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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
indiiference 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


amotint of vexation and pity for his weakness. ' He
seems to be a woman of genius inclosed hy misadven-
ture in a man's form. He has insight, experience,
sympathy, letters, power and grace of expression, and
an irrepressible impulse to utterance, and industry
wliich 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 bless-
ings.' 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 wliich Brougham and Buhver 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 iirm, 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


Thoriclit ist's
In alien Stiicken billig sein ; es heisst
Sein eigen Selbst zerstoren.

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 Komilly, '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 publi-
cation, 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 durina;
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


arc old enougli to tell what was our morbid state
when Byrou was the representative of our temper,
the Clapham church of our religion, and the rotten-
borough system of our political morality.' Wc have
no quarrel with this account of the greatest man of
letters of our generation. But Carlylc 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 oi'thodoxy 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

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 con-


viction (hiving out her former prejudice against them
as fanatical and impracticable, than she at once bore
public testimon)'^, at serious risk of every kind to her-
self, in favour of the extreme Anti-Slavery agitators.
And for thirty years she never slackened her sym-
I)athy nor her energetic action on English public
opinion, in this most vital matter of her time. She
was guided not merely l)y 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 engen-
dered 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 con-
scious 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

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 pub-
lished two books on America : one of them abstract
and quasi-scientific. Society in America ; the other, A
Retrospect of JFestern Travel, of a lighter and more
purely descriptive quality. Their success with the


public was moderate, and in after years she con-
demned 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 con-
dition 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 litera-
ture 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 Avas 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 rule ?

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 soli-
citude 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 tlio other. 'I longed inexpres-
sibly,' she says, ' for the liberty of fiction, while occa-
sionally doubting whether I had the power to use that
freedom as I could have done ten years before.' The
})roduct of this new mental phase was Deerbroolc, which
was published in the spring of 1839. Deerhrook 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
Bronte. There is playfulness enough in Deerhrook,
but it is too deliberate to remind us of the crooning
involuntary playfulness of Pride and Prejudice or
Sense and Sensihilitij. Deerhrook 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 sj^irit 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 Deerhrook a gravity of
moral reflection that Jane Austen, whether wisely or
unwisely, seldom or never attempts. In this respect
Deerhrook 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. Ac-
cording to her usual practice of taking her life delib-
erately 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 estab-
lish 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 borne.


At length Miss Martineau was induced to try
mesmerism as a possible cure for lier disease, and
what is certain is, that after trying mesmeric treat-
ment, the invalid whom the doctors had declared in-
curable 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 bitter-
ness 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 effect-
ually 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 in-
fluence 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 inde-
pendence 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 philo-
sophy 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
Laios of Man's Nature and Development. The greater
part of it Avas written by Mr. Atkinson in reply to
short letters, in Avhich Miss Martineau stated objec-
tions 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 con-
scious 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 wel-
fare 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 pro-
vided 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 Ma-
hometan, 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 com-
paring Miss Martineau's work with the famous book,
liuins; or, Meditations on the Eevolutions of Empires, in
which Volney, between fifty and sixty years before,
had drawn ecpially dissolvent conclusions with her


own from the same panorama of tlio dead ages.
Perhaps Miss Martineau's history is not much better
than Volney's, but her brisk sense is preferable to
Vohiey's high d, priori declamation and artificial

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. Loudon, 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 con-


centrated interest in men and their doings. It would
be unjust to think of Harriet Martineau as liaving 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.

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Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 13 of 25)