Front Page Titles (by Subject) FOREIGN LIFE, — EASTERN. - Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, vol. 2 and Memorials of Harriet Martineau
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FOREIGN LIFE, — EASTERN. - 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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FOREIGN LIFE, — EASTERN.
“I felt my brow strike against the stairway, and in an instant my feet were on the steps. . . . . I perceived that each successive step, as my foot left it, broke away from beneath me. . . . . And thus did I for a few seconds continue to ascend. . . . . Till, happy as a shipwrecked mariner at the first touch of land, I found my feet on firm ground.”
Harriet Martineau’s health restored, and with it her restoration to what was always so precious to her, — the society of her family and friends, — her mesmeric mission accomplished, her house built and time taken to confirm her cure, the way then opened for the best use of her renovated powers.
She had lived the life of her time, in sympathy with its every variety of human being, and she was now, by sympathy, to enter into the life of all time; passing successively, by means of modern travel, through the fourfold life of Eastern antiquity. The book she subsequently wrote, combining as it does the deepest studies, thoughts, and feelings with the interests and acts of daily life in the lands called “blest” and “cursed” and “holy,” — the lands of the pyramids and of the desert, her thoughts meanwhile sweeping through all time from Menes to Moses, and from Nazareth to Mecca, — fully merits the title of “Eastern Life, Present and Past.”
It harmonizes what is perdurable in the four faiths of Egypt, Sinai, Palestine, and Syria; and shows how the main ideas of moral obligation, strict retribution, the supreme desire of moral good, and the everlasting beauty of holiness are ever passing through all systems from age to age, gathering to themselves all with which they are in agreement, and finally annihilating all besides, and crowning with blessings the whole human race.
As Harriet Martineau’s life was a continual progress, it might be expected that, after such far-reaching thoughts as she has recorded, she should begin to cast back a depreciatory glance upon what was transient in her life in America and her life in a sick-room, — as, for example, upon the metaphysical disquisitions and the traditional forms, — while seizing with an ever-strengthening grasp on what is everlasting. Philosophy was superseding metaphysics.
Besides being a standing benefit to Eastern travellers, the book keeps its place as a way-mark and stands as a philosophical stepping-stone in the public mind. On its first appearance, thirty years ago, it was warmly praised, with a reservation. Now, its reappearance is hailed with unreserved satisfaction. One of her latest acts was to write a preface for the new edition. Of course there are never wanting those who stigmatize this work of a good heart seeking and appropriating its own through the past, as an unpardonable deviation from the present; but the book is generally felt to be one of those things which survive their day, to light the path of those about to enter upon a serious search for truth. It is a preparation of heart, and the mind soon follows the heart’s lead.
To know the impression it made on its first appearance on minds qualified by literary cultivation to appreciate it in part, one should turn back to the “Edinburgh Review” of 1848, where one of the representatives of literature spoke thus warmly of it, selecting for commendation the description of the temples of Philœ.
“A work giving fresh interest to the beaten track of Egyptian travel and researches was put into our hands, — Miss Martineau’s ‘Eastern Life,’ of which the first volume and part of the second relate to ‘Egypt and its Faith.’ Excellent as a book of travels, it is equally excellent as an adjunct to history. Miss Martineau unites the observant with the learned traveller, sees for herself, even after Eothen; and has put spirit into the dry bones of Champollion, Wilkinson, and Lane. The bustle of Cairo and the solitude of Thebes are sketched with equal power and truth; even the desert has its gorgeous hues, and the silence of centuries becomes eloquent in her pages. A single extract is all we can afford at present. Were we looking out for a merely descriptive or a merely reflective passage, or for one startling from its speculative boldness, we should be at a loss where to begin and where to end. But as we must begin and end with a single extract, we have selected the following observations, as not only true in themselves, when properly limited and understood, but of general application to all researches which have for their object the practical moral and intellectual life of antiquity. The tendency of Europe, at the revival of classical learning, was to idolize the past. We now incline to desecrate and depose it. The earlier propensity was that of the bookworm; the latter is that of the sciolist. Surely there is a medium in which scepticism may acquiesce and faith repose; in which research and reverence may be reconciled, and the present illustrate without disfiguring the past. Detur hœc venia antiquitati ut, miscendo humana divinis, primordia augustiora faciat.”
In order to possess at first hand the vivid descriptions and penetrative thoughts from which the book on Eastern Life was made, one must search the voluminous Eastern Journal. It is filled not only with wayside adventures and interviews with persons of all nations, but also with citations from past writers in comparison with present conditions, accompanied by pencil-drawings illustrating the temples and architecture, the rocks and various changes of scenery through which the little party passed, amid the bustle of Cairo and the solitude of Thebes, — and so onward. One should travel in imagination in company with these closely written pages in Nile boats and on camels’ backs to the journey’s end; for it is but here and there a glance that can in this place be afforded, whether at things or thoughts. But these are not countries, as she herself says of Egypt, to go to for recreation.
“All is too suggestive and too confounding to be met but in the spirit of study. One’s powers of observation sink under the perpetual exercise of thought; and the light-hearted voyager who sets forth from Cairo eager for new scenes and days of frolic, comes back an antique, a citizen of the world of six thousand years ago.”
. . . . I used to be surprised to find how much less preternatural Shakspere appeared after I became acquainted with some of the elder dramatists; and for a long time I have been becoming aware how much Judaism owes to Egyptian predecession, and Christianity to both; and to heathen wisdom mingled with it, — not by Christianity, but by the recorders of the Gospel. And I see much less advance upon the wisdom of heathendom than I used to suppose; the chief wonder to me now being in the comprehensiveness of mind which existed in a Jew, and in the popular purport of his mission and instructions. And the farther I go in an Eastern country the more natural and accountable seems the whole matter, — the more easily supposable in the ordinary course of human thought and action. And to me it is much more animating and encouraging to see that, in natural course, and by ordinary operation of universal faculties, prophets and saviours arise, and will doubtless continue to arise, than to believe that by a special intervention one Redeemer was once sent, whose influence has certainly, thus far, not been adequate to so singular an occasion and office. What I already see and learn of Oriental life and modes of thought takes as much from the marvellousness of the Bible as it enhances the hopefulness of its purposes and of the destiny of universal man. It does not follow from this that the best prepared and exercised imagination will not on the spot see the deepest and the most clearly, — even as Lord Byron could see more of the beauties of Lake Leman than a dolt, though he found it impossible to write poetry in the actual scene, and had to wait till he got within four walls, as all writers have to do who write any thing worth reading, unless they have power of abstraction enough to enable them to abolish their surroundings. Surely the destiny of man is secure and clear enough under these great conditions, — that he shall be for ever living in the presence of and in general allegiance to great ideas as historical facts, till he can entertain them fitly for their own sake, and that by the natural structure of the human mind such great ideas must for ever be arising in the succession needed; the order being, Need, Appliance, Superstition, Philosophy, Wisdom, — a new Need having meantime arisen to animate, a new Gain through the same process.
Then follows a rapid wayside story of interviews with Selim Pasha; and the description that gives local colour to her book: —
Yellow beaches, shady palms, rugged Libyan Hills, glowing red and orange sunsets with green and lilac shed between upon the waters, the young moon meanwhile so bright behind the branches of trees that any one would have noted it, notwithstanding the surrounding brightness, as a hazy heavenly body. Moored to an island for the night. The country fertile and much tilled; the people in good condition. Many water-draughts. The men work only two hours at a time. A voice along the banks proclaims the resting-time. They are mostly small proprietors. Much tobacco and millet. Mr. Yates gathered what seems to be cotton. The yellow flower beautiful. Castor-oil plant beautiful too. I suppose the dogs of the peasantry are really formidable, from the warnings given to me of them. But I never remember to be afraid of them. The excitement about Thebes now began. We were looking towards the Libyan Hills which contained the tombs of the kings. We got into a wind which carried us nimbly on towards the great point of our voyage. To the east spread a wide, level country, backed by peaked mountains, quite unlike the massive Arabian rocks with which we had become so familiar.
Alee pointed out some of the heavy Karnac ruins behind the wood on the eastern bank. Very large and massive they looked. But the chief interest, as yet, was on the other shore. There we saw through glasses, and pretty clearly with the naked eye, traces every where of mighty works, which seem to show that, if one could blow away the sand, a whole realm of architectural grandeur would appear. Long rows of square apertures indicated the vast burying-places. Straggling remains of buildings wandered down the declivities of sand. And then the Memnonium appeared, and I could see its pillars of colossal statues; and next we saw — and never shall I lose the impression — The Two! — the Memnon and his brother, — sitting alone and serene, the most majestic pair ever, perhaps, conceived of by the imagination of art. No description of this scene can ever avail; it cannot convey the vastness of the surroundings, the expanses of sand, the rear-guard of mountains, the spread and flow of the river, the sparse character of the remains and the extent which they claim for themselves. The lines of the scenery seem to enhance the vastness; the almost uniformity of land-colouring, of the natural and artificial features, with the vivid green of the intermediate shores, where Arabs and camels and buffaloes were busy (the modern world obtruding itself before the ancient), the blue or gray river, reach behind reach where divided by green promontories, — the softness of all this is not to be conveyed to a European conception. I like the old name for this part of Thebes, — “The Libyan Suburb.” I first stepped ashore at Luxor. Alee had to buy a sheep and some bread; so we took a guide who could speak English, and set off for the ruins. First were conspicuous the fourteen pillars which front the river in a double row. But we went first to the great entrance of the temple. No preconception can be formed of these places. It was not the vastness of the buildings which strikes one here, but their being dimly covered with sculptures, so old, so spirited, so multitudinous! The stones are in many places parting, for the cement is gone, and the figures of men and horses extend over the cracks, as full of life as if painted. But the guardian colossi! What mighty creatures they are! The massive shoulders, and bend of the arm, and serene air of fixity, how they make one long to see the whole! A third helmet is visible, and a fourth among the Arab huts elsewhere, — those miserable round patches which destroy all unity of impression about this awful building. I was much struck with the nearly buried columns, with the melon or lotus (or what?) shaped capitals, which are hardly seen from the river. What vast stones rest on them! One of these architrave stones of the other range (the fourteen) has fallen upon the rims of the cup composing the capital without breaking it. Yet the stone is not granite. These last capitals were all painted, and the blossoms, buds, and leaves which adorned the flower-like capitals were very distinct.
The one sensation, after all, was the sight of the Memnon pair on the Gournon side. To conceive of the avenue of sphinxes from the main entrance here at Karnac, and then to look from another face over the river to these sitting statues, and think of them as the outposts of the great temple there, — what a chain of magnificence was this! Certainly no work of human hands ever before impressed me with any sense of the sublime like these statues. There is an air of human vigilance about them, amidst their desert and the vastness of the scene, which is truly awe-striking. And one wonders that works so primitive should reach the sense of the soul more effectually than those which are the result of centuries of experience and experiment. These and many wondrous detached portions of the temple, dispersed among Arab ovens, stables, and dwellings, were all we now saw. The rest, on our return.
The people looked well, intelligent, and sleek, for the most part. They crowded around us. . . . .
The rank held by the women in old Egypt is a most striking consideration. Are there any other instances? The Germans were distinguished for this, but in quite a different way. There seems to have been a real equality among the old Egyptians which indicates a degree of enlightenment which may make their lofty mythology not a single marvel.
Then Philœ in descriptive fulness, with ground-plan and all its special temples, courts, corridors, and avenues, omitting only the lateral chambers; “but this,” she says, “is from memory only; and quite untrustworthy.”
Doubtless since she asserts it, so it is; but her memory, as a general thing, was wellnigh unexampled. Those who knew her best say she outrivalled Macaulay. “She never forgot any thing.” She goes on, with an expression of satisfaction at what she has done: —
“The satisfaction of the clearing up of my mind about the contents of Philœ is greater than I could have supposed; and it has left imagery, and old processions by water to the sacred isle, such as I could not have had by any meaner experience than that of this day.”
Here she met Mr. Findlay and Prince Czartoryski, between whom and herself there was the bond of deep interest in Poland.
Evening. — Settled myself; saw the Creykes, relations of Wilberforce, and received Count Zamoyski. I omitted to mention an inscription in French, in the side of the large propylon, relating the arrival here of the republican army under Dessaix in 1799; and over it is a line printed, — “La page de l’histoire ne doit pas être délié.”
For a delightful chapter of Eastern life one has only to turn to the preceding volume. Sufficient in addition to say, that after Harriet Martineau’s return, her “dear aunt Margaret Rankin” did not wait in vain for the story of wonders which she had bespoken; — “from your own lips,” “with bottles of water from the Jordan and from the Nile; for I cannot expect you to purloin a step of four feet long from the great Pyramid.”
This book was the occasion of some comical experiences. A lady whom she had mentioned with reproof, though not by name, for having purloined specimens of Egyptian antiquity from some cave or temple, accused her in the “Times” of false witness, the lady having never been at the place mentioned. Miss Martineau promptly replied that, having become aware of that fact, she had already ordered a correction to be made in the next edition. For the rest, as the spoliation remained a fact, no correction was needed. The lady responded at much length, awaiting a reply. Miss Martineau repeated her assurance of a correction as to the locality, reaffirming the fact. The lady threatened a libel suit, and there the matter ended.
A second experience was no laughing matter, for it concerned the feelings of a young churchman, who feared to lose the approbation of his bishop if he should become involved in her account of “a young clergyman of the church of England carrying candles in a procession” during some ceremony at Jerusalem. In this instance she was fortunately able to obviate all mischief; but unforeseen risks, it seems, beset the path of Eastern as well as Western travellers. In compensation, however, she had often been able to do individual good by the way. “You have probably heard,” says Mr. Edward W. Lane, the author and Oriental scholar whom she met at Cairo, “of the patronage accorded me by our government. It is most highly gratifying to me; and for it I feel that my thanks are due to you as well as to others.”
She entered her newly built house, that was to be for years the home of health and happy industry, of study and of strenuously active benevolence, of which we have her own description, on the 7th of April, 1846.
The mental field that had as she thought been lying fallow during the passive period at Tynemouth now showed the germs it had been unconsciously cherishing; and, while scattering into the field of the world such seed-growths as “Eastern Life, Past and Present,” and “The Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development,” she was busy with her great works, “The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace,” “Comte” (Philosophie Positive), and constant leading articles for the “Daily News.”