Liberty Matters

Ruth Scurr on Mill and Life-Writing


Ruth Scurr's wide-ranging account of Mill's interest in life-writing portrays him as an apostle of truth in all matters biographical. Not one of the whole truth, but one of nothing but the truth. As Scurr notes of Mill:
His carefully crafted Autobiography… was a pre-emptive strike against the "pretended biographies", which he imagined would be written for commercial reasons after his death… Mill explicitly states that he is not undertaking "to tell everything", and this is a further pre-emptive strike against anyone "being able to suppose or to pretend, that we undertake to keep nothing back".[1]
Mill's fear that commercially-driven 'pretended biographies' of him would be written after his demise could have been prompted, in part, by painful recollections of several calumnies Jeremy Bentham was reported as having levelled against Mill's father. Recorded in a volume of Memoirs of Bentham, composed and published in 1843 by his literary executor, John Bowring, they were published as an appendix to the Collected Works of Bentham. These calumnies were repeated, and thereby disseminated more widely, in a review of the Memoirs published in the September 1843 issue of the Edinburgh Review.
Upon sight of the review, Mill fired off a strong letter of protest to the editor of the journal complaining of its republishing the calumnies and explaining for each why it was false. The letter concluded with a request that it be published in the journal to set the record straight. This duly happened. Mill's letter appeared in the January 1844 issue of the journal, together with a note from the editor explaining he had published it out of deep respect for Mill and his father. The editor did not comment on the veracity or otherwise of the offending statements.[2]
Scurr seems to agree with Mill that the Edinburgh Review had been as remiss as the Memoirs in reporting the defamatory statements of Bentham's about Mill's father. Scurr writes:
Both the book and the review of it "gave a most false impression of the character" of James Mill, according to his son… He particularly objected to the reviewer quoting uncritically from Bentham's "Memoirs": 'Bentham said of [James] Mill that his willingness to do good to others depended too much on his power of making the good done to them subservient to good done to himself. His creed of politics… is too much under the influence of social and dissocial affection'.[3]
Actually, the Memoirs report that Bentham claimed James Mill's creed of politics was too much under the influence not of 'social and dissocial affection', but 'selfish and dissocial affection'.[4]
Empson, or the compositor who prepared his review for publication, seems to have been responsible for this misquotation from the Memoirs,which was then repeated by Mill in his letter and by Scurr in faithfully quoting Mill's misquotation.
It is not just this quoted passage of Scurr's that leads me to suppose her in agreement with Mill that the review and the Memoirs were equally remiss in reproducing Bentham's false defamatory statements about Mill's father, without at least disavowing their truth. Scurr also remarks:
Mill wrote fiercely in defence of his father, questioning the reliability of memoirs and the motives of biographers. His subsequent drafting and reworking of his Autobiography was informed by his understanding of biography's crucial contribution to history, and his awareness of how easy it is to misrepresent a person's life.
I cannot see anything remiss in the Memoirs reporting that Bentham had made these defamatory statements about Mill's father without disavowing their truth. Nor can I see the review of the Memoirs was remiss in repeating them.
By the time the Memoirs reported them, Bentham and James Mill had both been dead for several years. In Bentham's case, for over a decade; in James Mill's case, over five. Mill did not deny Bentham had made these defamatory remarks about his father. He denied that they had been sufficiently considered remarks to have warranted report in the Memoirs and repetition in the review.
But Bentham's defamatory statements about Mill's father were worth reporting: not for what they tell us about Mill, but for what they reveal about Bentham. Bentham is reported in the Memoirs as making many similar comments about other close associates with whom he also quarrelled, typically over the most trifling of reasons. These create a portrait of someone who was more than just highly eccentric, even mentally disordered, and to whose derogatory statements little or no credence need or should be attached.
In his review of the Memoirs, Empson fully acknowledged this important biographic fact about Bentham. Shortly after beginning his review, Empson remarked: 'Bentham's vanity was so excessive as to stop short, but very little of that which... almost always indicates a disordered mind.'[5]
Empson then went on to relate a quarrel that Bentham had picked with James Mill during one of the many long summer vacations the Mill family had spent with Bentham at his capacious country seat in Somerset. According to a letter Mill sent Bentham at the height of their quarrel, Bentham's ire was caused by Mill's horse-riding on several mornings with a fellow guest, thereby depriving Bentham of Mill's company should he have sought it.
Given that the duration of their joint summer vacations extended for several months at a time, and that, during the remainder of the year, the Mill family resided in a London house adjacent to Bentham's, James Mill's conduct hardly seems selfish. Rather, Bentham seems selfish, as Empson duly notes in his review:
This is, no doubt, a poor cause for quarrel. But what is worse is, to have lived with a man for years, and yet speak of him as Bentham speaks of Mill, on more than one occasion, in the present Memoir. In a common case we should call this base and treacherous.[6]
I cannot see how Empson was remiss in reporting the derogatory remarks the Memoirs recorded, given the wider context in which he framed them and the inferences he drew about Bentham from them and Bentham's other derogatory remarks. Nor can I see the Memoirs was remiss in reporting all these remarks of Bentham's in the first place.
Bentham did indeed make the reported assertions about James Mill, something John Mill does not deny. Along with all the other information supplied by Empson, they provide valuable historical insight into just what a truly bizarre and disordered individual Bentham was.[7]
Scurr seems likewise far too credulous of Mill's claim to have written his Autobiography to pre-empt 'pretended biographies.' There was undoubtedly more than an element of pretence on Mill's part in what he there wrote about several figures in his life by whom he claims he was most greatly influenced. Of these, the most notable is Harriet Taylor.
Many of Mill's contemporaries who at one time were close to the couple, such as Thomas and Jane Carlyle, thought Mill had a grossly inflated opinion of Taylor.[8]
So too have many others since Mill's day. In their case, some have done so on the basis, not just of what he writes about Taylor in his Autobiography, but of their correspondence, edited and published by Friedrich Hayek in 1951.[9]
Diana Trilling is one such latter-day sceptic about Harriet Taylor. Taylor's correspondence with Mill convinced Trilling that Mill's estimate of Taylor in the Autobiography had been ludicrously inflated. In a review of the volume of their letters, published in the January-February 1952 issue of Partisan Review, Trilling wrote:
The letters… show Mrs Taylor to have been one of the meanest and dullest ladies in literary history, a nasty monument of self-regard, as lacking in charm as in grandeur… More, they indicate that Mill, exalting her as he did, must have been emotionally disturbed in a fashion that, to my knowledge, is unique in the heavy record of disturbed persons.[10]
One can understand what Trilling meant from the following sample of extracts from Mill's Autobiography describing the impression he formed of Taylor upon first meeting her in the summer of 1830, and the subsequent impact she had on his intellectual development:
I very soon felt her to be the most admirable person I had ever known… To her outer circle she was a beauty and a wit… to the inner, a woman of… penetrating and intuitive intelligence.[11]
To be admitted into any degree of personal intercourse with a being of these qualities could not but have a most beneficial influence on my development. The benefit I received was far greater than any which I could hope to give… I have learnt more from her than from all other persons taken together.[12]
Let us set aside how wise Mill could genuinely have supposed the twenty-two year old married mother of two small children -- with a third born a year after their meeting -- to have formed such a close bond with him as Harriet did soon after they met at a dinner party she and her husband held at their home in July 1830 to which Mill had been invited. Regardless of that, it was unquestionably sheer pretence on Mill's part to have claimed, as he did in his Autobiography, that it was only 'years after my introduction to Mrs Taylor before my acquaintance with her became at all intimate or confidential.'[13]
As Hayek remarks of Mill's claim in his editorial introduction to the volume of the Mill-Taylor correspondence:
'[T]hough we know little about the first two years after the meeting, the connexion seems… to have been closer than these words suggest… There exists a note… by Eliza Flower to Mrs Taylor in which… with reference to an article in [the June 1831 issue of] the Edinburgh Review, she asks 'Did you or John do it?'...[S]ince the date of the letter seems to be 30 June 1831, it would appear as if at this early date Mrs Taylor's closest friend was already so familiar with the similarity of her and Mill's views as to believe … that the article must be by either of them.'[14]
Despite a brief vain attempt by Harriet in August 1831 to severe her relation with Mill, by 1832, a modus vivendi had been struck between Harriet, her husband and Mill whereby she was able to maintain the semblance of her marriage while continuing to see Mill without her husband being present. As John Gray explained in a review of the 2015 republication of Hayek's collection of the Mill-Taylor correspondence as part of Hayek's Collected Works: 'By 1832… a new pattern had been established in Mill's and Harriet's lives. Several nights a week they dined at the Taylor home, always in the company of others, while John Taylor went to his club.'[15]
While Mill's efforts to boost Taylor's standing in the eyes of posterity may have been well-intentioned, noble even, they hardly do him much credit as a writer of truthful biography. The high regard in which many of us continue to hold Mill as a liberal thinker should not blind us to his many flaws and foibles. Of these, Mill's willingness to engage in pretended biography in his own life–writing was undoubtedly one.
[1.] Scurr, R., 'J.S.Mill and Life-Writing', p. 1.
[2.] Mill, 'Letter to the Editor of the Edinburgh Review on James Mill' in The Collected Works__of John Stuart Mill, Volume 1, Autobiography ad Literary Essays, ed. J.M.Robson and J.Stillinger, pp. 535-538.
[3.] Scurr, R., 'J.S.Mill and Life-Writing, p.10.
[4.] Bowring, J., 'Memoirs of Jeremy Bentham, Including Autobiographical Conversations and Correspondence', The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 10, p.450.
[5.] Empson,W. 'Memoirs of Jeremy Bentham' Edinburgh Review LXXVlll (Oct. 1843), pp 460-516; reproduced in Campbell's Foreign Semi-Monthly Magazine Volume 4. From September to December 1843, 451-467, p.452.
[6.] Empson, 'Memoirs of Jeremy Bentham', p.454.
[7.] For details of the extent of Bentham's deep, and possibly pathological, eccentricity, see the assessment of him by two forensic psychologists: Lucas, P. and Sheeran, A., 'Asperger's Syndrome and the Eccentricity and Genius of Jeremy Bentham', Journal of Bentham Studies Volume 8 (2006).
[8.] For Jane Carlyle's low opinion of Harriet Taylor, see Josephine Kamm, John Stuart Mill in Love London: Gordon and Cremonesi, 1977, pp. p. 64. For Thomas Carlyle's equally low opinion of her, see J.Kamm, Mill in Love, p.67.
[9.] Hayek, F.A., John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
[10.] Trilling, D., 'Mill's Intellectual Beacon: Review of F.A.Hayek, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor', Partisan Review 19(1) 1952, pp. 115-120.
[11.] Mill, 'Autobiography' (1873) in Collected Works, Volume 1, p.193.
[12.] Mill, 'Autobiography', p. 196.
[13.] Mill, 'Autobiography', p.196.
[14.] Hayek, F.A., The Collected Works of Hayek, Volume 16 'Hayek on Mill, The Mill Taylor Friendship', ed. S.J.Peart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 38.
[15.] Gray, J., Review of 'Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship', New Statesman 28 May 2015.