Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III. - Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
About the middle of the period of this illness, Sir E. L. Bulwer Lytton wrote to me an earnest suggestion that I should go to Paris to consult a somnambule about the precise nature and treatment of my disease. He said I should probably think him insane for making such a proposition, but offered to supply me with his reasons, if I would listen to him. My reply was that I needed no convincing of the goodness of his advice, if only the measure was practicable. I had long been entirely convinced of the truth of the insight of somnambules, and should have been thankful to be able to make use of it: but there were two obstacles which appeared insurmountable. I could not move, in the first place. My medical adviser, my brother-in-law, had much wished to take me to London, for other opinions on my case; but my travelling was altogether out of the question. Sir Charles Clarke had come into Northumberland afterwards, and he had visited me, and, after a careful inquiry into the case, had decided that the disease was incurable. After this, it was agreed on all hands that I could not travel. In the next place, I had to explain that the penalty on my consulting a somnambule, even if one could be brought to me, was, not only the loss of my medical comforts at Tynemouth, but of family peace, — so strong was the prejudice of a part of my family against mesmerism. There the matter rested till May, 1844, when, in the course of a fortnight, there were no less than three letters of advice to me to try mesmerism. My youngest sister wrote to me about a curious case which had accidentally come under the notice first, and then the management, of her husband, — a surgeon; — a case which showed that insensibility to pain under an operation could be produced, and that epilepsy of the severest kind had given way under mesmerism, when all other treatment had long been useless. Mr. and Mrs. Basil Montagu wrote to entreat me to try mesmerism, and related the story of their own conversion to it by seeing the case of Ann Vials treated by their “dear young friend, Henry Atkinson,” — of whom I had never heard. The third was from a wholly different quarter, but contained the same counsel, on very similar grounds. Presently after, I was astonished at what my brother-in-law said in one of his visits. He told me that Mr. Spencer Hall, of whom I had never heard, was lecturing in Newcastle on mesmerism; that he (my brother) had gone to the lecture out of curiosity, and had been put into the chair, on the clear understanding that he accepted the post only to see fair play, and not at all as countenancing mesmerism, of which he fairly owned that he knew nothing whatever: that he had been deeply impressed by what he saw, and was entirely perplexed, — the only clear conviction that he had brought away being of the honesty and fairness of the lecturer, who was the first to announce such failures as occurred; and that he, (my brother) was anxious to see more of the lecturer, and disposed to advise my trying the experiment of being mesmerised, as possibly affording me some release from the opiates to which I was obliged to have constant recourse. I was as much pleased as surprised at all this, and I eagerly accepted the proposal that Mr. Spencer Hall should be brought to see me, if he would come. Some of my family were sadly annoyed by this proceeding; but, as the move was not mine, I felt no scruple about accepting its benefits. For between five and six years, every thing that medical skill and family care could do for me had been tried, without any avail; and it was now long since the best opinions had declared that the case was hopeless, — that, though I might live on, even for years, if my state of exhaustion should permit, the disease was incurable. I had tried all the methods, and taken all the medicines prescribed, “without” as my brother-in-law declared in writing, “any effect whatever having been produced on the disease;” and, now that a new experiment was proposed to me by my medical attendant himself, I had nothing to do but try it. This appears plain and rational enough to me now, as it did then; and I am as much surprised now as I was then that any evil influence should have availed to persuade my mother and eldest sister that my trial of mesmerism was a slight to the medical adviser who proposed it, and my recovery by means of it a fit occasion for a family quarrel. For my part, — if any friend of mine had been lying in a suffering and hopeless state for nearly six years, and if she had fancied she might get well by standing on her head instead of her heels, or reciting charms or bestriding a broomstick, I should have helped her to try: and thus was I aided by some of my family, and by a further sympathy in others: but two or three of them were induced by an evil influence to regard my experiment and recovery as an unpardonable offence; and by them I never was pardoned. It is a common story. Many or most of those who have been restored by mesmerism have something of the same sort to tell; and the commonness of this experience releases me from the necessity of going into detail upon the subject.
I may also omit the narrative of my recovery, because it is given in “Letters on Mesmerism” which I was presently compelled to publish. There is among my papers my diary of the case, — a record carefully kept from day to day of the symptoms, the treatment, and the results. The medical men, and the few private friends who have seen that journal (which I showed to my medical adviser) have agreed in saying that it is as cool as if written by a professional observer, while it is so conclusive as to the fact of my restoration by the means tried in 1844, that “we must cease to say that any thing is the cause of any other thing, if the recovery was not wrought by mesmerism.” These are the words which are before me in the hand-writing of a wholly impartial reader of that journal.
I had every desire to bear patiently any troubles sure to arise in such a case from professional bigotry, and popular prejudice; but I must think that I had more than my share of persecution for the offence of recovery from a hopeless illness by a new method. — Occasion of offence was certainly given by some advocates of mesmerism, strangers to me, by their putting letters into the newspapers, praising me for my experiment, and ridiculing the doctors for their repugnance to it; and one at least of these officious persons made several mistakes in his statement. I knew nothing of this for some time; and then only by the consequences. I must repeat here, what I have said elsewhere, that Mr. Spencer Hall had nothing to do with all this. Though he might naturally have been pleased with his own share in the business, and though many men would have considered themselves released from all obligation to silence by the publicity the matter soon obtained, he remained honourably silent, till he had my express permission to tell the story when and where he pleased. When he did tell it, it was with absolute accuracy. The first letters to the newspapers, meanwhile, drew out from the grosser and more ignorant of the medical profession, and also from some who ought to have been above exposing themselves to be so classified, speculations, comments, and narratives, not only foolish and utterly false in regard to facts, but so offensive that it was absolutely necessary to take some step, as no one intervened for my protection from a persecution most odious to a woman. After much consideration, it seemed to me best to send to (not a newspaper, but,) a scientific journal, a simple narrative of the facts, — making no allusion to any thing already published, but so offering the story as to lift it out of the professional mire into which it had been dragged, and to place it on its right ground as a matter of scientific observation. This was the act which was called “rushing into print.”
The conduct of the editor who accepted and profited by my “Letters on Mesmerism” is so capital an illustration of the mode in which I and my coadjutors were treated on this occasion, and of that in which persons concerned in any new natural discovery are usually treated, that it may be profitable to give a brief statement of the facts as a compendium of the whole subject. — I wrote to one of the staff of the Athenœum, saying that I found it necessary to write my experience; and that I preferred a periodical like the Athenæum to a newspaper, because I wanted to lift up the subject out of the dirt into which it had been plunged, and to place it on a scientific ground, if possible. I said that I was aware that the editor of the Athenæum was an unbeliever in mesmerism; but that this was no sufficient reason for my concluding that his periodical would be closed against a plain story on a controverted subject. I begged, at the outset, to say that I could take no money for my articles, under the circumstances; and that, if it was the rule of the Athenæum, as of some publications, to take no contributions that were not paid for, perhaps the editor might think fit to give the money to some charity. What I did require, I said, was, that my articles should appear unaltered, and that they and I should be treated with the respect due to the utterance and intentions of a conscientious and thoughtful observer. I hold the reply, in the hand-writing of the editor, who eagerly accepted the proposed articles, and agreed without reserve to my conditions. The six “Letters” that I sent carried six numbers of the Athenæum through three editions. Appended to the last was a string of comments by the editor, insulting and slanderous to the last degree. For a course of weeks and months from that time, that periodical assailed the characters of my mesmeriser and of my fellow-patient, the excellent girl whom I before described. It held out inducements to two medical men to terrify some of the witnesses, and traduce others, till the controversy expired in the sheer inability of the honest party to compete with rogues who stuck at no falsehoods: and finally, the Athenæum gave public notice that it would receive communications from our adversaries, and not from us. Meantime, Mr. Moxon wrote to ask me to allow him to reprint the “Letters” as a pamphlet; and I gave permission, declining to receive any profit from the sale. While the “Letters” were reprinting, the editor of the Athenæum actually wrote, and then sent his lawyer, to forbid Mr. Moxon to proceed, declaring that he claimed the property of the “Letters” by which he had already pocketed so large a profit. Of course the claim was absurd, — nothing having been paid for the articles, — which I had also told the editor it was my intention to allow to be reprinted. The editor finally stooped to say that I did not know that he had not given money on account of the “Letters” to some charity: but, when we asked whether he had, there was no reply forthcoming. Mr. Moxon of course proceeded in his re-publication, and the editor gained nothing by his move but the reputation, wherever the facts were known, of having achieved the most ill-conditioned transaction, in regard to principle, temper and taste, known to any of those who read his letters, public and private, or heard the story. — As for me, what I did was this. When I found that a conscientious witness has no chance against unscrupulous informers, I ceased to bandy statements in regard to the characters of my coadjutors: (nobody attacked mine* ) but I took measures which would avail to rectify the whole business, if it should ever become necessary to any of the injured parties to do so. I sent my solicitor to one of the unscrupulous doctors, to require from him a retractation of his original statement. This retractation, obtained in the presence, and under the sanction, of the doctor’s witness, (his pastor) I now hold, in the slanderer’s own hand-writing: and it effectually served to keep him quiet henceforward. I hold also an additional legal declaration which establishes the main fact on which the somnambule’s story of the shipwreck was attempted to be overthrown. The whole set of documents has been shown to a great variety of people, — lawyers and clergymen, among others; and all but medical men have declared, under one form of expression or another, that the evidence is as strong as evidence can be on any transaction whatever. One eminent lawyer told me that the twelve Judges would be unanimous in regard to the truth of the parties concerned, and the certainty of the facts, from the documents which were offered to the public, and the two or three which I have held in readiness to fill up any gaps of which we were not in the first instance aware. — Such a persecution could hardly be repeated now, in regard to the particular subject, — after the great amount of evidence of the facts of mesmerism which the intervening years have yielded; but it will be repeated in regard to every new discovery of a power or leading fact in nature. Human pride and prejudice cannot brook discoveries which innovate upon old associations, and expose human ignorance; and, as long as any thing in the laws of the universe remains to be revealed, there is a tolerable certainty that somebody will yet be persecuted, whatever is the age of the world. We may hope, however, that long before that, men will have become ashamed of allowing rapacity and bad faith to make use of such occasions, as the Athenæum did in the year 1844. — I may just mention that the editor was an entire stranger to me. I had never had any acquaintance with him then; and I need not say that I have desired none since.
I was as familiar as most people with the old story of the unkindly reception of new truth in natural or moral science. I had talked and moralized, like every body else, on the early Christians, on Galileo, on Harvey and his discovery, and so forth: but it all came upon me like novelty when I saw it so near, and in a certain degree, though slightly, felt it myself. It is a very great privilege to have such an experience; and especially to one who, like me, is too anxious for sympathy, and for the good opinion of personal friends. That season of recovery was one of most profitable discipline to me. At times my heart would swell that people could be so cruel to sufferers, like poor Jane and myself, recovering from years of hopeless pain; and again my spirit rose against the rank injustice of attempting to destroy reputations in a matter of scientific inquiry. But, on the whole, my strength kept up very well. I kept to myself my quiverings at the sight of the postman, and of newspapers and letters. After the first stab of every new insult, my spirit rose, and shed forth the vis medicatrix of which we all carry an inexhaustible fountain within us. I knew, steadily, and from first to last, that we were right, — my coadjutors and I. I knew that we were secure as to our facts and innocent in our intentions: and it was my earnest desire and endeavour to be no less right in temper. How I succeeded, others can tell better than I. I only know that my recovery, and the sweet sensations of restored health disposed me to good-humour, and continually reminded me how much I had gained in comparison with what I had to bear. I owed much to the fine example of poor Jane. That good girl, whose health was much less firmly established, at that time, than mine, was an orphan, and wholly dependent on her own industry, — that industry being dependent on her precarious health, and on the character which two or three physicians first, and two or three journalists after them, strove by the most profligate plotting,* to deprive her of. They tried to confound her with a woman of loose character; they bullied and threatened her; they tried to set her relations against her. But she said cheerfully that people ought not to grumble at having some penalty to pay for such blessings as rescue from blindness and restoration to health by a new method; and moreover, that they should be glad to tell the truth about it, under any abuse, and to spread the blessing if they could. So she bore her share very quietly, and with wonderful courage resisted the bullies who waited for my separation from her to frighten her into concessions: and, from that day to this, her healing hand, her time and her efforts have ever been at the service of the sick, to not a few of whom she has been a benefactress in their time of need. She has long been valued as she deserved; and she has probably forgotten that season of trial of her temper: but I felt at the time that I should never forget it; and I never have.
I was much aided and comforted during the five months that my recovery was proceeding by the visits of friends who knew more about mesmerism than I did, and who entirely approved my recourse to it. Among others came a gentleman and his wife whose name and connexions were well known to me, but whom I had not chanced ever to meet. The gentleman was one of the very earliest inquiriers into mesmerism in England in our time; and he was a practiced operator. He came out of pure benevolence, at the suggestion of a mutual friend who saw, and who told him, that this was a case of life and death, which might terminate according to the preponderance of discouragement from my own neighbouring family, or encouragement from those who understood the subject better. He came, bringing his wife; and their visit was not the less pleasant for the urgent need of it being almost past. They found me going on well under the hands of the kind lady who was restoring me. But it is clear that even then we were so moderate in our hopes as not to expect any thing like complete restoration. When they bade us farewell, we talked of meeting again at Tynemouth, — having no idea of my ever leaving the place; and in truth a journey did then appear about the most impossible of all achievements. A few weeks later, however, we had agreed that I should confirm my recovery by change of scene, and that the scene should be Windermere, on the shores of which my new friends were then living. They kindly urged their invitation on the ground that I must not give up being mesmerised suddenly or too soon, and that in their house there would be every facility for its daily use. So, early in January, 1845, my mesmeriser and I left Tynemouth, little thinking that I should never return to it. I had no sooner left my late home, however, than the evil spirit broke out so strongly, in the medical profession and in the discontented part of the family, that the consideration was forced upon me — why I should go back. There was indeed no attraction whatever but the sea; and if there had been every thing that there was not, — society, books, fine scenery, &c., — they could have been no compensation for non-intercourse with the relations who were disconcerted at my mode of recovery.
My first anxiety was to ascertain whether, in the opinion of the family, my mother should be left undisturbed in her present arrangements at Liverpool, or whether I had further services to render to her. To allow time for the fullest understanding on this head, I resolved to spend six months or more in visiting those of my family who had approved my proceedings, and in lodgings near Windermere; after which, I would determine on my course of life.
One wintry morning, while walking to Waterhead with my host, we said “what wonderful things do come to pass!” We looked back to that day twelve months, when I was lying, sick and suffering for life, as every body supposed, on my couch at Tynemouth; and we wondered what I should have said if any prophet had told me that that day twelve months I should be walking in a snow storm, with a host whom I had then never seen, looking for lodgings in which to undergo my transformation into a Laker!
[* ]The only doubtful point, as far as I know, about my own accuracy is one which is easily explained. I explained it in private letters at the time, but had no opportunity of doing more. My medical attendant charged me with first desiring that he should publish my case, and then being wroth with him for doing so. The facts are these. He spoke to me about sending an account of the case to a Medical Journal. I could not conceive why he consulted me about it; and I told him so; saying that I believed the custom was for doctors to do what they thought proper about such a proceeding; and that, as the patients are not likely ever to hear of such a use of their case, it does not, in fact, concern them at all. Some time after, he told me he was going to do it; and the very letter in which he said so enclosed one of the many very disagreeable applications at that time sent both to him and me from medical men, — requesting to know the facts of the case. My reply was that I was glad he was going to relieve me of such correspondence by putting his statement where medical men could learn what they wanted better than from me. — He then or afterwards changed his mind, forgetting to tell me so; and published the case, — not in a Medical Journal, where nobody but the profession would ever have seen it, and where I should never have heard of it, — but in a shilling pamphlet, — not even written in Latin, — but open to all the world! When, in addition to such an act as this, he declared that it was done under my sanction, I had much ado to keep any calmness at all. But the sympathy of all the world, — even of the medical profession, — was by this act secured to me: and the whole affair presently passed from my mind. The only consequence was that I could never again hold intercourse with one from whom I had so suffered.
[* ]I think I ought to relate the anecdote alluded to, to show what treatment medical men inflict on women of any rank who have recourse to mesmerism. — A girl called on my mesmeriser (the widow of a clergyman) to say that a physician of Shields, who had enjoined her not to tell his name, had desired her to ask my friend to mesmerise her for Epilepsy. We took time to consider, and found on inquiry that the patient belonged to a respectable family, her brother, with whom she lived, being a banker’s clerk, and living in a good house in Tynemouth, with his name on a brass plate on the door. We allowed her to come, attended by her sister; and she was mesmerised with obvious benefit. On the second occasion, two gentlemen from Newcastle were at tea with us. She had been introduced by the name of Ann; and Ann we called her. One of the gentlemen said, in an odd rough way, “Jane: her name is Jane:” and she said her name was Jane Ann. The next morning, he called, and very properly told us that the girl had been seduced at the age of fifteen, and had been afterwards too well known among the officers of the garrison. On inquiry, we found that she had long been repentant and reformed, so that she was now an esteemed member of the Methodist body: so we did not dismiss her to disease and death, but, with the sanction of my landlady, let her come while we remained at Tynemouth, — taking care so to admit her as that our own Jane should not see her again. — Some weeks after I had left Tynemouth, I was written to by a clergyman at Derby, who thought I ought to know what was doing by the “first physician in Derby.” He was driving about, telling his patients, as by authority, about our Tynemouth proceedings. Among other things, he related that he was informed by a physician at Shields, that those proceedings of ours were most disreputable, as “Jane of Tynemouth was a girl of loose character, too well known among the officers there.” The plot was now clear: and surely the story needs no comment. What were my wrongs, in comparison with my good Jane’s?