Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III. - Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, vol. 1
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SECTION III. - 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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As I have said, it was the state of my health and temper which caused me to be sent from home when I was in my sixteenth year. So many causes of unhappiness had arisen, and my temper was so thoroughly ajar, that nothing else would have done any effectual good. Every thing was a misery to me, and was therefore done with a bad grace; and hence had sprung up a habit of domestic criticism which ought never to have been allowed, in regard to any one member of the family, and least of all towards one of the youngest, and certainly the most suffering of all. My mother received and administered a check now and then, which did good for the time: but the family habit was strong; and it was a wise measure to institute an entire change. Two or three anecdotes will suffice to give an idea of what had to be surmounted.
I was too shy ever to ask to be taught any thing, — except, indeed, of good-natured strangers. I have mentioned that we were well practiced in some matters of domestic management. We could sew, iron, make sweets, gingerbread and pastry, and keep order generally throughout the house. But I did not know, — what nobody can know without being taught, — how to purchase stores, or to set out a table, or to deal with the butcher and fishmonger. It is inconceivable what a trouble this was to me for many years. I was always in terror at that great mountain of duty before me, and wondering what was to become of me if my mother left home, or if I should marry. Never once did it occur to me to go to my mother, and ask to be taught: and it was not pride but fear which so incapacitated me. I liked that sort of occupation, and had great pleasure in doing what I could do in that way; insomuch that I have sometimes felt myself what General F. called his wife, — “a good housemaid spoilt.” My “Guides to Service,” (“The Maid-of-all-work,” “Housemaid,” “Lady’s Maid,” and “Dress-maker,”) written twenty years afterwards, may show something of this. Meantime, never was poor creature more dismally awkward than I was when domestic eyes were upon me: and this made me a most vexatious member of the family. I remember once upsetting a basin of moist sugar into a giblet pie. (I remember nothing else quite so bad.) I never could find any thing I was sent for, though I could lay my hands in the dark on any thing I myself wanted. On one occasion, when a workwoman was making mourning in the midst of us, I was desired to take the keys, and fetch a set of cravats for marking, out of a certain drawer. My heart sank at the order, and already the inevitable sentence rung in my ears, — that I was more trouble than I was worth; which I sincerely believed. The drawer was large, and crammed. I could not see one thing from another; and in no way could I see any cravats. Slowly and fearfully I came back to say so. Of course, I was sent again, and desired not to come back without them. That time, and again the next, I took every thing out of the drawer; and still found no cravats. My eldest sister tried next; and great was my consolation when she returned crest-fallen, — having found no cravats. My mother snatched the keys, under a strong sense of the hardship of having to do every thing herself, when Rachel suggested another place where they might have been put. There they were found; and my heart was swelling with vindictive pleasure when my mother, by a few noble words, turned the tide of feeling completely. In the presence of the workwoman, she laid her hand on my arm, kissed me, and said, “And now, my dear, I have to beg your pardon.” I answered only by tears; but the words supported me for long after.
I look back upon another scene with horror at my own audacity, and wonder that my family could endure me at all. At Mr. Perry’s, one of our school-fellows was a clever, mischievous girl, — so clever, and so much older than myself as to have great influence over me when she chose to try her power, though I disapproved her ways very heartily. She one day asked me, in a corner, in a mysterious sort of way, whether I did not perceive that Rachel was the favourite at home, and treated with manifest partiality. Every body else, she said, observed it. This had never distinctly occurred to me. Rachel was handy and useful, and not paralysed by fear, as I was; and, very naturally, our busy mother resorted to her for help, and put trust in her about matters of business, not noticing the growth of an equally natural habit in Rachel of quizzing or snubbing me, as the elder ones did. From the day of this mischievous speech of my school-fellow, I was on the watch, and with the usual result to the jealous. Months, — perhaps a year or two — passed on while I was brooding over this, without a word to any one; and then came the explosion, one winter evening after tea, when my eldest sister was absent, and my mother, Rachel and I were sitting at work. Rachel criticised something that I said, in which I happened to be right. After once defending myself, I sat silent. My mother remarked on my “obstinacy,” saying that I was “not a bit convinced.” I replied that nothing convincing had been said. My mother declared that she agreed with Rachel, and that I ought to yield. Then I passed the verge, and got wrong. A sudden force of daring entering my mind, I said, in the most provoking way possible, that this was nothing new, as she always did agree with Rachel against me. My mother put down her work, and asked me what I meant by that. I looked her full in the face, and said that what I meant was that every thing that Rachel said and did was right, and every thing that I said and did was wrong. Rachel burst into an insulting laugh, and was sharply bidden to “be quiet.” I saw by this that I had gained some ground; and this was made clearer by my mother sternly desiring me to practise my music. I saw that she wanted to gain time. The question now was how I should get through. My hands were clammy and tremulous: my fingers stuck to each other; my eyes were dim, and there was a roaring in my ears. I could easily have fainted; and it might have done no harm if I had. But I made a tremendous effort to appear calm. I opened the piano, lighted a candle with a steady hand, began, and derived strength from the first chords. I believe I never played better in my life. Then the question was — how was I ever to leave off? On I went for what seemed to me an immense time, till my mother sternly called to me to leave off and go to bed. With my candle in my hand, I said “Good-night.” My mother laid down her work, and said, “Harriet, I am more displeased with you to-night than ever I have been in your life.” Thought I, “I don’t care: I have got it out, and it is all true.” “Go and say your prayers,” my mother continued; “and ask God to forgive you for your conduct to-night; for I don’t know that I can. Go to your prayers.” Thought I, — “No, I shan’t.” And I did not: and that was the only night from my infancy to mature womanhood that I did not pray. I detected misgiving in my mother’s forced manner; and I triumphed. If the right was on my side (as I entirely believed) the power was on hers; and what the next morning was to be I could not conceive. I slept little, and went down sick with dread. Not a word was said, however, then or ever, of the scene of the preceding night; but henceforth, a most scrupulous impartiality between Rachel and me was shown. If the occasion had been better used still, — if my mother had but bethought herself of saying to me, “My child, I never dreamed that these terrible thoughts were in your mind. I am your mother. Why do you not tell me every thing that makes you unhappy?” I believe this would have wrought in a moment that cure which it took years to effect, amidst reserve and silence.
It has been a difficulty with me all my life (and its being a difficulty shows some deep-seated fault in me) how to reconcile sincerity with peace and good manners in such matters as other people’s little mistakes of fact. As an example of what I mean, a school-fellow spelled Shakspere as I spell it here. Mr. Perry put in an a, observing that the name was never spelt in print without an a. I ventured to doubt this; but he repeated his assertion. At afternoon school, I showed him a volume of the edition we had at home, which proved him wrong. He received the correction with so indifferent a grace that I was puzzled as to whether I had done right or wrong, — whether sincerity required me to set my master right before the face of his scholars. Of course, if I had been older, I should have done it more privately. But this is a specimen of the difficulties of that class that I have struggled with almost ever since. The difficulty was immensely increased by the family habit of requiring an answer from me, and calling me obstinate if the reply was not an unconditional yielding. I have always wondered to see the ease and success with which very good people humour and manage the aged, the sick and the weak, and sometimes every body about them. I could never attempt this; for it always seemed to me such contemptuous treatment of those whom I was at the moment respecting more than ever, on account of their weakness. But I was always quite in the opposite extreme; — far too solemn, too rigid, and prone to exaggeration of differences and to obstinacy at the same time. It was actually not till I was near forty that I saw how the matter should really be, — saw it through a perfect example of an union of absolute sincerity with all possible cheerfulness, sweetness, modesty and deference for all, in proportion to their claims. I have never attained righteous good-manners, to this day; but I have understood what they are since the beauties of J. S.’s character and manners were revealed to me under circumstances of remarkable trial.
While organised, it seems to me, for sincerity, and being generally truthful, except for the exaggeration which is apt to beset persons of repressed faculties, I feel compelled to state here (what belongs to this part of my life) that towards one person I was habitually untruthful, from fear. To my mother I would in my childhood assert or deny any thing that would bring me through most easily. I remember denying various harmless things, — playing a game at battledore, for one; and often without any apparent reason: and this was so exclusively to one person that, though there was remonstrance and punishment, I believe I was never regarded as a liar in the family. It seems now all very strange: but it was a temporary and very brief phase. When I left home, all temptation to untruth ceased, and there was henceforth nothing more than the habit of exaggeration and strong expression to struggle with.
Before I went to Bristol, I was the prey of three griefs, — prominent among many. I cannot help laughing while I write them. They were my bad hand-writing, my deafness, and the state of my hair. Such a trio of miseries! I was the first of my family who failed in the matter of hand-writing; and why I did remains unexplained. I am sure I tried hard; but I wrote a vulgar, cramped, untidy scrawl till I was past twenty; — till authorship made me forget manner in matter, and gave freedom to my hand. After that, I did very well, being praised by compositors for legibleness first, and in course of time, for other qualities. But it was a severe mortification while it lasted; and many bitter tears I shed over the reflections that my awkward hand called forth. It was a terrible penance to me to write letters home from Bristol; and the day of the week when it was to be done was very like the Beckwith music-lesson days. If any one had told me then how many reams of paper I should cover in the course of my life, life would have seemed a sort of purgatory to me. — As to my deafness, I got no relief about that at Bristol. It was worse when I returned in weak health. — The third misery, which really plagued me seriously, was cured presently after I left home. I made my dear aunt Kentish the depositary of my confidence in all matters; and this, of course, among the rest. She induced me to consult a friend of hers, who had remarkably beautiful hair; and then it came out that I had been combing overmuch, and that there was nothing the matter with my hair, if I would be content with brushing it. So that grief was annihilated, and there was an end of one of those trifles which “make up the sum of human things.”
And now the hour was at hand when I was to find, for the first time, a human being whom I was not afraid of. That blessed being was my dear aunt Kentish, who stands distinguished in my mind by that from all other persons whom I have ever known.
I did not understand the facts about my leaving home till I had been absent some months; and when I did, I was deeply and effectually moved by my mother’s consideration for my feelings. We had somehow been brought up in a supreme contempt of boarding-schools: and I was therefore truly amazed when my mother sounded me, in the spring of 1817, about going for a year or two to a Miss Somebody’s school at Yarmouth. She talked of the sea, of the pleasantness of change, and of how happy L. T—, an excessively silly girl of our acquaintance, was there: but I made such a joke of L. and her studies, and of the attainments of the young ladies, as we had heard of them, that my mother gave up the notion of a scheme which never could have answered. It would have been ruin to a temper like mine at that crisis to have sent me among silly and ignorant people, to have my “manners formed,” after the most ordinary boarding-school fashion. My mother did much better in sending me among people so superior to myself as to improve me morally and intellectually, though the experiment failed in regard to health. A brother of my mother’s had been unfortunate in business at Bristol, and had not health to retrieve his affairs; and his able and accomplished wife, and clever young daughters opened a school. Of the daughters, one was within a few weeks of my own age; and we have been intimate friends from that time (the beginning of 1818) till this hour. Another was two years younger; another, two years older; while the eldest had reached womanhood. Of these clever cousins we had heard much, for many years, without having seen any of them. At the opening of the year 1818, a letter arrived from my aunt to my mother, saying that it was time the young people should be becoming acquainted; that her girls were all occupied in the school, for the routine of which Rachel was somewhat too old; but that if Harriet would go, and spend some time with them, and take the run of the school, she would be a welcome guest, &c. &c. This pleased me much, and I heard with joy that I was to go when my father took his next journey to Bristol, — early in February. My notion was of a stay of a few weeks; and I was rather taken aback when my mother spoke of my absence as likely to last a year or more. It never entered my head that I was going to a boarding-school; and when I discovered, long after, that the Bristol family understood that I was, I was not (as I once might have been) angry at having been tricked into it, but profoundly contrite for the temper which made such management necessary, and touched by the trouble my mother took to spare my silly pride, and consider my troublesome feelings.
I was, on the whole, happy during the fifteen months I spent at Bristol, though home-sickness spoiled the last half of the time. My home affections seem to have been all the stronger for having been repressed and baulked. Certainly, I passionately loved my family, each and all, from the very hour that parted us; and I was physically ill with expectation when their letters became due; — letters which I could hardly read when they came, between my dread of something wrong, and the beating heart and swimming eyes with which I received letters in those days. There were some family anxieties during the latter part of the time; and there was one grand event, — the engagement of my eldest sister, who had virtually ceased to belong to us by the time I returned home.
I found my cousins even more wonderfully clever than I had expected; and they must have been somewhat surprised at my striking inferiority in knowledge, and in the power of acquiring it. I still think that I never met with a family to compare with theirs for power of acquisition, or effective use of knowledge. They would learn a new language at odd minutes; get through a tough philosophical book by taking turns in the court for air; write down an entire lecture or sermon, without missing a sentence; get round the piano after a concert, and play and sing over every new piece that had been performed. Ability like this was a novel spectacle to me; and it gave me the pure pleasure of unmixed admiration; for I was certainly not conscious of any ability whatever at that time. I had no great deal to do in the school, being older than every girl there but one; and I believe I got no particular credit in such classes as I did join. For one thing, my deafness was now bad enough to be a disadvantage; but it was a worse disqualification that my memory, always obedient to my own command, was otherwise disobedient. I could remember whatever I had learned in my own way, but was quite unable to answer in class, like far younger girls, about any thing just communicated. My chief intellectual improvement during that important period was derived from private study. I read some analytical books, on logic and rhetoric, with singular satisfaction; and I lost nothing afterwards that I obtained in this way. I read a good deal of History too, and revelled in poetry, — a new world of which was opened to me by my cousins. The love of natural scenery was a good deal developed in me by the beauty around Bristol. One circumstance makes me think that I had become rather suddenly awakened to it not long before, — though my delight in the sea at Cromer dated some years earlier. Mr. Perry tried upon us the reading of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso; and it failed utterly. I did not feel any thing whatever, though I supposed I understood what I heard. Not long after he was gone, I read both pieces in the nursery, one day; and straightway went into a transport, as if I had discovered myself in possession of a new sense. Thus it was again now, when I was transferred from flat, bleak Norfolk to the fine scenery about Bristol. Even the humble beauty of our most frequent walk, by the Logwood Mills, was charming to me, — the clear running water, with its weedy channel, and the meadow walk on the brink: and about Leigh woods, Kingsweston, and the Downs, my rapture knew no bounds.
Far more important, however, was the growth of kindly affections in me at this time, caused by the free and full tenderness of my dear aunt Kentish, and of all my other relations then surrounding me. My heart warmed and opened, and my habitual fear began to melt away. I have since been told that, on the day of my arrival, when some of the school-girls asked my cousin M. what I was like, (as she came out of the parlour where I was) she said that I looked as if I was cross; but that she knew I was not; and that I looked unhappy. When I left Bristol, I was as pale as a ghost, and as thin as possible; and still very frowning and repulsive-looking; but yet with a comparatively open countenance. The counteracting influence to dear aunt Kentish’s was one which visited me very strongly at the same time, — that of a timid superstition. She was herself, then and always, very religious; but she had a remarkable faculty of making her religion suggest and sanction whatever she liked: and, as she liked whatever was pure, amiable, unselfish and unspoiling, this tendency did her no harm. Matters were otherwise with me. My religion too took the character of my mind; and it was harsh, severe and mournful accordingly. There was a great furor among the Bristol Unitarians at that time about Dr. Carpenter, who had recently become their pastor. He was a very devoted Minister, and a very earnest pietist: superficial in his knowledge, scanty in ability, narrow in his conceptions, and thoroughly priestly in his temper. He was exactly the dissenting minister to be worshipped by his people, (and especially by the young) and to be spoiled by that worship. He was worshipped by the young, and by none more than by me; and his power was unbounded while his pupils continued young: but, as his instructions and his scholars were not bound together by any bond of essential Christian doctrine, every thing fell to pieces as soon as the merely personal influence was withdrawn. A more extraordinary diversity of religious opinion than existed among his pupils when they became men and women could not be seen. They might be found at the extremes of catholicism and atheism, and every where between. As for me, his devout and devoted Catechumen, he made me desperately superstitious, — living wholly in and for religion, and fiercely fanatical about it. I returned home raving about my pastor and teacher, remembering every word he had ever spoken to me, — with his instructions burnt in, as it were, upon my heart and conscience, and with an abominable spiritual rigidity and a truly respectable force of conscience curiously mingled together, so as to procure for me the no less curiously mingled ridicule and respect of my family. My little sister, then learning to sew on her stool at my mother’s knee, has since told me what she perceived, with the penetrating eyes and heart of childhood. Whenever I left the room, my mother and elder sisters used to begin to quiz my fanaticism, — which was indeed quizzical enough; but the little one saw a sort of respect for me underlying the mockery, which gave her her first clear sense of moral obligation, and the nature of obedience to it.
The results of the Bristol experiment were thus good on the whole. My health was rather worse than better, through wear and tear of nerves, — home-sickness, religious emotions, overmuch study (so my aunt said, against my conviction) and medical mismanagement. I had learned a good deal, and had got into a good way of learning more. My domestic affections were regenerated; and I had become sincerely and heartily religious, with some improvement in temper in consequence, and not a little in courage, hope and conscientiousness. The fanaticism was a stage which I should probably have had to pass through at any rate, — and by the same phase of pastor-worship, — whoever the pastor might have been.