Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION I. - Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, vol. 1
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SECTION I. - Harriet Martineau, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, vol. 1 
Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, ed. Maria Weston Chapman (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
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I think it could not have been long after that time that I took up a project which was of extraordinary use to me. My mind, considered dull and unobservant and unwieldy by my family, was desperately methodical. Every thing must be made tabular that would at all admit of it. Thus, I adopted in an immense hurry Dr. Franklin’s youthful and absurd plan of pricking down his day’s virtues and vices under heads. I found at once the difficulty of mapping out moral qualities, and had to give it up, — as I presume he had to. But I tried after something quite as foolish, and with immense perseverance. I thought it would be a fine thing to distribute scripture instructions under the heads of the virtues and vices, so as to have encouragement or rebuke always ready at hand. So I made (as on so many other occasions) a paper book, ruled and duly headed. With the Old Testament, I got on very well; but I was amazed at the difficulty with the New. I knew it to be of so much more value and importance than the Old, that I could not account for the small number of cut and dry commands. I twisted meanings and wordings, and made figurative things into precepts, at an unconscionable rate, before I would give up: but, after rivalling any old puritan preacher in my free use of scripture, I was obliged to own that I could not construct the system I wanted. Thus it was that I made out that great step in the process of thought and knowledge, — that whereas Judaism was a preceptive religion, Christianity was mainly a religion of principles, — or assumed to be so.
For many years past, my amazement has been continually on the increase that Unitarians can conceive that they are giving their children a Christian education in making their religious training what it is. Our family certainly insisted very strongly, and quite sincerely, on being Christians, while despising and pitying the orthodox as much as they could be despised and pitied in return; while yet, it must have been from wonderful slovenliness of thought, as well as ignorance, that we could have taken Unitarianism to be Christianity, in any genuine sense, — in any sense which could justify separate Christian worship. In our particular case, family pride and affection were implicated in our dissent. It was not the dissent that was to be wondered at, but its having degenerated into Unitarianism. Our French name indicates our origin. The first Martineaus that we know of were expatriated Huguenots, who came over from Normandy on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. They were, of course, Calvinists, — so fully admitting the Christian religion to be a scheme of redemption as to deserve, without limitation or perversion, the title of Christians. But their descendants passed by degrees, with the congregations to which they belonged, out of Calvinism into the pseudo-Christianity of Arianism first, and then of Uniterianism, under the guidance of pastors whose natural sense revolted from the essential points of the Christian doctrine, while they had not learning enough, biblical, ecclesiastical, historical or philosophical, to discover that what they gave up was truly essential, and that the name of Christianity was a mere sham when applied to what they retained. One evening when I was a child, I entered the parlor when our Unitarian minister, Mr. Madge, was convicting of error (and what he called idiotcy) an orthodox schoolmaster who happened to be our visitor. “Look here,” said Mr. Madge, seizing three wine-glasses, and placing them in a row: “here is the Father, — here’s the Son, — and here’s the Holy Ghost; do you mean to tell me that those three glasses can be in any case one? ’Tis mere nonsense.” And so were we children taught that it was “mere nonsense.” I certainly wondered exceedingly that so vast a majority of the people of Norwich could accept such nonsense, and so very few see through it as the Unitarians of the city: but there was no one to suggest to me that there might be more in the matter than we saw, or than even our minister was aware of. This was pernicious enough: but far worse was the practice, necessarily universal among Unitarians, of taking any liberties they please with the revelation they profess to receive. It is true, the Scriptures are very properly declared by them to be not the revelation itself, but the record of it: but it is only through the record that the revelation can be obtained — at least by Protestants: and any tamperings with the record are operations upon the revelation itself. To appreciate the full effect of such a procedure, it is only necessary to look at what the Unitarians were doing in the days of my youth. They were issuing an Improved Version, in which considerable portions were set aside (printed in a different type) as spurious. It is true, those portions flatly contradicted some other portions in regard to dates and other facts; but the shallow scholarship of the Unitarians made its own choice what to receive and what to reject, without perceiving that such a process was wholly incompatible with the conception of the Scriptures being the record of a divine revelation at all. Having begun to cut away and alter, there was no reason for stopping; and every Unitarian was at liberty to make the Scriptures mean what suited his own views. Mr. Belsham’s Exposition of the Epistles is a remarkable phenomenon in this way. To get rid of some difficulties about heaven and hell, the end of the world, salvation and perdition, &c., he devised a set of figurative meanings which he applied with immense perseverance, and a poetical ingenuity remarkable in so thoroughly prosaic a man; and all the while, it never seems to have occurred to him that that could hardly be a revelation designed for the rescue of the human race from perdition, the explanation of which required all this ingenuity at the hand of a Belsham, after eighteen centuries. I was as deeply-interested a reader of those big volumes as any Unitarian in England; and their ingenuity gratified some of my faculties exceedingly; but there was throughout a haunting sense of unreality which made me uneasy, — a consciousness that this kind of solemn amusement was no fitting treatment of the burdensome troubles of conscience, and the moral irritations which made the misery of my life. This theological dissipation, and the music and poetry of psalms and hymns, charmed away my woes for the hour; but they were not the solid consolation I needed. So, to work I went in my own way, again and again studying the New Testament, — making “Harmonies,” poring over the geography, greedily gathering up every thing I could find in the way of commentary and elucidation, and gladly working myself into an enthusiasm with the moral beauty and spiritual promises I found in the Sacred Writings. I certainly never believed, more or less, in the “essential doctrines” of Christianity, which represent God as the predestinator of men to sin and perdition, and Christ as their rescuer from that doom. I never was more or less beguiled by the trickery of language by which the perdition of man is made out to be justice, and his redemption to be mercy. I never suffered more or less from fear of hell. The Unitarianism of my parents saved me from that. But nothing could save me from the perplexity of finding so much of indisputable statement of those doctrines in the New Testament, nor from a covert sense that it was taking a monstrous liberty with the Gospel to pick and choose what made me happy, and reject what I did not like or could not receive. When I now find myself wondering at Unitarians who do so, — who accept heaven and reject hell, — who get rid somehow of the reign of Christ and the apostles on earth, and derive somehow a sanction of their fancy of a heaven in the stars, peopled with old acquaintances, and furnished for favourite pursuits, I try to recal the long series of years during which I did the same thing, with far more, certainly, of complacency than of misgiving. I try to remember how late on in life I have said that I confidently reckoned on entering the train of Socrates in the next world, and getting some of his secrets out of Pythagoras, besides making friendship with all the Christian worthies I especially inclined to. When I now see the comrades of my early days comfortably appropriating all the Christian promises, without troubling themselves with the clearly-specified condition, — of faith in Christ as a Redeemer, — I remind myself that this is just what I did for more than the first half of my life. The marvel remains how they now, and I then, could possibly wonder at the stationary or declining fortunes of their sect, — so evidently as Unitarianism is a mere clinging, from association and habit, to the old privilege of faith in a divine revelation, under an actual forfeiture of all its essential conditions.
My religious belief, up to the age of twenty, was briefly this. I believed in a God, milder and more beneficent and passionless than the God of the orthodox, inasmuch as he would not doom any of his creatures to eternal torment. I did not at any time, I think, believe in the Devil, but understood the Scriptures to speak of Sin under that name, and of eternal detriment under the name of eternal punishment. I believed in inestimable and eternal rewards of holiness; but I am confident that I never in my life did a right thing, or abstained from a wrong one from any consideration of reward or punishment. To the best of my recollection, I always feared sin and remorse extremely, and punishment not at all; but, on the contrary, desired punishment or any thing else that would give me the one good that I pined for in vain, — ease of conscience. The doctrine of forgiveness on repentance never availed me much, because forgiveness for the past was nothing without safety in the future; and my sins were not curable, I felt, by any single remission of their consequences, — if such remission were possible. If I prayed and wept, and might hope that I was pardoned at night, it was small comfort, because I knew I should be in a state of remorse again before the next noon. I do not remember the time when the forgiveness clause in the Lord’s Prayer was not a perplexity and a stumbling-block to me. I did not care about being let off from penalty. I wanted to be at ease in conscience; and that could only be by growing good, whereas I hated and despised myself every day. My belief in Christ was that he was the purest of all beings, under God; and his sufferings for the sake of mankind made him as sublime in my view and my affections as any being could possibly be. The Holy Ghost was a mere fiction to me. I took all the miracles for facts, and contrived to worship the letter of the Scriptures long after I had, as desired, given up portions as “spurious,” “interpolations” and so forth. I believed in a future life as a continuation of the present, and not as a new method of existence; and, from the time when I saw that the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul could not both be true, I adhered to the former, — after St. Paul. I was uncomfortably disturbed that Christianity had done so little for the redemption of the race: but the perplexity was not so serious as it would have been if I had believed in the perdition of the majority of men; and, for the rest, I contrived to fix my view pretty exclusively on Christendom itself, — which Christians in general find a grand resource in their difficulties. In this way, and by the help of public worship, and of sacred music, and Milton, and the Pilgrim’s Progress, I found religion my best resource, even in its first inconsistent and unsatisfactory form, till I wrought my way to something better, as I shall tell by and by.
When I was seven years old, — the winter after our return from Newcastle, — I was kept from chapel one Sunday afternoon by some ailment or other. When the house door closed behind the chapel-goers, I looked at the books on the table. The ugliest-looking of them was turned down open; and my turning it up was one of the leading incidents of my life. That plain, clumsy, calf-bound volume was “Paradise Lost;” and the common blueish paper, with its old-fashioned type, became as a scroll out of heaven to me. The first thing I saw was “Argument,” which I took to mean a dispute, and supposed to be stupid enough: but there was something about Satan cleaving Chaos, which made me turn to the poetry; and my mental destiny was fixed for the next seven years. That volume was henceforth never to be found but by asking me for it, till a young acquaintance made me a present of a little Milton of my own. In a few months, I believe there was hardly a line in Paradise Lost that I could not have instantly turned to. I sent myself to sleep by repeating it: and when my curtains were drawn back in the morning, descriptions of heavenly light rushed into my memory. I think this must have been my first experience of moral relief through intellectual resource. I am sure I must have been somewhat happier from that time forward; though one fact of which I am perfectly certain shows that the improvement must have been little enough. From the time when Ann Turner and her religious training of me put me, as it were, into my own moral charge, I was ashamed of my habit of misery, — and especially of crying. I tried for a long course of years, — I should think from about eight to fourteen, — to pass a single day without crying. I was a persevering child; and I know I tried hard: but I failed. I gave up at last; and during all those years, I never did pass a day without crying. Of course, my temper and habit of mind must have been excessively bad. I have no doubt I was an insufferable child for gloom, obstinacy and crossness. Still, when I remember my own placability, — my weakness of yielding every thing to the first word or tone of tenderness, I cannot but believe that there was grievous mistake in the case, and that even a little more sympathy and moral support would have spared me and others a hideous amount of fault and suffering.
How I found my way out we shall see hereafter: meantime, one small incident, which occurred when I was eleven years old, may foreshadow my release. Our eldest brother, Thomas, was seven years older than myself. He was silent and reserved generally, and somewhat strict to us younger ones, to whom he taught our Latin grammar. We revered and loved him intensely, in the midst of our awe of him: but once in my childhood I made him laugh against his will, by a pun in my Latin lesson (which was a great triumph) and once I ventured to confide to him a real difficulty, — without result. I found myself by his side during a summer evening walk, when something gave me courage to ask him — (the man of eighteen!) — the question which I had long been secretly revolving: — how, if God foreknew everything, we could be blamed or rewarded for our conduct, which was thus absolutely settled for us beforehand. He considered for a moment, and then told me, in a kind voice, that this was a thing which I could not understand at present, nor for a long time to come. I dared not remonstrate; but I was disappointed: and I felt that if I could feel the difficulty, I had a right to the solution. No doubt, this refusal of a reply helped to fix the question in my mind.
I have said that by this time I had begun to take moral or spiritual charge of myself. I did try hard to improve; but I fear I made little progress. Every night, I reviewed the thoughts and actions of the day, and tried to repent; but I could seldom comfort myself about any amendment. All the while, however, circumstances were doing for me what I could not do for myself, — as I have since found to be incessantly happening. The first great wholesome discipline of my life set in (unrecognized as such) when I was about eight years old. The kind lady who took me upon her lap at Mr. Drummond’s lecture had two little girls, just the ages of Rachel and myself: and, after that incident, we children became acquainted, and very soon, (when the family came to live close beside us in Magdalen Street) as intimate as possible. I remember being at their house in the Market Place when I was seven years old; and little E. could not stand, nor even sit, to see the magic-lantern, but was held in her papa’s arms, because she was so very lame. Before the year was out, she lost her leg. Being a quiet-tempered child, and the limb being exceedingly wasted by disease, she probably did not suffer very much under the operation. However that might be, she met the occasion with great courage, and went through it with remarkable composure, so that she was the talk of the whole city. I was naturally very deeply impressed by the affair. It turned my imagination far too much on bodily suffering, and on the peculiar glory attending fortitude in that direction. I am sure that my nervous system was seriously injured, and especially that my subsequent deafness was partly occasioned by the exciting and vain-glorious dreams that I indulged in for many years after my friend E. lost her leg. All manner of deaths at the stake and on the scaffold, I went through in imagination, in the low sense in which St. Theresa craved martyrdom; and night after night, I lay bathed in cold perspiration till I sank into the sleep of exhaustion. All this is detestable to think of now; but it is a duty to relate the truth, because parents are apt to know far too little of what is passing in their children’s imaginations, unless they win the confidence of the little creatures about that on which they are shyest of all, — their aspirations. The good side of this wretched extravagance of mine was that it occasioned or strengthened a power of patience under pain and privation which was not to be looked for in a child so sensitive and irritable by nature. Fortitude was in truth my favorite virtue; and the power of bearing quietly a very unusual amount of bodily pain in childhood was the poor recompense I enjoyed for the enormous detriment I suffered from the turn my imagination had taken.
This, however, is not the discipline I referred to as arising from my companionship with E. In such a case as hers, all the world acquiesces in the parents’ view and method of action: and in that case the parents made a sad mistake. They enormously increased their daughter’s suffering from her infirmity by covering up the fact in an unnatural silence. E.’s lameness was never mentioned, nor recognized in any way, within my remembrance, till she, full late, did it herself. It was taken for granted that she was like other children; and the delusion was kept up in play-hours at my expense. I might almost say that from the time E. and I grew intimate, I never more had any play. Now, I was fond of play, — given to romp; and I really wonder now when I look back upon the many long years during which I stood, with cold feet and a longing mind, with E. leaning on my arm, looking on while other children were at play. It was a terrible uneasiness to me to go walks with her, — shy child as I was, — fancying every body in the streets staring at us, on account of E.’s extreme difficulty in walking. But the long self-denial which I never thought of refusing or grumbling at, must have been morally good for me, if I may judge by the pain caused by two incidents; — pain which seems to me now to swallow up all that issued from mere privation. — The fatigue of walking with E. was very great, from her extreme need of support, and from its being always on the same side. I was never very strong; and when growing fast, I was found to be growing sadly crooked, from E.’s constant tugging at one arm. I cannot at all understand how my mother could put it upon me to tell E.’s mother that I must not walk with her, because it made me crooked: but this ungracious message I was compelled to carry; and it cost me more pain than long years of privation of play. The hint was instantly taken; but I suffered the shame and regret over again every time that I saw E. assigned to any one else; and I had infinitely rather have grown crooked than have escaped it by such a struggle. — The other incident was this. We children were to have a birthday party; and my father gave us the rare and precious liberty to play hide-and-seek in the warehouse, among the packing-cases and pigeon-holes where the bombasines were stored. For weeks I had counted the days and hours till this birthday and this play; but E. could not play hide-and-seek; and there we stood, looking at the rest, — I being cold and fidgety, and at last uncontrollably worried at the thought that the hours were passing away, and I had not had one bit of play. I did the fatal thing which has been a thorn in my mind ever since. I asked E. if she would much mind having some one else with her for a minute while I hid once, — just once. O no, — she did not mind; so I sent somebody else to her, and ran off, with a feeling of self-detestation which is fresh at this day. I had no presence-of-mind for the game, — was caught in a minute; and came back to E. damaged in self-respect, for the whole remaining course of our friendship. However, I owe her a great deal; and she and her misfortune were among the most favourable influences I had the benefit of after taking myself in hand for self-government. I have much pleasure in adding that nothing could be finer than her temper in after life, when she had taken her own case in hand, and put an end, as far as it lay with her to do so, to the silence about her infirmity. After I wrote my “Letter to the Deaf,” we seemed to be brought nearer together by our companionship in infirmity. Years after that, when I had written “The Crofton Boys,” and was uneasy lest my evident knowledge of such a case should jar upon her feelings, — always so tenderly considered, — I wrote her a confession of my uneasiness, and had in reply a most charming letter, — free, cheerful, magnanimous; — such a letter as has encouraged me to write as I have now done.
The year 1811 was a marked one to me, — first, by my being sent into the country for my health, for the whole summer and autumn; and next, for the birth of the best-beloved member of my family, — my sister Ellen. — It was not a genuine country life in a farm-house, that summer, but a most constrained and conventional one, in the abode of a rich lawyer, — a cousin of my father’s, who sent a daughter of his to our house for the advantage of city masters, in exchange for me, who went for health. I was not, on the whole, happy there: — indeed, it is pretty clear by this time that I was not happy anywhere. The old fancy for running away came back strongly upon me, and I was on the very point of attempting it when a few words of concession and kindness upset my purpose, as usual. I detested the governess, — and with abundant reason. The very first day, she shut me up and punished me because I, a town-bred child, did not know what a copse was. “Near yonder copse,” &c. She insisted that every body must know what a copse is, and that therefore I was obstinate and a liar. After such a beginning, it will be easily conceived that our relations could not be cordial or profitable. She presently showed herself jealous of my being in advance of her pupils in school-room knowledge; and she daily outraged my sense of justice, expressly, and in the most purpose-like manner. She was thoroughly vulgar; and in a few weeks she was sent away. — One annoyance that I remember at that place was (what now appears very strange) the whispers I overheard about myself, as I sat on a little stool in a corner of the dining-room, reading. My hostess, who might have said anything in her ordinary voice without my attending to her, used to whisper to her morning visitors about my wonderful love of reading, — that I never heard anything that was said while I sat reading, and that I had written a wonderful sermon. All the while, she pretended to disguise it, winking and nudging, and saying “We never hear any thing when we are reading:” “We have written a sermon which is really quite wonderful at our age,” &c. &c. I wished that sermon at Jericho a hundred times; for in truth, I was heartily ashamed of it. It was merely a narrative of St. Paul’s adventures, out of the Acts; and I knew it was no more a sermon than a string of parables out of the Gospels would have been.
There were some sweet country pleasures that summer. I never see chesnuts bursting from their sheaths, and lying shining among the autumn leaves, without remembering the old Manor-house where we children picked up chesnuts in the avenue, while my hostess made her call at the house. I have always loved orchards and apple-gatherings since, and blossomy lanes. The truth is, my remembrances of that summer may be found in “Deerbrook,” though I now finally, (as often before,) declare that the characters are not real. More or less suggestion from real characters there certainly is; but there is not one, except the hero, (who is not English,) that any person is justified in pointing out as “from the life.” Of the scenery too, there is more from Great Marlow than from that bleak Norfolk district: but the fresh country impressions are certainly derived from the latter. It was there that I had that precious morsel of experience which I have elsewhere detailed;* — the first putting my hand in among the operations of Nature, to modify them. After a morning walk, we children brought in some wild strawberry roots, to plant in our gardens. My plant was sadly withered by the time we got home; and it was then hot noon, — the soil of my garden was warm and parched, and there seemed no chance for my root. I planted it, grieved over its flabby leaves, watered it, got a little child’s chair, which I put over it for shelter, and stopped up the holes in the chair with grass. When I went at sunset to look at it, the plant was perfectly fresh; and after that, it grew very well. My surprise and pleasure must have been very great, by my remembering such a trifle so long; and I am persuaded that I looked upon Nature with other eyes from the moment that I found I had power to modify her processes.
In November came the news which I had been told to expect. My sister Rachel had been with us in the country for a fortnight; and we knew that there was to be a baby at home before we went back; and I remember pressing so earnestly, by letter, to know the baby’s name as to get a rebuff. I was told to wait till there was a baby. At last, the carrier brought us a letter one evening which told us that we had a little sister. I still longed to know the name, but dared not ask again. Our host saw what was in my mind. He went over to Norwich a day or two after, and on his return told me that he hoped I should like the baby’s name now she had got one; — “Beersheba.” I did not know whether to believe him or not; and I had set my mind on “Rose.” “Ellen,” however, satisfied me very well. — Homesick before, I now grew downright ill with longing. I was sure that all old troubles were wholly my fault, and fully resolved that there should be no more. Now, as so often afterwards, (as often as I left home) I was destined to disappointment. I scarcely felt myself at home before the well-remembered bickerings began; — not with me, but from the boys being troublesome, James being naughty; and our eldest sister angry and scolding. I then and there resolved that I would look for my happiness to the new little sister, and that she should never want for the tenderness which I had never found. This resolution turned out more of a prophecy than such decisions, born of a momentary emotion, usually do. That child was henceforth a new life to me. I did lavish love and tenderness on her; and I could almost say that she has never caused me a moment’s pain but by her own sorrows. There has been much suffering in her life; and in it I have suffered with her: but such sympathetic pain is bliss in comparison with such feelings as she has not excited in me during our close friendship of above forty years. When I first saw her it was as she was lifted out of her crib, at a fortnight old, asleep, to be shown to my late hostess, who had brought Rachel and me home. The passionate fondness I felt for her from that moment has been unlike any thing else I have felt in life, — though I have made idols of not a few nephews and nieces. But she was a pursuit to me, no less than an attachment. I remember telling a young lady at the Gate-House Concert, (a weekly undress concert) the next night, that I should now see the growth of a human mind from the very beginning. I told her this because I was very communicative to all who showed me sympathy in any degree. Years after, I found that she was so struck by such a speech from a child of nine that she had repeated it till it had spread all over the city, and people said somebody had put it into my head: but it was perfectly genuine. My curiosity was intense; and all my spare minutes were spent in the nursery, watching, — literally watching, — the baby. This was a great stimulus to me in my lessons, to which I gave my whole power, in order to get leisure the sooner. That was the time when I took it into my head to cut up the Bible into a rule of life, as I have already told; and it was in the nursery chiefly that I did it, — sitting on a stool opposite the nursemaid and baby, and getting up from my notes to devour the child with kisses. There were bitter moments and hours, — as when she was vaccinated or had her little illnesses. My heart then felt bursting, and I went to my room, and locked the door, and prayed long and desperately. I knew then what the Puritans meant by “wrestling in prayer.” — One abiding anxiety which pressed upon me for two years or more was lest this child should be dumb: and if not, what an awful amount of labour was before the little creature! I had no other idea than that she must learn to speak at all as I had now to learn French, — each word by an express effort: and if I, at ten and eleven, found my vocabulary so hard, how could this infant learn the whole English language? The dread went off in amazement when I found that she sported new words every day, without much teaching at first, and then without any. I was as happy to see her spared the labour as amused at her use of words in her pretty prattle.
For nearly two years after our return from that country visit, Rachel and I were taught at home. Our eldest brother taught us Latin, and the next brother, Henry, writing and arithmetic: and our sister, French, reading and exercises. We did not get on well, except with the Latin. Our sister expected too much from us, both morally and intellectually; and she had not been herself carried on so far as to have much resource as a teacher. We owed to her however a thorough grounding in our French grammar (especially the verbs) which was of excellent service to us afterwards at school, as was a similar grounding in the Latin grammar, obtained from our brother. As for Henry, he made our lessons in arithmetic, &c. his funny time of day; and sorely did his practical jokes and ludicrous severity afflict us. He meant no harm; but he was too young to play schoolmaster; and we improved less than we should have done under less head-ache and heart-ache from his droll system of torture. I should say, on their behalf, that I, for one, must have seemed a most unpromising pupil, — my wits were so completely scattered by fear and shyness. I could never give a definition, for want of presence of mind. I lost my place in class for every thing but lessons that could be prepared beforehand. I was always saying what I did not mean. The worst waste of time, energy, money and expectation was about my music. Nature made me a musician in every sense. I was never known to sing out of tune. I believe all who knew me when I was twenty would give a good account of my playing. There was no music that I ever attempted that I did not understand, and that I could not execute, — under the one indispensable condition, that nobody heard me. Much money was spent in instruction; and I dislike thinking of the amount of time lost in copying music. My mother loved music, and, I know, looked to me for much gratification in this way which she never had. My deafness put an end to all expectation of the kind at last; but long before that, my music was a misery to me, — while yet in another sense, my dearest pleasure. My master was Mr. Beckwith, organist of Norwich Cathedral; — an admirable musician; but of so irritable a temper as to be the worst of masters to a shy girl like me. It was known that he had been dismissed from one house or more for rapping his pupils’ knuckles; and that he had been compelled to apologize for insufferable scolding. Neither of these things happened at our house; but really I wondered sometimes that they did not, — so very badly did I play and sing when he was at my elbow. My fingers stuck together as in cramp, and my voice was as husky as if I had had cotton-wool in my throat. Now and then he complimented my ear; but he oftener told me that I had no more mind than the music-book, — no more feeling than the lid of the piano, — no more heart than the chimney-piece; and that it was no manner of use trying to teach me any thing. All this while, if the room-door happened to be open without my observing it when I was singing Handel by myself, my mother would be found dropping tears over her work, and I used myself, as I may now own, to feel fairly transported. Heaven opened before me at the sound of my own voice when I believed myself alone; — that voice which my singing-master assuredly never heard. It was in his case that I first fully and suddenly learned the extent of the mischief caused by my shyness. He came twice a week. On those days it was an effort to rise in the morning, — to enter upon a day of misery; and nothing could have carried me through the morning but the thought of the evening, when he would be gone, — out of my way for three days, or even four. The hours grew heavier: my heart fluttered more and more: I could not eat my dinner; and his impatient loud knock was worse to me than sitting down in the dentist’s chair. Two days per week of such feelings, strengthened by the bliss of the evenings after he was gone, might account for the catastrophe, which however did not shock me the less for that. Mr. Beckwith grew more and more cross, thinner and thinner, so that his hair and beard looked blacker and blacker, as the holidays approached, when he was wont to leave home for a week or two. One day when somebody was dining with us, and I sat beside my father at the bottom of the table, he said to my mother, “By the way, my dear, there is a piece of news which will not surprise you much, I fancy. Poor John Beckwith is gone. He died yesterday.” Once more, that name made my heart jump into my mouth; but this time, it was with a dreadful joy. While the rest went on very quietly saying how ill he had looked for some time, and “who would have thought he would never come back?” — and discussing how Mrs. B. and the children were provided for, and wondering who would be organist at the Cathedral, my spirits were dancing in secret rapture. The worst of my besetting terrors was over for ever! All days of the week would henceforth be alike, as far as that knock at the door was concerned. Of course, my remorse at this glee was great; and thus it was that I learned how morally injured I was by the debasing fear I was wholly unable to surmount.
Next to fear, laziness was my worst enemy. I was idle about brushing my hair, — late in the morning, — much afflicted to have to go down to the apple-closet in winter; and even about my lessons I was indolent. I learned any thing by heart very easily, and I therefore did it well: but I was shamefully lazy about using the dictionary, and went on, in full anticipation of rebuke, translating la rosée the rose, tomber to bury, and so on. This shows that there must have been plenty of provocation on my side, whatever mistakes there may have been on that of my teachers. I was sick and weary of the eternal “Telemachus,” and could not go through the labours of the dictionary for a book I cared so little about. This difficulty soon came to an end; for in 1813 Rachel and I went to a good day-school for two years, where our time was thoroughly well spent; and there we enjoyed the acquisition of knowledge so much as not to care for the requisite toil.
Before entering on that grand new period, I may as well advert to a few noticeable points. — I was certainly familiar with the idea of death before that time. The death of Nelson, when I was four years old, was probably the earliest association in my mind of mournful feelings with death. When I was eight or nine, an aunt died whom I had been in the constant habit of seeing. She was old-fashioned in her dress, and peculiar in her manners. Her lean arms were visible between the elbow-ruffles and the long mits she wore; and she usually had an apron on, and a muslin handkerchief crossed on her bosom. She fell into absent-fits which puzzled and awed us children: but we heard her so highly praised (as she richly deserved) that she was a very impressive personage to us. One morning when I came down, I found the servants at breakfast unusually early: they looked very gloomy; bade me make no noise; but would not explain what it was all about. The shutters were half-closed; and when my mother came down, she looked so altered by her weeping that I hardly knew whether it was she. She called us to her, and told us that aunt Martineau had died very suddenly, of a disease of the heart. The whispers which were not meant for us somehow reached our ears all that week. We heard how my father and mother had been sent for in the middle of the night by the terrified servants, and how they had heard our poor uncle’s voice of mourning before they had reached the house; and how she looked in her coffin, and all about the funeral: and we were old enough to be moved by the sermon in her praise at chapel, and especially by the anthem composed for the occasion, with the words from Job, — “When the ear heard her then it blessed her,” &c. My uncle’s gloomy face and unpowdered hair were awful to us; and, during the single year of his widowhood, he occasionally took us children with him in the carriage, when he went to visit country patients. These drives came to an end with the year of widowhood; but he gave us something infinitely better than any other gift or pleasure in his second wife, whose only child was destined to fill a large space in our hearts and our lives. — Soon after that funeral, I somehow learned that our globe swims in space, and that there is sky all round it. I told this to James; and we made a grand scheme which we never for a moment doubted about executing. We had each a little garden, under the north wall of our garden. The soil was less than two feet deep; and below it was a mass of rubbish, — broken bricks, flints, pottery, &c. We did not know this; and our plan was to dig completely through the globe, till we came out at the other side. I fully expected to do this, and had an idea of an extremely deep hole, the darkness of which at the bottom would be lighted up by the passage of stars, slowly traversing the hole. When we found our little spades would not dig through the globe, nor even through the brickbats, we altered our scheme. We lengthened the hole to our own length, having an extreme desire to know what dying was like. We lay down alternately in this grave, and shut our eyes, and fancied ourselves dead, and told one another our feelings when we came out again. As far as I can remember, we fully believed that we now knew all about it.
A prominent event of my childhood happened in 1812, when we went to Cromer for the sake of the baby’s health. I had seen the sea, as I mentioned, when under three years old, as it swayed under the old jetty at Yarmouth: and I had seen it again at Tynemouth, when I was seven: but now it was like a wholly new spectacle; and I doubt whether I ever received a stronger impression than when, from the rising ground above Cromer, we caught sight of the sparkling expanse. At Tynemouth, that singular incident took place which I have elsewhere narrated,* — that I was shown the sea, immediately below my feet, at the foot of the very slope on which I was standing, and could not see it. The rest of the party must have thought me crazy or telling a lie; but the distress of being unable to see what I had so earnestly expected, was real enough; and so was the amazement when I at last perceived the fluctuating tide. All this had gone out of my mind when we went to Cromer; and the spectacle seemed a wholly new one. That was a marvellous month that the nursemaid and we children spent there. When we were not down on the sands, or on the cliffs, I was always perched on a bank in the garden whence I could see that straight blue line, or those sparkles which had such a charm for me. It was much that I was happy for a whole month; but I also obtained many new ideas, and much development; — the last chiefly, I think, in a religious direction.
In the preceding year another instance had occurred, — a most mortifying one to me, — of that strange inability to see what one is looking for (no doubt because one looks wrongly) of which the Tynemouth sea-gazing was a strong illustration.† When the great comet of 1811 was attracting all eyes, my star-gazing was just as ineffectual. Night after night, the whole family of us went up to the long windows at the top of my father’s warehouse; and the exclamations on all hands about the comet perfectly exasperated me, — because I could not see it! “Why, there it is!” “It is as big as a saucer.” “It is as big as a cheese-plate.” “Nonsense; you might as well pretend not to see the moon.” Such were the mortifying comments on my grudging admission that I could not see the comet. And I never did see it. Such is the fact; and philosophers may make of it what they may, — remembering that I was then nine years old, and with remarkably good eyes.
[* ]Household Education, p. 152.
[* ]Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development, p. 161.