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INFANCY. - Harriet Martineau, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, vol. 2 and Memorials of Harriet Martineau 
Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography and Memorials of Harriet Martineau, ed. Maria Weston Chapman (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
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“The poor Duckling was hunted about by every one. . . . . And the Cat said to it, ‘Can you bend your back and purr and give out sparks?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then please to have no opinion of your own while sensible folks are speaking.’ And the Duckling sat in a corner, and was melancholy, and the fresh air and the sunshine streamed in, and it was seized with such a longing to swim on the water that it could not help telling the Hen of it. ‘It is so charming to swim, and so refreshing to dive down to the bottom.’ ‘A mighty pleasure,’ said the Hen. ‘I fancy you must have gone crazy. Ask the Cat; ask our mistress the old woman, the cleverest animal I know, and who so clever as she? Do you think they have any desire to swim, and let the water close over their heads?’ ‘You don’t understand me,’ said the Duckling.”
Hans Christian Andersen.
For a thorough comprehension of the eminent personage of whose interior life we have been thus made sharers, it is necessary to cast a single retrospective glance over the land into which she was born.
It was the isolated, Tory-governed England of more than seventy years ago, — the England of agricultural, commercial, colonial, and manufacturing monopoly; the England of religious disabilities, feminine disqualifications, and sharp class distinctions; the England of unquestioned universal taxation; the England of poor-laws, game-laws, corn-laws, tithes, and slavery.
Who could have foreseen, in this delicate, suffering infant the influential opposer of all these great national evils? And yet one cannot help observing, in the current of her early feelings and thoughts as exhibited in the Autobiography, the very character which should mark the great reformer and legislator. What she was as a child she continued essentially to be as a woman. Never was a human being more of one piece through life. The few authentic anecdotes of her childhood that are to be found beyond the limits of the preceding Autobiography show the same groundwork of character as her most recent experience. There is development, improvement, progress, — but not change.
In order to appreciate justly the powers of a human being, we must note the obstacles to be overcome; and the circumstances of Harriet Martineau’s infancy were sadly obstructive. Anxious, nervous, and timid from ill health, plain in feature and awkward for lack of self-esteem, her great powers found neither recognition nor sympathy. Had they been as tenderly hailed and cherished as they were systematically humbled and denied, what a waste of energy had been avoided, and what unnecessary suffering spared! Had she been the eldest child, to have been praised by a vain mother, or the youngest, to have been petted by a fond one, she would not have been so painfully deprived of the natural current of hope and joy that lifts human nature so happily over the entrance of life. But at the period of her birth children had ceased to be a novelty in the household. The sixth of a family of eight, she was neither petted nor praised. It was her lot to be disciplined, and that not wisely. The feeble, humble, grandly endowed child was alternately neglected and tormented, and all her welfare and happiness sacrificed by the high-spirited, clever, conscientious mother, whose sense of duty far outstripped her power of sympathy.
Thus hardly dealt with by her mother, and subjected to the arrogant quizzing of the elder children, the first words of encouragement she ever received came to her in the guise of severity. She was suffering from a fly having got into her eye. “Harriet!” said the mother, firmly grasping her for the operation, “I know that you have resolution, and you must stand still till I get it out.” Thus conjured, the startled, nervous little creature never stirred till the obstruction was removed. — And was she, the trembling little one, “with cheeks pale as clay,” “flat white forehead over which the hair grew low,” “eyes hollow, — eyes light, large, and full, generally red with crying, — a thoroughly scared face,” — was she, then, resolute? She ran to the great gateway near the street, and beckoned to a playmate, to tell her what her mother had said. “Is that all you have made me come to hear?” It was the first encouraging word she had ever heard, and she could find no one with whom to share the new joy. Till now she had never thought herself worth any thing whatever. Her whole infancy confirmed the profound intuition of Madame de Staël, that suffering carries trouble even into the conscience. She had naturally thought, because she was miserable, that she was stupid, wicked, and disagreeable. Henceforward, scoldings always cheered her when they implied a recognition of any value in her character or acquirements. An accusation of carelessness was in this way converted into a sort of moral support. Her tippet slipped awry one Sunday morning before chapel; and, while pinning it straight, her mother sternly bade her remember that superior book-knowledge will never make up for being troublesome. All service-time and long after did she ponder whether she had book-knowledge. To such a child “the taking-down system,” as she has called it, might have been fatal. And it seems to have been England’s fatal mistake, — the mistake of a race as well as that of a family; — in education, in criticism, in legislation. New England, though more lax in educational discipline, has been thought by strangers no less cold and dry of heart than Old England. The distinguished French statesman and author, Gustave de Beaumont, observing upon the extreme rarity of any demonstrations of tenderness in American households, declares that the few families in which he noticed them were called in derision “the kissing families.”
The probability seems to be that an examination of French and English domestic life would prove the happy childhood of Marmontel and the wretched one of Lady Jane Grey to be tolerable representative cases for each nation. The “little hearts palpitating with joy” to the bubbling of the boiling chestnuts, “the best of grandmothers and the most temperate of women making us all gluttons by dividing among us the quince she had so much enjoyed roasting for us beneath the ashes,” — is the French pendant to the English picture of Lady Jane Grey, rigorously held, “with pinches, nips, and bobs,” to do every thing “even so perfectly as God made the world;” — till, for very wretchedness, she wished herself well out of it. In such national pictures, rank makes no difference. The whole is a matter of race; and the advantage is so manifestly with the gentler one, as to demand a reform in the other. The sterner one claims that its hardness and coldness are merely exterior. Be it so. But there are some overt acts that warm and tender hearts should debar themselves: — flogging, fagging, and “taking down.” Harriet Martineau’s opposite nature rose up in after times against it, in all these departments of human life. The sweet, protesting Huguenot blood seems to have been concentrated in so large a measure in Harriet Martineau, and so combined with her other great endowments, as to make her a mystery to her family. This a child could not, of course, suspect or comprehend; and she went on blaming herself at every instance of incompatibility. Well might her affectionate, sympathetic nature cry aloud from that time forward for gentler methods of discipline and a freer effusion of heart; since only twice in all her childhood could she remember to have received any demonstrations of tenderness.
One among many anecdotes which come to me perfectly authenticated shows how impossible it was for Harriet Martineau to conceive of those class distinctions which are so generally uppermost in the thoughts of her countrymen, as to have drawn satirical rebuke from minds utterly unlike her own, in being by no means too grandly made to be instantly classified.
A distant cousin, of a branch of the family which had fallen through poverty into a social position inferior to the rest, became the subject of conversation in Harriet’s hearing. “After all,” observed the mother, “she is the handsomest of the clan.” When her mother and Mrs. Opie were talking over the annoyance of the begging relation, Harriet repeated the remark about the solitary beauty of the family. “Why should she not repeat it?” was her reply to subsequent reproofs. “Indeed, Harriet, if you do not see why, it is of no use to try to explain to you.” Of no use, in truth. Her choice and treatment of subjects in her whole literary career show that she never attained the power of attaching ideas of disgrace or honour to mere social conditions: and she transcended them in every direction, from childhood onward.
Whether all be for the best or no, one thing is certain, — that the best may always be made of it. Heart-breaking as it is to see the noblest germs of human character treated as weeds to be eradicated, and the broad, deep sympathies that knew no limitations of egotism mistakenly repressed, and their necessary reaction strangely stigmatized as arrogance and obstinacy, there is a consolation in the thought that all this weight of suffering inflicted on a being so conscientious and sensitive, however hurtful as personal discipline, wrought a preparation for incalculable public service. The affections so outraged and repressed did but flow the stronger and deeper. Injustice could not pervert a natural rectitude so true, nor oppression harden into selfishness a sympathy so tender. They did but render “metal-strong” the poet heart that gave itself to life’s great organ-music in the after years, so early, so gladly, and with so full a consciousness.