On the last evening of my stay at Mr. Knight’s a parcel arrived for me, enclosing a book, and a note which was examined as few notes ever are. The book was “Shirley;” and the note was from “Currer Bell.” Here it is.
“Currer Bell offers a copy of “Shirley” to Miss Martineau’s acceptance, in acknowledgment of the pleasure and profit she [sic] he has derived from her works. When C. B. first read “Deerbrook” he tasted a new and keen pleasure, and experienced a genuine benefit. In his mind, “Deerbrook” ranks with the writings that have really done him good, added to his stock of ideas, and rectified his views of life.”
“November 7th, 1849.”
We examined this note to make out whether it was written by a man or a woman. The hand was a cramped and nervous one, which might belong to any body who had written too much, or was in bad health, or who had been badly taught. The erased “she” seemed at first to settle the matter; but somebody suggested that the “she” might refer to me under a form of sentence which might easily have been changed in the penning. I had made up my mind, as I had repeatedly said, that a certain passage in “Jane Eyre,” about sewing on brass rings, could have been written only by a woman or an upholsterer. I now addressed my reply externally to “Currer Bell, Esq.,” and began it “Madam.” — I had more reason for interest than even the deeply-interested public in knowing who wrote “Jane Eyre;” for, when it appeared, I was taxed with the authorship by more than one personal friend, and charged by others, and even by relatives, with knowing the author, and having supplied some of the facts of the first volume from my own childhood. When I read it, I was convinced that it was by some friend of my own, who had portions of my childish experience in his or her mind. “Currer Bell” told me, long after, that she had read with astonishment those parts of “Household Education” which relate my own experience. It was like meeting her own fetch, — so precisely were the fears and miseries there described the same as her own, told or not told in “Jane Eyre.”
A month after my receipt of “Shirley,” I removed, on a certain Saturday, from the house of a friend in Hyde Park Street to that of a cousin in Westbourne Street, in time for a dinner party. Meanwhile, a messenger was running about to find me, and reached my cousin’s when we were at dessert, bringing the following note.
December 8th, 1849.
“My dear Madam,—
I happen to be staying in London for a few days; and having just heard that you are likewise in town, I could not help feeling a very strong wish to see you. If you will permit me to call upon you, have the goodness to tell me when to come. Should you prefer calling on me, my address is ... ... ... ...
“Do not think this request springs from mere curiosity. I hope it has its origin in a better feeling. It would grieve me to lose this chance of seeing one whose works have so often made her the subject of my thoughts.
“I am, my dear Madam,
My host and hostess desired me to ask the favour of C. B.’s company the next day, or any subsequent one. According to the old dissenting custom of early hours on Sundays, we should have tea at six the next evening: — on any other day, dinner at a somewhat later hour. The servant was sent with this invitation on Sunday morning, and brought back the following reply.
“My dear Madam,—
I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you at six o’clock today: — and I shall try now to be patient till six o’clock comes.”
“I am, &c., &c.”
“That is a woman’s note,” we agreed. We were in a certain state of excitement all day, and especially towards evening. The footman would certainly announce this mysterious personage by his or her right name; and, as I could not hear the announcement, I charged my cousins to take care that I was duly informed of it. A little before six, there was a thundering rap: — the drawing-room door was thrown open, and in stalked a gentleman six feet high. It was not “Currer,” but a philanthropist, who had an errand about a model lodging-house. Minute by minute I, for one, wished him away; and he did go before any body else came. Precisely as the time-piece struck six, a carriage stopped at the door; and after a minute of suspense, the footman announced “Miss Brogden;” whereupon, my cousin informed me that it was Miss Brontë; for we had heard the name before, among others, in the way of conjecture.—I thought her the smallest creature I had ever seen (except at a fair) and her eyes blazed, as it seemed to me. She glanced quickly round; and my trumpet pointing me out, she held out her hand frankly and pleasantly. I introduced her, of course, to the family; and then came a moment which I had not anticipated. When she was seated by me on the sofa, she cast up at me such a look, — so loving, so appealing, — that, in connexion with her deep mourning dress, and the knowledge that she was the sole survivor of her family, I could with the utmost difficulty return her smile, or keep my composure. I should have been heartily glad to cry. We soon got on very well; and she appeared more at her ease that evening than I ever saw her afterwards, except when we were alone. My hostess was so considerate as to leave us together after tea, in case of C. B. desiring to have private conversation with me. She was glad of the opportunity to consult me about certain strictures of the reviewers which she did not understand, and had every desire to profit by. I did not approve the spirit of those strictures; but I thought them not entirely groundless. She besought me then, and repeatedly afterwards, to tell her, at whatever cost of pain to herself, if I saw her afford any justification of them. I believed her, (and I now believe her to have been) perfectly sincere: but when the time came (on the publication of “Villette,” in regard to which she had expressly claimed my promise a week before the book arrived) she could not bear it. There was never any quarrel, or even misunderstanding between us. She thanked me for my sincere fulfilment of my engagement; but she could not, she said, come “at present” to see me, as she had promised: and the present was alas! all that she had to dispose of. She is dead, before another book of hers could (as I hoped it would) enable her to see what I meant, and me to re-establish a fuller sympathy between us. — Between the appearance of “Shirley” and that of “Villette,” she came to me; — in December, 1850. Our intercourse then confirmed my deep impression of her integrity, her noble conscientiousness about her vocation, and her consequent self-reliance in the moral conduct of her life. I saw at the same time tokens of a morbid condition of mind, in one or two directions; — much less than might have been expected, or than would have been seen in almost any one else under circumstances so unfavourable to health of body and mind as those in which she lived; and the one fault which I pointed out to her in “Villette” was so clearly traceable to these unwholesome influences that I would fain have been spared a task of criticism which could hardly be of much use while the circumstances remained unchanged. But she had exacted first the promise, and then the performance in this particular instance; and I had no choice. “I know,” she wrote (January 21st, 1853) “that you will give me your thoughts upon my book, — as frankly as if you spoke to some near relative whose good you preferred to her gratification. I wince under the pain of condemnation — like any other weak structure of flesh and blood; but I love, I honour, I kneel to Truth. Let her smite me on one cheek — good! the tears may spring to the eyes; but courage! There is the other side — hit again — right sharply!” This was the genuine spirit of the woman. She might be weak for once; but her permanent temper was one of humility, candour, integrity and conscientiousness. She was not only unspoiled by her sudden and prodigious fame, but obviously unspoilable. She was somewhat amused by her fame, but oftener annoyed; — at least, when obliged to come out into the world to meet it, instead of its reaching her in her secluded home, in the wilds of Yorkshire. There was little hope that she, the frail survivor of a whole family cut off in childhood or youth, could live to old age; but, now that she is gone, under the age of forty, the feeling is that society has sustained an unexpected, as well as irreparable loss.
I have often observed that, from the time I wrote the Prize Essays, I have never come to a stand for work; — have never had any anxiety as to whether there would be work for me; — have, in short, only had to choose my work. Holiday I have never had, since before that time, except in as far as my foreign travels, and a few months of illness could be called such: and it had now been a weight on my mind for some years that I had not got on with my autobiography, — which I felt to be a real duty. I find that I wrote this to Mr. Atkinson, when under uneasiness about whether Murray would hold to his engagement to publish “Eastern Life” (February 1848.) “It is a very great and pressing object with me to go on with my own Life; lest it should end before I have recorded what I could trust no one to record of it. I always feel this a weight upon my mind, as a duty yet undone; and my doing it within a moderate time depends on my getting this book out now.” It was got out; but then came the History, which could not be delayed, and which I should have done wrong to refuse. Now that those three great volumes were nearly done, Mr. Dickens sent me an invitation to write for “Household Words.” That kind of work does not, in my own opinion, suit me well; and I have refused to write for Magazines by the score; but the wide circulation of “Household Words” made it a peculiar case; and I agreed to try my hand, — while I was yet a good way from the end of my History. I did this with the more ease because a scheme was now rising to the light which would relieve me of much of the anxiety I felt about recording the later experiences of my life. The Atkinson Letters were by this time in preparation.
The publication of those letters was my doing. Having found, after some years of correspondence with Mr. Atkinson, that my views were becoming broader and clearer, my practice of duty easier and gayer, and my peace of mind something wholly unlike what I had ever had experience of before; and, being able to recognize and point out what fundamental truths they were that I had thus been brought to grasp, I thought that much good might be done by our making known, as master and pupil, what truths lay at the root of our philosophy. If I had known — what I could not know till the reception of our volume revealed it to me, — how small is the proportion of believers to the disbelievers in theology to what I imagined, — I might have proposed a different method; or we might have done our work in a different way. In regard to disbelief in theology, much more had already taken place than I, at least, was aware of. But there is an essential point, — the most essential of all, — in regard to which the secular and the theological worlds seem to need conviction almost equally: viz., the real value of science, and of philosophy as its legitimate offspring. It seems to us, even now, the most impossible, or, speaking cautiously, the rarest thing in the world to find any body who has the remotest conception of the indispensableness of science as the only source of, not only enlightenment, but wisdom, goodness and happiness. It is, of course, useless to speak to theologians or their disciples about this, while they remain addicted to theology, because they avowedly give their preference to theology over the science with which it is incompatible. They, in the face of clear proof that science and theology are incompatible, embrace theology as the foundation of wisdom, goodness and happiness. They incline, all the while, to what they call philosophy; — that is, to theologico-metaphysics, from which they derive, as they say, (and truly) improvement in intellectual power, and confirmation of their religious faith in one direction, nearly equivalent to the damage inflicted on it in another. The result must be, when the study is real and earnest, either that the metaphysics must dwindle away into a mere fanciful adornment of the theology, or the theology must be in time stripped of its dogmatic character, exhausted thereby of its vitality, and reduced to a mere name and semblance. Examples of the first alternative are conspicuous in the argumentative preachers and writers of the Church of England, and other Christian sects; and, we may add, in the same functionaries of the Romish Church, who thus unconsciously yield to the tendencies of their age so far as to undermine the foundations of their own “everlasting” church. Examples of the second alternative are conspicuous, in our own country and in America, in the class of metaphysical deists, — who may be, by courtesy, called a class because they agree in being metaphysical, and, in one way or another, deists; but who cannot be called a sect, or a body, because it is scarcely possible to find any two of them who agree in any thing with any approach to precision. One makes the Necessarian doctrine his chief reliance, while another denounces it as atheistic. One insists on the immortality of the soul, while another considers a future life doubtful, and a matter of no great consequence. Others belong, amid an unbounded variety of minor views, to one or another of the five sorts of pantheism. All these claim to be philosophers, and scientific in the matter of mental philosophy; while observers discover that all are wandering wide of the central point of knowledge and conviction, — each in his own balloon, wafted in complacency by whatever current he may be caught by, and all crossing each other, up and down, right or left, all manner of ways, hopeless of finding a common centre till they begin to conceive of, and seek for, a firm standpoint.
The so-called scientific men, who consider themselves philosophers, are, for the most part, in a scarcely more promising condition. Between their endless subdivision as labourers in the field of research, before they have discovered any incorporating principle; and the absorbing and blinding influence of exclusive attention to detail; and some remaining fear of casting themselves loose from theology, together with their share of the universal tendency to cling to the old notions even in their own department, — the men of science are almost as hopelessly astray, as to the discovery of true wisdom, as the theologians. Well read men, who call themselves impartial and disinterested, as they stand aloof and observe all these others, are no nearer to the blessed discovery or conviction. They extol philosophy, perhaps; but it is merely on the ground that (conceiving metaphysics to be philosophy) it is a fine exercise of the subtle powers of the intellect. As to science, they regard it either as a grave and graceful pastime, or they see no use in it, or they consider it valuable for its utilitarian results. As for the grand conception, — the inestimable recognition, — that science, (or the knowledge of fact, inducing the discovery of laws) is the sole and the eternal basis of wisdom, — and therefore of human morality and peace, — none of all these seem to have obtained any view of it at all. For my part, I must in truth say that Mr. Atkinson is the only person, of the multitude I have known, who has clearly apprehended this central truth. He found me searching after it; and he put me in clear possession of it. He showed me how all moral evil, and much, and possibly all, physical evil arises from intellectual imperfection, — from ignorance and consequent error. He led me to sympathise in Bacon’s philosophy, in a truer way than the multitude of Bacon’s theological and metaphysical professed adorers; and to see how a man may be happier than his fellows who obeys Bacon’s incitements to the pursuit of truth, as the greatest good of man. There is plenty of talk of the honour and blessedness of the unflinching pursuit of truth, wherever it may lead; but I never met any one else who lived for that object, or who seemed to understand the nature of the apostleship. I have already told where I was in (or in pursuit of) this path when Mr. Atkinson found me. Learning what I could from him, and meditating for myself, I soon found myself quite outside of my old world of thought and speculation, — under a new heaven and on a new earth; disembarrassed of a load of selfish cares and troubles; with some of my difficulties fairly solved, and others chased away, like bad dreams; and others, again, deprived of all power to trouble me, because the line was clearly drawn between the feasible and the unknowable. I had got out of the prison of my own self, wherein I had formerly sat trying to interpret life and the world, — much as a captive might undertake to paint the aspect of Nature from the gleams and shadows and faint colours reflected on his dungeon walls. I had learned that, to form any true notion whatever of any of the affairs of the universe, we must take our stand in the external world, — regarding man as one of the products and subjects of the everlasting laws of the universe, and not as the favourite of its Maker; a favourite to whom it is rendered subservient by divine partiality. I had learned that the death-blow was given to theology when Copernicus made his discovery that our world was not the centre and shrine of the universe, where God had placed man “in his own image,” to be worshipped and served by all the rest of creation. I had learned that men judge from an inverted image of external things within themselves when they insist upon the Design argument, as it is called, — applying the solution from out of their own peculiar faculties to external things which, in fact, suggest that very conception of design to the human faculty. I had learned that whatever conception is transferred by “instinct” or supposition from the human mind to the universe cannot possibly be the true solution, as the action of any product of the general laws of the universe cannot possibly be the original principle of those laws. Hence it followed that the conceptions of a God with any human attributes whatever, of a 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, must be mere visions, — necessary and useful in their day, but not philosophically and permanently true. I had learned, above all, that only by a study of the external and internal world in conjunction can we gather such wisdom as we are qualified to attain; and that this study must be bonâ fide, — personal and diligent, and at any sacrifice, if we would become such as we hint to ourselves in our highest and truest aspirations. The hollowness of the popular views of philosophy and science, — as good intellectual exercise, as harmless, as valuable in a utilitarian sense, and even as elevating in their mere influence, — was, by this time, to me the clearest thing I ever saw: and the opposite reality, — that philosophy founded upon science is the one thing needful, — the source and the vital principle of all intellectuality, all morality, and all peace to individuals, and good will among men, — had become the crown of my experience, and the joy of my life.
One of the earliest consequent observations was, of course, that the science of Human Nature, in all its departments, is yet in its infancy. The mere principle of Mental Philosophy is, as yet, very partially recognized; and the very conception of it is new. It is so absolutely incompatible with theology that the remaining prevalence of theology, circumscribed as it is, sufficiently testifies to the infant state of the philosophy of Man. I have found Mr. Atkinson’s knowledge of Man, general and particular, physical, intellectual and moral; theoretical and practical, greater than I ever met with elsewhere, in books or conversation; and I immediately discovered that his superior knowledge was due to his higher and truer point of view, whereby he could cast light from every part of the universe upon the organisation and action of Man, and use and test the analogies from without in their application to the world within. I had long desired that the years should not pass over his head without the world being the better, as I felt myself, for his fresh method of thought, and conscientious exercise of it. I wished that some others besides myself should be led by him to the true point of view which they were wandering in search of; and I therefore went as far as I dared in urging him to give the world a piece of his mind. At length he consented to my scheme of publishing a set of “Letters on Man’s Nature and Development.” Certainly I have reason to congratulate myself on my pertinacity in petitioning for this. I do not often trouble my friends with requests or advice as to their doings: and in this case, I was careful not to intrude on my friend’s independence. But I succeeded; and I have rejoiced in my success ever since, — seeing and hearing what that book has done for others, and feeling very sensibly what a blessing it has been to myself.
Once embarked in the scheme, my friend was naturally anxious to get on; but he was wonderfully patient with the slowness to which the pressure of my other work condemned us. I have mentioned that I read two of his letters to my hostess in the autumn of 1849. The book did not appear till January 1851. My literary practice indicated that I ought to copy out the whole of Mr. Atkinson’s portion in proper order for press; and this was the more necessary because Mr. Atkinson’s hand-writing is only not so bad as Dr. Parr’s and Sydney Smith’s. When I began, I supposed I must alter and amend a little, to fit the expression to the habit and taste of the reading world; but, after the first letter, I did not alter a single sentence. The style seems to me, — as it does to many better judges than myself, — as beautiful as it is remarkable. Eminent writers and readers have said that they could not lay the book down till they had run it through, — led on through the night by the beauty of the style, no less than by the interest of the matter. Such opinions justify my decision not to touch a sentence. (I speak of the volume without scruple, because, as far as its merits are concerned, it is Mr. Atkinson’s. The responsibility was mine, and a fourth or fifth part of its contents; but my letters were a mere instigation to his utterance.)
It appears, by the dates above, that nearly the whole of 1850 elapsed during my copying. I was writing the Introductory Volume of the History, and was in the midst of a series of papers, (the title of which I cannot recal) for an American periodical, whereby I wanted to earn some money for the Abolition cause there. I sent off the last of them in April. By that time, my season guests began to arrive; and my evenings were not at my own disposal. I had engaged myself to “Household Words” for a series of tales on Sanitary subjects; and I wrote this spring the two first, — “Woodruffe the Gardener” and “The People of Bleaburn.”
I spent a fortnight at Armathwaite, a beautiful place between Penrith and Carlisle; (departing, I remember, on the day of Wordsworth’s funeral) and, though I carried my work, and my kind friends allowed me the disposal of my mornings, I could not do any work which would bear postponement. I looked forward hopefully to a ten weeks’ sojourn at a farm-house near Bolton Abbey, where I went to escape the tourist-season; and there I did get on. My house had been full of guests, from April till the end of July, with little intermission: and the greater the pleasure of receiving one’s friends, the worse goes one’s work. Among the guests of that spring were three who came together, and who together made an illustrious week, — Mr. Charles Knight, Mr. Douglas Jerrold, and Mr. Atkinson. Four days were spent in making that circuit of the district which forms the ground-plan of my “Complete Guide:” and memorable days they were. We were amused at the way in which some bystander at Strands recorded his sense of this in a Kendal paper. He told how the tourists were beginning to appear for the season, and how I had been seen touring with a party of the élite of the literary world, &c., &c. He declared that I, with these élite, had crossed the mountains “in a gig” to Strands, and that wit and repartee had genially flowed throughout the evening; — an evening, as it happened, when our conversation was rather grave. I was so amused at this that I cut out the paragraph, and sent it to Mr. Jerrold, who wrote back that, while the people were about it, they might as well have put us into a howdah on an elephant. It would have been as true as the gig, and far grander. — I owed the pleasure of Mr. Jerrold’s acquaintance to Mr. Knight; and I wish I had known him more. My first impression was one of surprise, — not at his remarkable appearance, of which I was aware; — the eyes and the mobile countenance, the stoop, and the small figure, reminding one of Coleridge, without being like him, — but at the gentle and thoughtful kindness which set its mark on all he said and did. Somehow, all his good things were so dropped as to fall into my trumpet, without any trouble or ostentation. This was the dreaded and unpopular man who must have been hated (for he was hated) as “Punch” and not as Jerrold, — through fear, and not through reason or feeling. His wit always appeared to me as gentle as it was honest, — as innocent as it was sound. I could say of him as of Sydney Smith, that I never heard him say, in the way of raillery, any thing of others that I should mind his saying of me. I never feared him in the least, nor saw reason why any but knaves or fools should fear him. — The other witty journalist of my time, Mr. Fonblanque, I knew but little, having met him only at Mr. Macready’s, I think. I once had the luck to have him all to myself, during a long dinner; and I found his conversation as agreeable for other qualities as for its wit. The pale face, the lank hair, the thin hands, and dimmed dark eye, speaking of ill health, made the humour of his conversation the more impressive, as recommended by patience and amiability.
But to return to my summer of 1850. At Bolton I was not by any means lonely; for tourists came there too; and relations and friends gave me many a pleasant day and evening. But, on the whole, the History got on very well in the mornings, and the transcribing of the Letters in the evening; and, but for the relaxing air of the place, which injured my health, that Bolton sojourn would have been a season of singular enjoyment. With the same dear, faithful old friend whom I have so often referred to, I saw Ilkley and Benrhydding, and some of the finest parts of the West of Yorkshire. I found time to write another long story for “Household Words,” (“The Marsh fog and the Sea breeze”) and engaged to make my subscription to the new weekly journal, “the Leader” (which has lagged terribly, instead of leading) in the form of twelve “Sketches from Life,” which I began before the Atkinson Letters were well off my hands. Another small piece of authorship which interposed itself was really no fault of mine. In 1848 (I think it was) I had begun an experiment of very small farming, which I never intended to become an affair of public interest. My field, let to a neighbour, was always in such bad condition as to be an eye-sore from my windows. I found myself badly and expensively served with cream and butter, and vegetables, and eggs. In summer, there was no depending on the one butcher of the place for meat, even though joints had been timely ordered and promised, — so great and increasing was the pressure of the tourist multitude. In winter, when I was alone, and did not care what came to table, I could have what I liked: but in summer, when my house was full, it was frequently an anxiety how to get up a dinner when the butcher was so set fast as to have to divide the promised joint between three houses. All the while, I had to pay an occasional gardener very high, to keep the place in any order at all, — over and above what my maids and I could do. A more serious consideration was the bad method of farming in the Lake District, which seemed to need an example of better management, on however humble a scale. My neighbours insisted on it that cows require three acres of land apiece; whereas I believed that, without emulating Cobbett, I could do better than that. I procured an active, trustworthy married labourer from Norfolk, and enlisted his ambition and sympathy in the experiment. We have since kept about a cow and a-half on my land, with the addition of half an acre which I rent from the adjoining field; and the purchase of a fourth part of the food is worth while, because I am thus kept constantly supplied with milk, while able to sell the surplus; besides that the stable may as well hold a second cow; and that two cows are little more trouble than one. My whole place is kept in the highest order: I have the comfort of a strong man on the premises (his cottage being at the foot of the knoll) for the protection of my household and property; and I have always had the satisfaction of feeling that, come who may, there are at all times hams, bacon and eggs in the house. The regular supply of fresh vegetables, eggs, cream and butter is a substantial comfort to a housekeeper. A much greater blessing than all these together is that a plentiful subsistence for two worthy people has been actually created out of my field; and that the spectacle has certainly not been lost on my neighbours. At first, we were abundantly ridiculed, and severely condemned for our methods; and my good servant’s spirits were sometimes sorely tried: but I told him that if we persevered good-humouredly, people would come round to our views. And so they did. First, I was declared deluded and extravagant: next, I was cruel to my live stock; then, I petted them so that they would die of luxury; and finally, one after another of our neighbours admitted the fine plight of my cows; and a few adopted our methods. At the end of a year’s experience, I wrote a letter, by request, to an Assistant Poor-law Commissioner, who was earnest in his endeavours to get workhouses supplied with milk and vegetables, by the labour of the inmates on the land. To my amazement, I found my letter in the “Times,” one day while I was at Bolton. How it got there, I know not. Other papers quoted portions of it which, separated from the rest, gave rise to wrong impressions; so that I found it necessary to write a second letter, giving the result of the second year’s tillage; and to issue the two as a small pamphlet. I need say nothing here about our method of farming, as the whole story is told in that pamphlet. I may simply add that we go on with it, very comfortably; and that my good farm-servant is a prosperous man. Strangers come every summer to see the place as a curiosity; and I am assured that the invariable remark is that not a foot of ground is lost, and not a sign of neglect appears in any corner. I have added a little boiling-house, a root-house, and a capital manure-pit, since those letters were written; and I have put up a higher order of fences, — to the improvement at once of the appearance and the economy of my little estate. All this, with the growth of the shrubs and little copses, and the spread of roses and evergreen climbers over the house, makes my Knoll dwelling, to say the truth, a charming spectacle to visitors; — though not half so much as to me. Some have called it “a perfect poem:” and it is truly that to me: and so, speaking frankly, is the life that I have passed within it.