Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVII.: AN INTERVAL IN TOWN. 1845. Æt. 24—5. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XVII.: AN INTERVAL IN TOWN. 1845. Æt. 24—5. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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AN INTERVAL IN TOWN.
Private bills, or at least all of those asking for authority to interfere with lands, houses, roads, or other possessions, public or private, have (or then had) to pass through a preliminary stage, which is known as examination by Committee on Standing Orders. Justice obviously requires that all whose properties will certainly, or probably, or even possibly, be interfered with in the execution of the proposed works, shall be duly informed of the impending interferences; so that they may be prepared for opposing, if need be, the desired authorization. It is, therefore, directed that detailed plans and sections, showing what is to be done, shall be deposited in the localities affected (and afterwards the relevant parts of the plans, &c., in each parish), a considerable time before the meeting of Parliament; and that there should also be made accessible, certain “books of reference,” by which the plans, &c., may be interpreted. Of course these requirements may be adequately or inadequately fulfilled; and it is the function of the Standing Orders Committee to go carefully through the plans, &c., to see whether they sufficiently meet the requirements: usually being guided in their judgments by the criticisms of experts, employed by opponents to detect errors and shortcomings. Always some imperfections exist, and are most of them discovered; and the Committee has to decide whether these imperfections are or are not so serious as to invalidate the application.
In the days of which I write, the new Houses of Parliament were in course of erection. The part eventually provided for committee-rooms had not been built, and there ran along the Thames-side a temporary wooden structure, divided into the many apartments at that time required for those who dealt with the many railway-bills brought before Parliament. A long corridor, carpeted with cocoa-nut matting to diminish noise, flanked these chambers of inquisition; and, during the day up to 4 o’clock, this corridor served as a promenade for various of those who were concerned in the schemes before one or other committee, or about shortly to be brought before one. Here, along with coadjutors, there were daily to be met old engineering friends; and the talk, now grave, now gay, broken from time to time by visits into the committee rooms to see how this or that inquiry was progressing, filled a life which for a short time was pleasant enough, but which eventually came to be rather wearisome. Hence the following extract from a letter written home on 25 April:—
“Yesterday we passed safely through the Standing Orders Committee, and, greatly to our satisfaction, put an end to our sauntering-in-parliamentary-lobbies-life, which has now lasted for about ten days.
“Mr. Hughes left for Pembroke last night, where he will remain until the 5th May, when we are to go into committee ‘on the merits,’ as it is technically called. I have to make sundry preparations, such as getting out the rest of the bridge drawings, &c., &c., which will fully occupy the intervening time. . . .
“I think of going down to Blackwall this evening to see the ‘Great Britain’ steamer. I hear that it is well worth a visit in a professional point of view.”
There is also in this letter a brief reference to such small amount of social intercourse as I then had; but of this, more presently.
The weariness of this waiting was compensated by London distractions, of which I now took a fair share. During my residence in Town when 17, I never went to a place of amusement; but now that I had more means I yielded to the appetite for theatricals. The following letter to Lott, dated 7 May, contains passages expressing opinions about some kinds of them:—
“Hutton [an elder brother of R. H. Hutton] and I went together to the Opera. I was dreadfully disappointed. I was not roused to an emotion of anything like enthusiasm during the whole time. The inconsistencies of recitative dialogue, the singing words of wholly opposite meanings to the same harmony, &c., &c., so continually annoyed me as to destroy all the pleasure due to the music or the story. Neither was the effect of the music so great as I had anticipated. It did not fulfil its ambition, if you understand what that means. The effects of its several parts were not powerful enough to render them fit portions of so large a composition. The structure wanted a massiveness more in proportion to its size. As it was, it gave me the idea of rickettiness.
“However, I am going to give the thing another trial. The Opera I heard was ‘Sonnambula,’ and some of the first singers were absent, so that I did not hear the greatest effects. To-morrow night Hutton and I are going to hear ‘Don Giovanni.’ ”
The result of this second trial was much like that of the first. It seemed to me that a series of pretty airs and duets did not constitute an opera, as rightly conceived. Then, as always, I was intolerant of gross breaches of probability. Though able to listen without too obtrusive a sense of incongruity to the melodic renderings of their feelings by hero and heroine, since song is natural to high emotion, yet I could not help making internal protests against the extension of musical utterance to other characters in the drama, who were not similarly moved. That serving-men and waiting-maids should be made poetical, and prompted to speak in recitative, because their masters and mistresses happened to be in love, was too conspicuous an absurdity; and the consciousness of this absurdity went far towards destroying what pleasure I might otherwise have derived from the work. It is with music as with painting—a great divergence from naturalness in any part, so distracts my attention from the meaning or intention of the whole, as almost to cancel gratification.
There is in the same letter mention of Haydn’s Creation, and of the pleasure I derived from hearing it. In the absence of attempted dramatic rendering, attention could, when listening to this, be given more fully to the music; and any incongruities felt were far less pronounced.
Following the order of dates, I am led here to quote a letter relevant to a very different matter—the ending of a friendship. Up to this time there had been kept up the correspondence with E. A. B———; and, now that I had come to London, he spent an evening with me at 64, Stafford Place, Pimlico, where I was lodging. Our conversation ended in a theological discussion, in which my rationalistic views, then more pronounced than at the time of our previous personal intercourse, were clearly disclosed. There resulted a letter from him dated May 6, 1845:—
“My dear Spencer,
“It is now fast drawing towards the close of the fifth year since I made your acquaintance, and I hope I need not assure you that your friendship during that period has been one of my chief sources of pleasure. From the time when accident threw us together at Worcester, and from circumstances we were so intimately associated, I have always felt the strongest feelings of regard towards you and was pleased to think those feelings mutual.
“I merely remind you of this to show you that it could be no ordinary cause which could induce me to renounce voluntarily a friendship which has afforded me so very much gratification as yours has done; that the necessity has accrued for so doing I shall ever most deeply regret and it is only after long and painful thought that I have been induced to see the necessity of it.
“That we have held different opinions upon many points of more or less importance, I am perfectly aware; but as far as I can call to mind, they have been always upon points upon which such difference has been to a very considerable extent allowable, or upon subjects which are, and must remain, matters of opinion. But the subjects which we discussed last Saturday (as far as I can recollect for the first time) do not I think belong to either of these classes. They involve everything in our existence of more than momentary interest; our principles and practice, hopes and fears, our happiness or misery here and hereafter. Such matters are of no light moment, and it seems to me that no two persons holding so very different views as you and I do upon such vital points can remain friends to each other. Did I think that there were the remotest chance of anything that I could urge by way of argument or persuasion I should feel that I was bound to leave no means untried to endeavour to bring you to a true view of the truths of religion, but I know so well that no argument on such a subject ever yet convinced one who has closed his ears to everything but human reason, that I feel it would be utterly useless; and the only likely consequence that could ensue would be to shake the belief that I feel so very strongly the truth of. I would to God that I practised all I believe so thoroughly, as far as intellectual belief may go; but which avails absolutely nothing, if it be not accompanied by the belief of the heart. Feeling, as I do, so very painfully that my faith is so little the heartfelt faith which should actuate the true Christian, the danger which might accrue from my association with one so talented as yourself, and so well able to make the worst appear the better reason, I must therefore at however great a sacrifice (and believe me I feel it to be a great one) renounce the pleasure I have received from your acquaintance and request that henceforth we meet no more or meet as strangers. I shall ever remember the past with pleasure and think of you with kindness and I trust that nothing may prevent your feeling similarly towards myself.”
Then follows the expression of a hope that I shall abandon “the lamp of human wisdom” and come round to wiser views. This letter I sent on to Lott; saying that “there was much to be admired in its sincerity” if not in its liberality. Lott’s rejoinder was that did he similarly feel any such danger from our association, he, too, should renounce the friendship.
A subsequent letter from E. A. B———, in answer to one of mine, agreed that though our intimacy must cease, there was no reason why, when we met, we should not meet as old friends. Thereafter no intercourse between us took place for years. Though two of his sisters when visiting Derby (where a younger brother had settled as an agricultural chemist) expressed the wish that friendly relations should be resumed, I declined taking any step until their brother gave the sign. In 1851, soon after the publication of my first book, I did indeed spend an evening with his father and family, and again met him in quite a friendly way; but since that time, save when meeting in the street once or twice, we have never seen one another.
While one friend was lost, others were gained. During those days in April and May, the acquaintanceship with Mr. and Mrs. Potter, which had been initiated while I was visiting Mr. Heyworth at Liverpool, began to develop into a friendship. The already quoted letter of 25 April, speaks of spending an evening with them; and a letter of 25 May contains the paragraph:—
“On Thursday morning I breakfasted with my uncle at the Potters’ in company with Mr. Heyworth. Mr. Potter behaved very kindly. I dined there twice during the visit of my uncle and aunt, and should also have spent last Tuesday evening there with my uncle had I been disengaged. Mr. Heyworth, too, was very cordial in his desire that I should come to see him at Yew Tree whenever I had an opportunity.”
A passage in a letter from my uncle to my father, dated two days later, referring to this same meeting at Mr. Potter’s, says of me:—
“He was also at the complete suffrage meeting at the Crown and Anchor on Wednesday evening. Mr. Potter told me that he had requested him to make a short speech at a Temperance Hall to which he took him, but that Herbert declined. I think it would be much for Herbert’s own benefit if he were to commence in a quiet way the practice of public speaking.”
What other social intercourse I had at that time, did not go beyond evenings spent, and occasional excursions made, with old engineering friends. Writing to Lott some two months later, I said:—
“You have no notion how miserably off I am here for society—more especially female society. It is now at least two months since I have come in contact with any well educated and agreeable woman; for, unluckily, Mr. Potter and his wife and sister have latterly been out of town and I have been deprived of the only society that I prize. . . .
“For want of other resource, Loch (whom you have seen) and I have very frequently spent the evening together in argument, which we have upon several occasions prolonged until one in the morning.”
This last statement surprises me; for though in early days an animated talker, and when with a chosen companion able to go on for hours, I did not remember talking till past midnight. The besoin de parler, requiring to be satisfied irrespective of the person and the topic, never existed in me; and for these many years I have felt no inclination for continued conversation. Still greater is the change in a further respect. That I should be able to sleep after arguing till late into the night, seems to me now almost incredible.
Reverting to the business course of my life, there has here to be quoted, from a letter to my mother dated May 24th, a passage foreshadowing an entire change of prospects.
“Our Railway Bill was withdrawn on Tuesday last in favour of the London and Birmingham scheme, so that my engagement is concluded. There is, however, no cause for regret, as you will readily acknowledge when I tell you that yesterday, as I was sauntering about the Committee-room lobbies, I met Mr. Fox . . . and after accompanying him for about half an hour during his meetings with various people, I walked with him arm-in-arm to his offices in Trafalgar Square. During our walk he was very communicative with regard to their affairs, and behaved altogether in a very friendly manner.”*
And then, on the 5th June, there was sent to my father a statement of definite results.
“I have satisfactorily concluded my engagement with Mr. Fox. My occupation will be a very agreeable one. I am to collect information with regard to the particulars of all works for which the firm propose to tender—to inspect the designs according to which the work is to be executed, where such have been made, and to obtain all necessary information with regard to them—and where there have been no designs made, to obtain from the parties a definite understanding as to the requirements of the case, and then to superintend the getting out of designs.”
This engagement appeared advantageous and promised permanence. Further passages imply another pleasurable anticipation—frequent exercise of the inventive faculty, which the post was likely to call for.
Again I interrupt the narrative to show, so far as may be, the nature of my thoughts in those days; and also to show the small regard for authority, displayed then as always. In a letter to Lott, already above quoted from, there occurs the passage:—
“I have been reading some of Carlyle’s essays. They are very beautifully written and as usual with all his writing, interestingly also. They do not however give the same impression of genius as his other works. In some cases I thought him by no means deep. Some of his quotations from the prose writings of Goethe, were in my estimation not at all creditable either to the author or the critic. I fancy I see you curling your lip at these cavalier remarks on your hero!”
My impression is that this disrespectful estimate referred to the doctrine of renunciation, set forth by Goethe in his account of “The Renunciants,” and applauded by Carlyle; and probably I then thought, as I think still, that it implies anything but a profound conception of human nature—a conception like many of those current among the uncultured, who assume that the emotions can be produced or suppressed at will. The entire mechanism of animate life, brute and human, would be dislocated if the desires which prompt actions were governable in this easy way. The common idea, as well as the Goethe-Carlyle idea, is that the feelings constitute an assembly under the autocratic control of the “will”; whereas they constitute an assembly over which there reigns no established autocrat, but of which now one member and now another gets possession of the presidential chair (then temporarily acquiring the title of “the will”) and rules the rest for a time: being frequently, if not strong, ejected by combinations of others, and occasionally, if strong, effectually resisting their efforts. It is in these last cases that the forcible deposition of the tyrant emotion is proposed. When the feeling overwhelms all others, we are told that it should be put down; and the putting down of it becomes practicable only in proportion as it becomes needless. Tell a mother who has just lost a child, or a lover whose to-morrow’s bride has been drowned, that grief must be suppressed in conformity with the doctrine that pleasures are not to be counted upon, and that she or he must accept a lower standard of happiness. What result is there? None whatever. While sorrow is extreme, consciousness is entirely occupied by it. No alien thought or feeling can gain entrance. Until its intensity has caused exhaustion, and a relative inability to feel, the desirableness of resignation cannot even be listened to, and when it can be listened to the effect is evanescent: recovery from the temporary paralysis of emotion is followed by another paroxysm, during which the propriety of doing without the lost happiness is urged on deaf ears. Only in course of time, when the natural curative process has in chief measure wrought its effect, and the feelings have readjusted themselves to the new conditions—that is, only after “renunciation” has been in large measure spontaneously effected,—can the doctrine of renunciation be listened to, and give form to the new mental state reached. The truth is that in mankind, as in all other kinds, each faculty, bodily or mental, has a normal craving for action. Where the faculty is not a powerful one, and the normal craving is relatively weak, it may be kept out of consciousness. But where it is a strong craving of an important faculty, exclusion of it becomes almost or quite impossible. A bodily appetite, like that of hunger or thirst, furnishes the best test of the doctrine. No one dreams of saying to a starving man that he must get rid of the misery due to his unsatisfied desire by renouncing the gratification of eating, or that, when exposed to a freezing cold with but little clothing on, he must make himself content by ceasing to wish for warmth. And the absurdity, here rendered manifest because the feelings in questions are so strong, holds throughout the whole nature.
But this doctrine of Goethe jumped with Carlyle’s anti-utilitarianism, and with his ridiculous notion that happiness is of no consequence. This notion would have been considerably modified by passing some months in a dark dungeon on bread and water. Or if, after such an experience, he had still refused to admit that gratifications of various kinds ought to be pursued, his body, at any rate, would have testified that they ought.
This parenthetical discussion may not unfitly be taken to symbolize the parenthesis in my career which here occurred. Incidents named a page or two back, apparently implied that I was about to be settled for a considerable period. The settlement lasted for but a short time, however, as witness the following extract from a letter to Lott dated 1 August, 1845:—
“You have probably heard at 8, Wilmot St. that I have left Fox, Henderson, & Co. and that I did so in consequence of the attempt to put upon me work which I had not agreed to do, and the command to do which I paid no attention to (like my democratic spirit was it not?) whereupon a quarrel ensued which ended in our separation.
“My future movements are just at present undecided. Very probably I shall be engaged upon a line in Holland from Amsterdam to the Helder, of which my friend Jackson is to be engineer, and if this scheme misses fire I shall probably retain my present engagement in connexion with the projected Crewe and Aberystwith Line. Probably a fortnight will decide the matter one way or other.”
This line between Aberystwith and Crewe had been projected by one whose name the reader may remember as occurring a few chapters back—Mr. W. B. Prichard. No impression remains with me of anything done in connexion with it. Certainly I did not join the survey party, of which my friend Loch was one. For some reason, the scheme dropped through comparatively early in the season: whether because the engineering difficulties were great, or because the local landowners, not yet so much alive as the English landowners had become to the benefits of railways, gave it no countenance, I cannot tell. But, as we shall presently see, Mr. Prichard had more strings than one to his bow.
[*]Here it must be explained that soon after I left Mr. Fox in 1837, he gave up his post as resident engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway (London half) and entered into partnership with Mr. Bramah (either the inventor of the hydraulic press or his son, I don’t know which), at that time carrying on extensive mechanical engineering works. The new firm, Bramah and Fox, extended its operations to works of other kinds. Bramah shortly afterwards ceased to be a member of the firm, and at the time above spoken of it had become Fox, Henderson, & Co.