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YOUTH. - 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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I am indebted to friends of her youth older than herself for a picture of Harriet Martineau as she was in her school-days. “She was,” says one of them, “what is called among us in England an old-fashioned child, — sententious and thick of utterance.” “A little prim thing, with a very grave countenance, — the companion and care-taker of her younger brother, who was an irritable child.” The same sketch gives an outline of her mother. “It was the first time I had ever seen her, and she frightened me. She appeared to me to order every thing and every body right and left, and though by no means an indulgent mother, she was yet a proud one, and had confidence in the results of her own management and system of education. I was so much impressed by her cleverness, and felt that she had such a contempt for myself and the way in which I was brought up, that never, to the day of her death, did I fail to be taken by surprise by any expression on her part of confidence in my judgment, pleasure in my company, or approbation of my household. The apprehension of this formidable visitor on the first occasion made me ill. It was the setting-down way she had, which was so terrible to sensitive young people, and which her own children felt, though I do not know that the two eldest ever experienced it to the same degree. Perhaps her young mother pride and instinct suppressed it. When she was at the age of thirteen I saw much of Harriet. I remember no tenderness towards her, but the same severity and sharpness of manner, cleverness of management, and sarcastic observation of other people’s management. I thought Harriet at that time a clever child, but an odd and wise one. She used then, I remember, to be left much by herself, — put aside, as it were. . . . . At that time she was occasionally a little deaf. After this time I do not remember hearing of her except at school at Bristol, — of her being happy there, and a great favourite. What a good thing, I thought, for Harriet, that she has found friends of her own, and encouragement: for I had a vague and private idea that she was not developed at home. Next I was gratified and surprised to receive a most affectionate letter from her, on an occasion of severe affliction, and I was pleased to think I might find a second friend in that family, — her elder sister and myself having been intimate for years. Then Harriet visited me, and I began to like and understand her.” This same friend saw Harriet Martineau in various circumstances of trial and sorrow, and says thereupon, “I frequently saw her own cheerful simplicity and fortitude construed by others into coldness and indifference. I did not generalize at the time as I have since done, but I then learned that the heart runs the risk of being thought cold which does not overrule and outstep every other faculty and power. Folly, with a display of selfish feeling, is excused; but the tenderest heart obeying a higher command is not appreciated, except by those who know it intimately.”
Amid all the obstructions of this period of her early youth she was in one thing most fortunate. Her strong intellectual powers were committed to the training of a schoolmaster who was a scholar, and in companionship with his boy pupils. Both these circumstances insured her the inestimable advantage of a thorough classical and mathematical groundwork of education, freed from the mistake that there is a female road to knowledge. Her delight in reading found its satisfaction in the best English poetry, history, critical literature, and a political newspaper. Thus deeply and soundly were laid the foundations of her literary life.
Neither does her boarding-school life at Bristol seem to have been weakened down to a supposed inferiority in the needs of woman. One of her schoolmates thus gives me her impressions of that time.
“Harriet was considered among us as especially the good girl, always working diligently and conscientiously, and never seeming to think pleasure possible till duty was performed. Her companions thought her very clever, but I think she then showed no signs of brilliant abilities. She was perhaps more respected by them than loved; but liked by all; for from her they never felt any inconveniences of ill-temper and selfishness. She was not ambitious of shining or pleasing; was sometimes thought conceited because she was not content with a low aim in any thing, nor ever seemed to doubt her power to learn or to do what she proposed to herself. She had much reverence in her character, and I always thought a true humility. Her manner was quiet and reserved, rather than melancholy or timid. She appeared self-possessed, but was very silent and uncommunicative, except in quiet conversation with a friend, when her thoughtful and affectionate nature came out freely. She seldom or never talked of herself on such occasions; rather of her family and her friends, of whom she always spoke in such a way that it became a proverb among us that ‘all the Norwich geese were swans.’ Wordsworth’s line would have more correctly described her, —
“She was graver and laughed more rarely than any young person I ever knew. Her face was plain, and (you will scarcely believe it) she had no light in the countenance, no expression to redeem the features. The low brow and rather large under lip increased the effect of her natural seriousness of look, and did her much injustice. I used to be asked occasionally, ‘What has offended Harriet, that she looks so glum?’ I, who understood her, used to answer, ‘Nothing; she is not offended; it is only her look.’
“She was fond of poetry, Milton and Wordsworth especially. She first made me acquainted with Lycidas. I can now recall her tone and manner in many passages of that poem, as well as in certain parts of the New Testament, which we used to read at night together in our bedroom.
“I do not suppose that she showed promise at that time of any thing remarkable. Some were greatly surprised when she published, some years afterwards, a volume of meditations and prayers. The late Dr. Carpenter, who knew little of her except as a student in his Sunday class, expressed so much surprise at that time as to astonish me, who saw nothing in it that I did not know to be in her.”
Harriet Martineau speaks in her Autobiography of her infant concealments occasioned by fear; but the declaration of all her early friends whom I have known is uniform as to the beautiful sincerity of her character and the habitual truthfulness of her intercourse in youth. The expression of one of them is, “She seemed, above all, to desire truth in the inward part.”
All her family and friends were, at this time, disagreeably impressed with the first evidences of that integrity of mind and impartiality of judgment which made her in after life the chosen umpire and advocate of all classes and conditions of men who desire to have wrong righted. When, piercing through appearances to the very heart of things, she stood by the royal family against the Martineau family,* she was met by a shout of derision and a reprimand for immorality. Unlike the French statesman who “passed his life in coming to the rescue of the strongest,” her true and heroic instincts always drew her to the side of the most defenceless, wherever that post might chance to be. One of the latest acts of her life was an endeavour to procure the correction, by the editor of the “Nation” (an American newspaper she very highly esteemed), of a misrepresentation that had crept into it about the Prince of Wales and Dean Stanley’s sermon on his departure for India.
Thus passed the thoughtful, dutiful youth of Harriet Martineau, in serious studies, as well as others that were in that day called accomplishments. Her delight in music and in modern languages, so soon to receive a check from her increasing deafness, was still unalloyed. Her resolute spirit bore down by method and industry, even at that early age, all weakness of the flesh. To her classical and belles-lettres studies she joined biblical and metaphysical ones. But the influence of Unitarianism proper seems in her case to have been, in a sense, an obstructive one. It releases from authority without committing to reason, and is therefore obliged to rely upon routine, which fetters the imagination. Its chief excellency in England (cited by Dr. Channing as its great defect) had by this time, too, become obscure: it was no longer the synonyme of political protest; though the reflected light of Priestley’s life still illuminated it to the eye of Harriet Martineau.
All the above-mentioned studies, not customarily permitted to women at that period in England any more than in the United States, were planned for and encouraged by Mrs. Martineau. Her own superior mind bore to her unmistakable inward witness that the education which was good for her sons must be no less beneficial to her daughters; and Harriet profited by that conviction to the utmost, while cultivating to the highest degree every household accomplishment, and fulfilling every domestic duty. All this while she never suspected her own superiority, and continued to suppose herself in the wrong, or at least to be painfully puzzled, as often as she felt the sharp pain of a sphere too contracted for her faculties, and unrelieved by sympathetic appreciation. Still, she was not entirely without support of this kind. Her gentle and loving aunt and her other Bristol friends fathomed somewhat of her nature, and one of her early and elder friends in another quarter, afterwards the wife of her beloved brother Robert, reports to me the impression she made at that time, — the period of her leaving school. “I was an only and indulged child,” says this friend, “and my mother took pleasure in seeing me surround myself with my young friends; so I filled the house with them as often and as much as I liked. She used frequently to say to me on occasion of their visits, ‘Ah, my dear, Harriet Martineau is the one of your friends whose society is really a benefit to you.’ ”
To the world of readers of her Autobiography, which enables them to comprehend her whole compass of character, there remains no such mystery as shrouded it in those early days from her own household, when she seems to have been like the “ugly duckling” of Hans Christian Andersen, and made her very transparency the most incomprehensible mystery of all. They already see how her life at this period, and ever after, must perforce turn on two main points, the causes of all its joys, its sorrows, its conflicts, and its vast and happy influences: her love of truth, — the desire to come into real relations with the world of things; and her power of sympathy, — the need to come into real relations with the world of persons.
[* ]See Vol. I. p. 61.