, and sterling character naturally becomes in face of an
unfamiliar society. Harriet Martineau was too keen-sighted, too aware of
the folly and incompetent pretension of half the world, too consciously
self-respecting and proud, to take society and its ways with any
diffidence or ingenuous simplicity. On the importance of the small
_littérateur_ who unreasonably thinks himself a great one, on the airs
and graces of the gushing blue-stockings who were in vogue in that day,
on the detestable vulgarity of literary lionising, she had no mercy. She
recounts with caustic relish the story about a certain pedantical lady,
of whom Tierney had said that there was not another head in England that
could encounter hers on the subject of Cause and Effect. The story was
that when in a country house one fine day she took her seat in a window,
saying in a business-like manner (to David Ricardo): 'Come now, let us
have a little discussion about Space.' We remember a story about a
certain Mademoiselle de Launay, afterwards well known to the Paris of
the eighteenth century, being introduced at Versailles by a silly great
lady who had an infatuation for her. 'This,' the great lady kept saying,
'is the young person whom I have told you about, who is so wonderfully
intelligent, who knows so much. Come, Mademoiselle, pray talk. Now,
Madame, you will see how she talks. Well, first of all, now talk a
little about religion; then you can tell us about something else.'

We cannot wonder that Miss Martineau did not go a second time to the
house where Space might be the unprovoked theme of a casual chat.
Pretension in every shape she hated most heartily. Her judgments in most
cases were thoroughly just--at this period of her life at any rate--and
sometimes even unexpectedly kindly; and the reason is that she looked at
society through the medium of a strong and penetrating kind of common
sense, which is more often the gift of clever women than of clever men.
If she is masculine, she is, like Mrs. Colonel Poyntz, in one of
Bulwer's novels, 'masculine in a womanly way.' There is a real spirit of
ethical divination in some of her criticism of character. Take the
distinguished man whose name we have just written. 'There was Bulwer on
a sofa,' she says, 'sparkling and languishing among a set of female
votaries--he and they dizened out, perfumed, and presenting the nearest
picture to a seraglio to be seen on British ground--only the
indifference or hauteur of the lord of the harem being absent.' Yet this
disagreeable sight does not prevent her from feeling a cordial interest
in him, amidst any amount of vexation and pity for his weakness. 'He
seems to be a woman of genius inclosed by misadventure in a man's form.
He has insight, experience, sympathy, letters, power and grace of
expression, and an irrepressible impulse to utterance, and industry
which should have produced works of the noblest quality; and these have
been intercepted by mischiefs which may be called misfortune rather than
fault. His friendly temper, his generous heart, his excellent
conversation (at his best), and his simple manners (when he forgot
himself), have many a time 'left me mourning' that such a being should
allow himself to sport with perdition.' Those who knew most about Bulwer,
and who were most repelled by his terrible faults, will feel in this
page of Miss Martineau's the breath of social equity in which charity is
not allowed to blur judgment, nor moral disapproval to narrow, starve,
and discolour vision into lost possibilities of character. And we may
note in passing how even here, in the mere story of the men and women
whom she met in London drawing-rooms, Harriet Martineau does not lose
herself in gossip about individuals looked at merely in their individual
relations. It is not merely the 'blighting of promise nor the forfeiture
of a career' that she deplores in the case of a Bulwer or a Brougham; it
is 'the intercepting of national blessings.' If this view of natural
gifts as a source of blessing to society, and not merely of power or
fame to their privileged possessor, were more common than it is, the
impression which such a thought is calculated to make would be the
highest available protection against those blighted promises and
forfeited careers, of which Brougham and Bulwer were only two out of a
too vast host of examples.

It is the very fulness with which she is possessed by this large way of
conceiving a life in its manifold relations to the service of the world,
that is the secret of Harriet Martineau's firm, clear, calm, and almost
neutral way of judging both her own work and character and those of
others. By calm we do not mean that she was incapable of strong and
direct censure. Many of her judgments, both here and in her _Biographic
Sketches_, are stern; and some--like that on Macaulay, for instance--may
even pass for harsh. But they are never the product of mere anger or
heatedness, and it is a great blunder to suppose that reasoned severity
is incompatible with perfect composure, or that calm is another name for
amiable vapidity.

                        Thöricht ist's
    In allen Stücken billig sein; es heisst
    Sein eigen Selbst zerstören.

Her condemnation of the Whigs, for example, is as stringent and
outspoken as condemnation can be; yet it is a deliberate and reasoned
judgment, not a mere bitterness or prejudice. The Whigs were at that
moment, between 1832 and 1834, at the height of their authority,
political, literary, and social. After a generation of misgovernment
they had been borne to power on the tide of national enthusiasm for
parliamentary reform, and for all those improvements in our national
life to which parliamentary reform was no more than the first step. The
harshness and darkness of the past generation were the measure of the
hopes of the new time. These hopes, which were at least as strong in
Harriet Martineau as in anybody then living, the Whigs were soon felt to
have cheated. She cannot forgive them. Speaking of John and Edward
Romilly, 'they had virtuous projects,' she says, 'and had every hope of
achieving service worthy of their father's fame; but their aspirations
were speedily tamed down--as all high aspirations _are_ lowered by Whig
influences.' A certain peer is described as 'agreeable enough in society
to those who are not very particular in regard to sincerity; and was, as
Chancellor of the Exchequer or anything else, as good a representative
as could be found of the flippancy, conceit, and official helplessness
and ignorance of the Whig administration.' Charles Knight started a new
periodical for the people under the patronage of the official Whigs.
'But the poverty and perverseness of their ideas, and the insolence of
their feelings, were precisely what might be expected by all who really
knew that remarkably vulgar class of men. They purposed to lecture the
working classes, who were by far the wiser party of the two, in a
jejune, coaxing, dull, religious-tract sort of tone, and criticised and
deprecated everything like vigour, and a manly and genial tone of
address in the new publication, while trying to push in as contributors
effete and exhausted writers and friends of their own, who knew about
as much of the working classes of England as of those of Turkey.' This
energetic description, which belongs to the year 1848, gives us an
interesting measure of the distance that has been traversed during the
last thirty years. The workmen have acquired direct political power;
they have organised themselves into effective groups for industrial
purposes; they have produced leaders of ability and sound judgment; and
the Whig who seeks their support must stoop or rise to talk a Radicalism
that would have amply satisfied even Harriet Martineau herself.

The source of this improvement in the society to which she bade
farewell, over that into which she had been born, is set down by Miss
Martineau to the most remarkable literary genius with whom, during her
residence in London, she was brought into contact. 'What Wordsworth did
for poetry,' she says, 'in bringing us out of a conventional idea and
method to a true and simple one, Carlyle has done for morality. He may
be himself the most curious opposition to himself--he may be the
greatest mannerist of his age while denouncing conventionalism--the
greatest talker while eulogising silence--the most woful complainer
while glorifying fortitude--the most uncertain and stormy in mood, while
holding forth serenity as the greatest good within the reach of man; but
he has nevertheless infused into the mind of the English nation a
sincerity, earnestness, healthfulness, and courage which can be
appreciated only by those who are old enough to tell what was our
morbid state when Byron was the representative of our temper, the
Clapham church of our religion, and the rotten-borough system of our
political morality.' We have no quarrel with this account of the
greatest man of letters of our generation. But Carlyle has only been one
influence among others. It is a far cry indeed from _Sartor Resartus_ to
the _Tracts for the Times_, yet they were both of them protests against
the same thing, both of them attempted answers to the same problem, and
the _Tracts_ perhaps did more than _Sartor_ to quicken spiritual life,
to shatter 'the Clapham church,' and to substitute a mystic faith and
not unlovely hope for the frigid, hard, and mechanical lines of official
orthodoxy on the one hand, and the egotism and sentimental despair of
Byronism on the other. There is a third school, too, and Harriet
Martineau herself was no insignificant member of it, to which both the
temper and the political morality of our time have owed a deep debt; the
school of those utilitarian political thinkers who gave light rather
than heat, and yet by the intellectual force with which they insisted on
the right direction of social reform, also stirred the very impulse
which made men desire social reform. The most illustrious of this body
was undoubtedly John Mill; because to accurate political science he
added a fervid and vibrating social sympathy, and a power of quickening
it in the best minds of a scientific turn. It is odd, by the way, that
Miss Martineau, while so lavish in deserved panegyric on Carlyle,
should be so grudging and disparaging in the case of Mill, with whom her
intellectual affinities must have been closer than with any other of her
contemporaries. The translator of Comte's _Positive Philosophy_ had
better reasons than most people for thinking well of the services of the
author of the _System of Logic_: it was certainly the latter book which
did more than any other to prepare the minds of the English philosophic
public for the former.

It is creditable to Miss Martineau's breadth of sympathy that she should
have left on record the tribute of her admiration for Carlyle, for
nobody has written so harshly as Carlyle on the subject which interested
Harriet Martineau more passionately than any other events of her time.
In 1834 she had finished her series of illustrations of political
economy; her domestic life was fretted by the unreasonable exigences of
her mother; London society had perhaps begun to weary her, and she felt
the need of a change of scene. The United States, with the old European
institutions placed amid new conditions, were then as now a natural
object of interest to everybody with a keen feeling for social
improvement. So to the Western Republic Miss Martineau turned her face.
She had not been long in the States before she began to feel that the
Abolitionists, at that moment a despised and persecuted handful of men
and women, were the truly moral and regenerating party in the country.
Harriet Martineau no sooner felt this conviction driving out her former
prejudice against them as fanatical and impracticable, than she at once
bore public testimony, at serious risk of every kind to herself, in
favour of the extreme Anti-Slavery agitators. And for thirty years she
never slackened her sympathy nor her energetic action on English public
opinion, in this most vital matter of her time. She was guided not
merely by humanitarian disgust at the cruel and brutal abominations of
slavery,--though we know no reason why this alone should not be a
sufficient ground for turning Abolitionist,--but also on the more purely
political ground of the cowardice, silence, corruption, and hypocrisy
that were engendered in the Free States by purchased connivance at the
peculiar institution of the Slave States. Nobody has yet traced out the
full effect upon the national character of the Americans of all those
years of conscious complicity in slavery, after the moral iniquity of
slavery had become clear to the inner conscience of the very men who
ignobly sanctioned the mobbing of Abolitionists.

In the summer of 1836 Miss Martineau returned to England, having added
this great question to the stock of her foremost objects of interest and
concern. Such additions, whether literary or social, are the best kind
of refreshment that travel supplies. She published two books on America:
one of them abstract and quasi-scientific, _Society in America_; the
other, _A Retrospect of Western Travel_, of a lighter and more purely
descriptive quality. Their success with the public was moderate, and in
after years she condemned them in very plain language, the first of them
especially as 'full of affectations and preachments.' Their only
service, and it was not inconsiderable, was the information which they
circulated as to the condition of slavery and of the country under it.
We do not suppose that they are worth reading at the present day, except
from a historical point of view. But they are really good specimens of a
kind of literature which is not abundant, and yet which is of the utmost
value--we mean the record of the sociological observation of a country
by a competent traveller, who stays long enough in the country, has
access to the right persons of all kinds, and will take pains enough to
mature his judgments. It was a happy idea of O'Connell's to suggest that
she should go over to Ireland, and write such an account of that country
as she had written of the United States. And we wish at this very hour
that some one as competent as Miss Martineau would do what O'Connell
wished her to do. A similar request came to her from Milan: why should
she not visit Lombardy, and then tell Europe the true tale of Austrian

But after her American journey Miss Martineau felt a very easily
intelligible desire to change the literary field. For many years she had
been writing almost entirely about fact: and the constraint of the
effort to be always correct, and to bear without solicitude the
questioning of her correctness, had become burdensome. She felt the
danger of losing nerve and becoming morbidly fearful of criticism on
the one hand, and of growing narrow and mechanical about accuracy on the
other. 'I longed inexpressibly,' she says, 'for the liberty of fiction,
while occasionally doubting whether I had the power to use that freedom
as I could have done ten years before.' The product of this new mental
phase was _Deerbrook_, which was published in the spring of 1839.
_Deerbrook_ is a story of an English country village, its petty feuds,
its gentilities, its chances and changes of fortune. The influence of
Jane Austen's stories is seen in every chapter; but Harriet Martineau
had none of the easy flow, the pleasant humour, the light-handed irony
of her model, any more than she had the energetic and sustained
imaginative power of Charlotte or Emily Brontë. There is playfulness
enough in _Deerbrook_, but it is too deliberate to remind us of the
crooning involuntary playfulness of _Pride and Prejudice_ or _Sense and
Sensibility_. _Deerbrook_ is not in the least a story with a moral; it
is truly and purely a piece of art; yet we are conscious of the serious
spirit of the social reformer as haunting the background, and only
surrendering the scene for reasons of its own. On the other hand, there
is in _Deerbrook_ a gravity of moral reflection that Jane Austen,
whether wisely or unwisely, seldom or never attempts. In this respect
_Deerbrook_ is the distant forerunner of some of George Eliot's most
characteristic work. Distant, because George Eliot's moralising is
constantly suffused by the broad light of a highly poetic imagination,
and this was in no degree among Miss Martineau's gifts. Still there is
something above the flat touch of the common didactic in such a page as
that in which (chapter xix.) she describes the case of 'the
unamiable--the only order of evil ones who suffer hell without seeing
and knowing that it is hell: nay, they are under a heavier curse than
even this, they inflict torments second only to their own, with an
unconsciousness worthy of spirits of light.' However, when all is said,
we may agree that this is one of the books that give a rational person
pleasure once, but which we hardly look forward to reading again.

Shortly after the publication of her first novel, Miss Martineau was
seized by a serious internal malady, from which recovery seemed
hopeless. According to her usual practice of taking her life
deliberately in her hands, and settling its conditions for herself,
instead of letting things drift as they might, she insisted on declining
the hospitable shelter pressed upon her by a near relative, on the
excellent ground that it is wrong for an invalid to impose restraints
upon a healthy household. She proceeded to establish herself in lodgings
at Tynemouth, on the coast of Northumberland. Here she lay on a couch
for nearly five years, seeing as few persons as might be, and working at
such literary matters as came into her head with steadfast industry and
fortitude. The ordeal was hard, but the little book that came of it,
_Life in a Sickroom_, remains to show the moods in which the ordeal was

At length Miss Martineau was induced to try mesmerism as a possible cure
for her disease, and what is certain is, that after trying mesmeric
treatment, the invalid whom the doctors had declared incurable shortly
recovered as perfect health as she had ever known. A virulent
controversy arose upon the case, for, by some curious law, physicians
are apt to import into professional disputes a heat and bitterness at
least as marked as that of their old enemies, the theologians. It was
said that Miss Martineau had begun to improve before she was mesmerised,
and what was still more to the point, that she had been taking heavy
doses of iodine. 'It is beyond all question or dispute,' as Voltaire
said, 'that magic words and ceremonies are quite capable of most
effectually destroying a whole flock of sheep, if the words be
accompanied by a sufficient quantity of arsenic.'

Mesmerism was indirectly the means of bringing Miss Martineau into an
intimate acquaintance with a gentleman, who soon began to exert a
decisive influence upon the most important of her opinions. Mr. Atkinson
is still alive, and we need not say much about him. He seems to have
been a grave and sincere person, using his mind with courageous
independence upon the great speculative problems which were not in 1844,
as they are in 1877, the common topics of every-day intercourse among
educated people. This is not the place for an examination of the
philosophy in which Miss Martineau was finally landed by Mr. Atkinson's
influence. That philosophy was given to the world in 1851, in a volume
called _Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development_. The
greater part of it was written by Mr. Atkinson in reply to short
letters, in which Miss Martineau stated objections and propounded
questions. The book points in the direction of that explanation of the
facts of the universe which is now so familiar under the name of
Evolution. But it points in this way only, as the once famous _Vestiges
of Creation_ pointed towards the scientific hypotheses of Darwin and
Wallace; or as Buckle's crude and superficial notions about the history
of civilisation pointed towards a true and complete conception of
sociology. That is to say, the Atkinson Letters state some of the
difficulties in the way of the explanations of life and motion hitherto
received as satisfactory; they insist upon approaching the facts
exclusively by the positive, Baconian, or inductive method; and then
they hurry to an explanation of their own, which may be as plausible as
that which they intend it to replace, but which they leave equally
without ordered proof and strict verification.

The only point to which we are called upon to refer is that this way of
thinking about man and the rest of nature led to repudiation by Miss
Martineau of the whole structure of dogmatic theology. For one thing,
she ceased to hold the conception of a God with any human attributes
whatever; also of any principle or practice of Design; 'of an
administration of life according to human wishes, or of the affairs of
the world by the principles of human morals.' All these became to her
as mere visions; beliefs necessary in their day, but not philosophically
nor permanently true. Miss Martineau was not an Atheist in the
philosophic sense; she never denied a First Cause, but only that this
Cause is within the sphere of human attributes, or can be defined in
their terms.

Then, for another thing, she ceased to believe in the probability of
there being a continuance of conscious individual life after the
dissolution of the body. With this, of course, fell all expectation of a
state of personal rewards and punishments. 'The real and justifiable and
honourable subject of interest,' she said, 'to human beings, living and
dying, is the welfare of their fellows surrounding them or surviving
them.' About that she cared supremely, and about nothing else did she
bring herself to care at all. It is painful to many people even to hear
of a person holding such beliefs as these. Yet it would plainly be the
worst kind of spiritual valetudinarianism to insist on the omission from
even the shortest account of this remarkable woman, of what became the
very basis and foundation of her life for those thirty years of it,
which she herself always counted the happiest part of the whole.

Although it was Mr. Atkinson who finally provided her with a positive
substitute for her older beliefs, yet a journey which Miss Martineau
made in the East shortly after her restoration to health (1846) had done
much to build up in her mind a historic conception of the origin and
order of the great faiths of mankind--the Christian, the Hebrew, the
Mahometan, the old Egyptian. We need not say more on this subject. The
work in which she published the experiences of the journey which was
always so memorable to her, deserves a word. There are few more
delightful books of travel than _Eastern Life, Past and Present_. The
descriptions are admirably graphic, and they have the attraction of
making their effect by a few direct strokes, without any of the wordy
elaboration of our modern picturesque. The writer shows a true feeling
for nature, and she shows a vigorous sense, which is not merely pretty
sentiment, like Chateaubriand's, for the vast historic associations of
those old lands and dim cradles of the race. All is sterling and real;
we are aware that the elevated reflection and the meditative stroke are
not due to mere composition, but did actually pass through her mind as
the suggestive wonders passed before her eyes. And hence there is no jar
as we find a little homily on the advantage of being able to iron your
own linen on a Nile boat, followed by a lofty page on the mighty pair of
solemn figures that gaze as from eternity on time amid the sand at
Thebes. The whole, one may say again, is sterling and real, both the
elevation and the homeliness. The student of the history of opinion may
find some interest in comparing Miss Martineau's work with the famous
book, _Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires_, in which
Volney, between fifty and sixty years before, had drawn equally
dissolvent conclusions with her own from the same panorama of the dead
ages. Perhaps Miss Martineau's history is not much better than Volney's,
but her brisk sense is preferable to Volney's high _à priori_
declamation and artificial rhetoric.

Before starting for the East, Miss Martineau had settled a new plan of
life for herself, and built a little house where she thought she could
best carry her plan out. To this little house she returned, and it
became her cherished home for the long remainder of her days. London,
during the years of her first success, had not been without its usual
attractions to the new-comer, but she had always been alive to the
essential incompleteness, the dispersion, the want of steadfast
self-collection, in a life much passed in London society. And we may
believe that the five austere and lonely years at Tynemouth, with their
evening outlook over the busy waters of the harbour-bar into the stern
far-off sea, may have slowly bred in her an unwillingness to plunge
again into the bustling triviality, the gossip, the distracting
lightness of the world of splendid fireflies. To have discerned the Pale
Horse so near and for so long a space awakens new moods, and strangely
alters the old perspectives of our life. Yet it would imply a
misunderstanding of Harriet Martineau's character to suppose that she
turned her back upon London, and built her pretty hermitage at
Ambleside, in anything like the temper of Jean Jacques Rousseau. She was
far too positive a spirit for that, and far too full of vivid and
concentrated interest in men and their doings. It would be unjust to
think of Harriet Martineau as having no ear for the inner voices, yet
her whole nature was objective; it turned to practice and not to
reverie. She had her imaginative visions, as we know, and as all truly
superior minds have them, even though their main superiority happens to
be in the practical order. But her visions were limited as a landscape
set in a rigid frame; they had not the wings that soar and poise in the
vague unbounded empyrean. And she was much too sensible to think that
these moods were strong, or constant, or absorbing enough in her case to
furnish material and companionship for a life from day to day and year
to year. Nor again was it for the sake of undisturbed acquisition of
knowledge, nor cultivation of her finer faculties that she sought a
hermitage. She was not moved by thought of the famous maxim which Goethe
puts into the mouth of Leonore--

    Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,
    Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt.

Though an intense egotist, in the good and respectable sense of
insisting on her own way of doing things, of settling for herself what
it was that she was living for, and of treading the path with a firm and
self-reliant step, yet Harriet Martineau was as little of an egotist as
ever lived, in the poor and stifling sense of thinking of the perfecting
of her own culture as in the least degree worthy of ranking among
Ends-in-themselves. She settled in the Lake district, because she
thought that there she would be most favourably placed for satisfying
the various conditions which she had fixed as necessary to her scheme of
life. 'My own idea of an innocent and happy life,' she says, '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

'It is the wisest step in her life,' Wordsworth said, when he heard that
she had bought a piece of land and built a pretty house upon it; and
then he added the strangely unpoetic reason--'because the value of the
property will be doubled in ten years.' Her poetic neighbour gave her a
characteristic piece of advice in the same prudential vein. He warned
her that she would find visitors a great expense. 'When you have a
visitor,' he said, 'you must do as we did; you must say: "If you like to
have a cup of tea with us, you are very welcome; but if you want any
meat, you must pay for your board."' Miss Martineau declined to carry
thrift to this ungracious extremity. She constantly had guests in her
house, and, if they were all like Charlotte Brontë, they enjoyed their
visits in spite of the arbitrary ways of their energetic hostess.

Her manner of life during these years is pleasant to contemplate;
cheerful, active, thoroughly wholesome. 'My habit,' she says, 'was to
rise at six and to take a walk, returning to my solitary breakfast at
half-past seven. My household orders were given for the day, and all
affairs settled out of doors and in by a quarter or half-past eight,
when I went to work, which I continued without interruption, except from
the post, till three o'clock or later, when alone. While my friend was
with me we dined at two, and that was of course the limit of my day's
work.' De Tocqueville, if we remember, never saw his guests until after
he had finished his morning's work, of which he had done six hours by
eleven o'clock. Schopenhauer was still more sensitive to the jar of
external interruption on that finely-tuned instrument, the brain, after
a night's repose, for it was as much as his housekeeper's place was
worth to allow either herself or any one else to appear to the
philosopher before midday. After the early dinner at Ambleside cottage
came little bits of neighbourly business, exercise, and so forth. 'It is
with singular alacrity that in winter evenings I light the lamp and
unroll my wool-work, and meditate or dream till the arrival of the
newspaper tells me that the tea has stood long enough. After tea, if
there was news from the seat of war, I called in my maids, who brought
down the great atlas and studied the chances of the campaign with me.
Then there was an hour or two for Montaigne, or Bacon, or Shakespeare,
or Tennyson, or some dear old biography.'

The only productions of this time worth mentioning are the _History of
the Thirty Years' Peace_ (1849) and the condensed version of Comte's
_Positive Philosophy_ (1853), both of them meritorious and useful pieces
of work, and both of them undertaken, as nearly all Miss Martineau's
work was, not from merely literary motives, but because she thought that
they would be meritorious and useful, and because nothing more useful
came into her head or under her hand at the moment. The condensation of
Comte is easy and rapid, and it is said by those who have looked very
closely into it to be hardly free from some too hasty renderings. It
must, however, on the whole, be pronounced a singularly intelligent and
able performance. The pace at which Comte was able to compose is a
standing marvel to all who have pondered the great and difficult art of
composition. It must be admitted that the author of the English version
of him was in this respect no unworthy match for her original. Miss
Martineau tells us that she despatched the last three volumes, which
number over 1800 pages, in some five months. She thought the rendering
of thirty pages of Comte a fair morning's work. If we consider the
abstract and difficult nature of the matter, this must be pronounced
something of a feat. We have not space to describe her method, but any
reader who happens to be interested in the mechanism of literary
productions will find the passage in vol. ii. p. 391. _The History of
the Thirty Years' Peace_ is no less astonishing an example of rapid
industry. From the first opening of the books to study for the history
to the depositing of the MS. of the first volume at press, was exactly
six months. The second volume took six months to do, with an interval of
some weeks of holiday and other work!

We think all this worth mentioning, because it is an illustration of
what is a highly important maxim; namely, that it is a great mistake to
expend more time and labour on a piece of composition than is enough to
make it serve the purpose in hand. The immeasurable moment and
far-reachingness of the very highest kinds of literature are apt to make
men who play at being students forget there are many other kinds of
literature which are not in the least immeasurably far-reaching, but
which, for all that, are extremely useful in their own day and
generation. Those highly fastidious and indolent people, who sometimes
live at Oxford and Cambridge, with whom, indeed, for the most part,
their high fastidiousness is only a fine name for impotence and lack of
will, forget that the less immortal kinds of literature are the only
kinds within their own reach. Literature is no doubt a fine art--the
finest of the arts--but it is also a practical art; and it is deplorable
to think how much stout, instructive work might and ought to be done by
people who, in dreaming of ideals in prose or verse beyond their
attainment, end, like the poor Casaubon of fiction, in a little pamphlet
on a particle, or else in mediocre poetry, or else in nothing. By
insisting on rearing nothing short of a great monument more durable than
brass, they are cutting themselves off from building the useful little
mud-hut, or some of the other modest performances by which only they are
capable of serving their age. It is only one volume in a million that is
not meant to perish, and to perish soon, as flowers, sunbeams, and all
the other brightnesses of the earth are meant to perish. There are some
forms of composition in which perfection is not only good but
indispensable. But the most are designed for the purpose of a day, and
if they have the degree of elaboration, accuracy, grasp, and
faithfulness that suffice for the given purpose, then we may say that it
is enough. There is literature proper, for which only two or three men
and women in a generation have the true gift. This cannot be too good.
But besides this there is a mass of honest and needful work to be done
with the pen, to which literary form is only accidental, and in which
consummate literary finish or depth is a sheer work of supererogation.
If Miss Martineau had given twice as many years as she gave months to
the condensation of Comte, the book would not have been a whit more
useful in any possible respect--indeed, over-elaboration might easily
have made it much less so--and the world would have lost many other
excellent, if not dazzling or stupendous services.

'Her original power,' she wrote of herself in that manly and outspoken
obituary notice to which we have already referred, 'was nothing more
than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain
range. With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore
nothing approaching to genius, she could see clearly what she did see,
and give a clear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could
popularise, while she could neither discover nor invent.... She could
obtain and keep a firm grasp of her own views, and moreover she could
make them understood. The function of her life was to do this, and in as
far as it was done diligently and honestly, her life was of use.' All
this is precisely true, and her life was of great use; and that makes
what she says not only true, but an example worth much weighing by many
of those who meddle with literature.

Miss Martineau was never tired of trying to be useful in directing and
improving opinion. She did not disdain the poor neighbours at her gates.
She got them to establish a Building Society, she set them an example of
thrifty and profitable management by her little farm of two acres, and
she gave them interesting and cheerful courses of lectures in the winter
evenings. All this time her eye was vigilant for the great affairs of
the world. In 1852 she began to write leading articles for the _Daily
News_, and in this department her industry and her aptitude were such
that at times she wrote as many as six leading articles in a week. When
she died, it was computed that she had written sixteen hundred. They are
now all dead enough, as they were meant to die, but they made an
impression that is still alive in its consequences upon some of the most
important social, political, and economical matters of five-and-twenty
important years. In what was by far the greatest of all the issues of
those years, the Civil War in the United States, Harriet Martineau's
influence was of the most inestimable value in keeping public opinion
right against the strong tide of ignorant Southern sympathies in this
country. If she may seem to some to have been less right in her views of
the Crimean War, we must admit that the issues were very complex, and
that complete assurance on that struggle is not easy to everybody even
at this distance of time.

To this period belong the Biographic Sketches which she contributed to a
London newspaper. They have since been collected in a single volume, now
in its fourth edition. They are masterpieces in the style of the
vignette. Their conciseness, their clearness in fact, their definiteness
in judgment, and above all, the rightly graduated impression of the
writer's own personality in the background, make them perfect in their
kind. There is no fretting away of the portrait in over-multiplicity of
lines and strokes. Here more than anywhere else Miss Martineau shows the
true quality of the writer, the true mark of literature, the sense of
proportion, the modulated sentence, the compact and suggestive phrase.
There is a happy precision, a pithy brevity, a condensed
argumentativeness. And this literary skill is made more telling by the
writer's own evident interest and sincerity about the real lives and
characters of the various conspicuous people with whom she deals. It may
be said that she has no subtle insight into the complexities of human
nature, and that her philosophy of character is rather too little
analytical, too downright, too content with averages of motive, and too
external. This is so in a general way, but it does not spoil the charm
of these sketches, because the personages concerned, though all of them
conspicuous, were for the most part commonplace in motive, though more
than commonplace in strength of faculty. Subtle analysis is wholly
unreasonable in the case of Miss Martineau herself, and she would
probably have been unable to use that difficult instrument in
criticising characters less downright and objective than her own.

The moment of the Crimean War marked an alarming event in her own life.
The doctors warned her that she had a heart disease which would end her
days suddenly and soon. Miss Martineau at once set her affairs in order,
and sat down to write her Autobiography. She had the manuscript put into
type, and the sheets finally printed off, just as we now possess them.
But the hour was not yet. The doctors had exaggerated the peril, and the
strong woman lived for twenty years after she had been given up. She
used up the stuff of her life to the very end, and left no dreary
remnant nor morbid waste of days. She was like herself to the
last--English, practical, positive. Yet she had thoughts and visions
which were more than this. We like to think of this faithful woman and
veteran worker in good causes, in the stroll which she always took on
her terrace before retiring to rest for the night:--

'On my terrace there were two worlds extended bright before me, even
when the midnight darkness hid from my bodily eyes all but the outlines
of the solemn mountains that surround our valley on three sides, and the
clear opening to the lake on the south. In the one of those worlds I saw
now the magnificent coast of Massachusetts in autumn, or the flowery
swamps of Louisiana, or the forests of Georgia in spring, or the
Illinois prairie in summer; or the blue Nile, or the brown Sinai, or the
gorgeous Petra, or the view of Damascus from the Salahiey; or the Grand
Canal under a Venetian sunset, or the Black Forest in twilight, or Malta
in the glare of noon, or the broad desert stretching away under the
stars, or the Red Sea tossing its superb shells on shore in the pale
dawn. That is one world, all comprehended within my terrace wall, and
coming up into the light at my call. The other and finer scenery is of
that world, only beginning to be explored, of Science.... It is truly an
exquisite pleasure to dream, after the toil of study, on the sublime
abstractions of mathematics; the transcendent scenery unrolled by
astronomy; the mysterious, invisible forces dimly hinted to us by
physics; the new conception of the constitution of matter originated by
chemistry; and then, the inestimable glimpses opened to us, in regard to
the nature and destiny of man, by the researches into vegetable and
animal organisation, which are at length perceived to be the right path
of inquiry into the highest subjects of thought.... Wondrous beyond the
comprehension of any one mind is the mass of glorious facts and the
series of mighty conceptions laid open; but the shadow of the
surrounding darkness rests upon it all. The unknown always engrosses the
greater part of the field of vision, and the awe of infinity sanctifies
both the study and the dream.'

It would be a pity if difference of opinion upon subjects of profound
difficulty, remoteness, and manifold perplexity, were to prevent any one
from recognising in such words and such moods as these what was, in
spite of some infirmities, a character of many large thoughts and much
generous purpose. And with this feeling we may part from her.

                   *       *       *       *       *

  Transcriber's Note:
  The following changes have been made to the text.

  Sich ein Charakter im dem Strom der Welt.
  has been changed to:
  Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt.

  literature which are are not in the least immeasurably far-reaching, but
  has been changed to:
  literature which are not in the least immeasurably far-reaching, but

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