Story type: Essay
You better live your best and act your best and think your best today; for today is the sure preparation for tomorrow and all the other tomorrows that follow.
I believe it was Thackeray who once expressed a regret that Harriet Martineau had not shown better judgment in choosing her parents.
She was born into one of those big families where there is not love enough to go ’round. The mother was a robustious woman with a termagant temper; she was what you call “practical.” She arose each morning, like Solomon’s ideal wife, while it was yet dark, and proceeded to set her house in order. She made the children go to bed when they were not sleepy and get up when they were. There was no beauty-sleep in that household, not even forty winks; and did any member prove recreant and require a douse of cold water, not only did he get the douse but he also heard quoted for a year and a day that remark concerning the sluggard, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: so shall thy poverty come as one that traveleth, and thy want as an armed man.”
This big, bustling Amazon was never known to weep but once, and that was when Lord Nelson died. To show any emotion would have been to reveal a weakness, and a caress would have been proof positive of folly. Life was a stern business and this earth-journey a warfare. She cooked, she swept, she scrubbed, she sewed.
And although she withheld every loving word and kept back all demonstration of affection, yet her children were always well cared for: they were well clothed, they had plenty to eat, and a warm place to sleep. And in times of sickness this mother would send all others to rest, and herself would watch by the bedside until the shadows stole away and the sunrise came again. I wonder where you have lived all your life if you have never known a woman like that?
In the morning, as soon as the breakfast things were done and the men folks had gone to the cloth-factory, Mrs. Martineau would marshal her daughters in the sitting-room to sew. And there they sewed for four hours every forenoon for more than four years; and as they sewed some one would often read aloud to them, for Mrs. Martineau believed in education–education gotten on the wing.
Sewing-machines and knitting-machines have done more to emancipate women than all the preachers. Think of the days when every garment worn by men, women and children was made by the never-resting hands of women!
And as the girls in that thrifty Norwich household sewed and listened to the reader, they occasionally spoke in monotone of what was read—all save Harriet: Harriet sewed. And the other girls thought Harriet very dull, and her mother was sure of it, and called her stupid, and sometimes shook her and railed at her, endeavoring to arouse her out of her lethargy.
Harriet has herself left on record somewhat of her feelings in those days. In her child-heart there was a great aching void. Her life was wrong–the lives about her were wrong–she did not know how, and could not then trace the subject far enough to tell why. She was a-hungered, she longed for tenderness, for affection and the close confidence that knows no repulse. She wanted them all to throw down their sewing for just five minutes, and sit in the silence with folded hands. She longed for her mother to hold her on her lap so, that she could pillow her head on her shoulder with her arms about her neck, and have a real good cry. Then all her troubles and pains would be gone.
But the slim little girl never voiced any of these foolish thoughts; she knew better. She choked back her tears and leaning over her sewing tried hard to be “good.”
“She is so stupid that she never listens to what one reads to her,” said her mother one day.
One of that family still lives. I saw him not long ago and talked with him face to face concerning some of the things here written–Doctor James Martineau, ninety-two years old.
The others are all dead now–all are gone. In the cemetery at Norwich is a plain, slate slab, “To the Memory of Elizabeth Martineau, Mother of Harriet Martineau.” * * * And so she sleeps, remembered for what? As the mother of a stupid little girl who tried hard to be good, but didn’t succeed very well, and who did not listen when they read aloud.
* * * * *
It seems sometimes that there is no such thing as a New Year–it is only the old year come back. These folks about us–have they not lived before? Surely they are the same creatures that have peopled earth in the days agone; they are busy about the same things, they chase after the same trifles, they commit the same mistakes, and blunder as men have always blundered.
Only last week, a teacher in one of the primary schools of Chicago reported to her principal that a certain little boy in her room was so hopelessly dull and perverse that she despaired of teaching him anything. The child would sit with open mouth and look at her as she would talk to the class, and five minutes afterward he could not or would not repeat three words of what had been said. She had scolded him, made him stand on the floor, kept him in after school, and even whipped him–but all in vain. The principal looked into the case, scratched his head, stroked his whiskers, coughed, and decided that the public-school funds should not be wasted in trying to “teach imbeciles,” and so reported to the parents. He advised them to send the boy to a Home for the Feeble-Minded, sending the message by an older brother. So the parents took the child to the Home and asked that he be admitted. The Matron took the little boy on her lap, talked to him, read to him, showed him pictures and said to the astonished parents, “This child has fully as much intelligence as any of your other children, perhaps more–but he is deaf!”
Harriet Martineau from her twelfth year was very deaf, and she was also devoid of the senses of taste and smell.
“Oh, these are terrible tribulations to befall a mortal!” we exclaim with uplifted hands. But on sober second thought I am not sure that I know what is a tribulation and what a blessing. I’m not positive that I would know a blessing should I see it coming up the street. For as I write it comes to me that the Great Big Black Things that have loomed against the horizon of my life, threatening to devour me, simply loomed and nothing more. They harmed me not. The things that have really made me miss my train have always been sweet, soft, pretty, pleasant things of which I was not in the, least afraid.
Mother Nature is kind, and if she deprives us of one thing she gives us another, and happiness seems to be meted out to each and all in equal portions. Harriet’s afflictions caused her to turn her mind to other things than those which filled the hearts of girls of her own age. Society chatter held nothing for her, she could not hear it if she would; and she ate the food that agreed with her, not that which was merely pleasant to the taste. She began to live in a world of thought and ideas. The silence meant much.
“The first requisite is that man should be a good animal.” I used to think that Herbert Spencer in voicing this aphorism struck twelve. But I am no longer enthusiastic about the remark. The senses of most dumb animals are far better developed than those of man. Hounds can trace footsteps over flat rocks, even though a shower has fallen in the interval; cats can see in the dark; rabbits hear sounds that men never hear; horses detect an impurity in water that a chemical analysis does not reveal, and homing pigeons would gain nothing by carrying a compass. And so I feel safe in saying that if any man were so good and perfect an animal that he had the hound’s sense of smell, the cat’s eyesight, the rabbit’s sense of hearing, the horse’s sense of taste, and the homing pigeon’s “locality,” he would not be one whit better prepared to appreciate Kipling’s “Dipsy Chanty,” and not a hair’s breadth nearer a point where he could write a poem equal to it.
No college professor can see so far as a Sioux Indian, neither can he hear so well as a native African. There are rays of light that no unaided human eye can trace, and there are sounds subtler than human ear can detect. These five bodily faculties that we are pleased to call the senses were developed by savage man. He holds them in common with the brute. And now that man is becoming partly civilized he is in danger of losing them. Faculties not used are taken away. Dame Nature seems to consider that anything you do not utilize is not needed; and as she is averse to carrying dead freight she drops it out.
But man can think, and the more he thinks and the further he projects his thought, the less need he has for his physical senses. Homer’s matchless vision was the rich possession of a blind man; Milton never saw Paradise until he was sightless, and Helen Keller knows a world of things that were neither told to her in lectures nor read from books. The far-reaching intellect often goes with a singularly imperfect body, and these things seem to point to the truth that the body is one thing and the soul another.
I make no argument for impoverished vitality, nor do I plead the cause of those who enjoy poor health. Yet how often do we find that the confessional of a family or a neighborhood is the bedside of one who sees the green fields only as did the Lady of Shalott, by holding a looking-glass so that it reflects the out-of-doors. Let me carry that simile one step further, and say that the mirror of the soul when kept free from fleck and stain, reveals the beauties of the universe. And I am not sure but that the soul, freed from the distractions of sense and the trammels of flesh, glides away to a height where things are observed for the first time in their true proportions.
“The soul knows all things,” says Emerson, “and knowledge is only a remembering.”
* * * * *
The Martineaus were Huguenots, a stern, sturdy stock that suffered exile rather than forego the right of free-thought and free speech. These are the people who are the salt of the earth. And yet as I read history I see that they are the people who have been hunted by dogs, and followed by armed men carrying fagots. The driving of the Huguenots from France came near bankrupting the land, and the flight of Jews and Huguenots into England helped largely to make that country the counting-house of the world. Take the Quakers, Puritans, Huguenots and other refugees from America and it is no longer the land of the free or the home of the brave.
Of the seven Presidents who presided over the deliberations of that first Continental Congress in Philadelphia, three were Huguenots: Henry Laurens, John Jay and Elias Boudinot, and in the seats there were Puritans not a few.
“By God, Sir, we can not afford to persecute the Quakers,” said a certain American a long while ago. “Their religion may be wrong, but the people who cling to an idea are the only people we need. If we must persecute, let us persecute the complacent.”
Harriet Martineau had all the restless independence of will that marked her ancestry. She set herself to acquire knowledge, and she did. When she was twenty she spoke three languages and could read in four. She knew history, astronomy, physical science, and it crowded her teacher in mathematics very hard to keep one lesson in advance of her. Besides, she could sew and cook and “keep house.” Yet it was all gathered by labor and toil and lift. By taking thought she had added cubits to her stature.
But at twenty, a great light suddenly shone around her. Love came and revealed the wonders of Earth and Heaven. She had ever been of a religious nature, but now her religion was vitalized and spiritualized. Deity was no longer a Being who dwelt at a great distance among the stars, but the Divine Life was hers. It flowed through her, nourished her and gave her strength.
Renan suggests that one reason why religion remains on such a material plane for many is because they have never known a great and vitalizing love–a love where intellect, spirit and sex find their perfect mate. Love is the great enlightener. And in my own mind I am fully persuaded that comparatively few mortals ever experience this rebirth that a great love gives. We grope our way through life. Nature’s first thought is for reproduction of the species; she has so overloaded physical passion that men and women marry when the blood is warm and intellect callow. Girls marry for life the first man that offers, and forever put behind them the possibilities of a love that would enable them to lift up their eyes to the hills from whence cometh their help. Very, very seldom do the years that bring a calmer pulse reveal a mating of mind and spirit.
When love came to Harriet, she began to write, her first book being a little volume called “Devotional Exercises.” These daily musings on Divine things and these sweetly limpid prayers were all written out first for herself and her lover. But it came to her that what was a help to them might be a help to others. A publisher was found, and the little work had a large sale and found appreciative readers for many years.
Today, out under the trees, I read this first book written by Miss Martineau. How gently sweet and perfect are these prayers asking for a clean heart and a right spirit! And yet at this time Harriet Martineau had gotten well beyond the idea that God was a great, big man who could be beseeched and moved to alter His plans because some creature on the planet Earth asked it. Her religion was pure Theism, with no confounding dogmas about who was to be saved and who damned. The state of infants who died unbaptized and of the heathen who passed away without ever having heard of Jesus did not trouble her at all. She already accepted the truth of necessity, believing that every act of life was the result of a cause. We do what we do, and are what we are, on account of impulses given us by previous training, previous acts or conditions under which we live and have lived.
If then, everything in this world happens because something else happened a thousand years ago or yesterday, and the result could not possibly be different from what it is, why besiege Heaven with prayers?
The answer is simple. Prayer is an emotional exercise; an endeavor to bring the will into a state of harmony with the Divine Will; a rest and a composure that gives strength by putting us in position to partake of the strength of the Universal. The man who prays today is as a result stronger tomorrow, and thus is prayer answered. By right thinking does the race grow. An act is only a crystallized thought; and this young girl’s little book was designed as a help to right thinking. The things it taught are so simple that no man need go to a theological seminary to learn them: the Silence will tell him all if he will but listen and incline his heart. Love had indeed made Harriet’s spirit free. And to no woman can love mean so much as to one who is aware that she is physically deficient. Homely women are apt to make the better wives, and in all my earth-pilgrimage I never saw a more devoted love–a diviner tenderness–than that which exists between a man of my acquaintance, sound in every sense and splendid in physique, and his wife, who has been blind from her birth. For weeks after I first met this couple there rang in my ears that expression of Victor Hugo’s, “To be blind and to be loved–what happier fate!”
But Harriet’s lover was poor in purse and his family was likewise poor, and the thrifty Martineaus vigorously opposed the mating. In fact, Harriet’s mother hooted at it and spoke of it with scorn; and Harriet answered not back, but hid her love away in her heart–biding the time when her lover should make for himself a name and a place, and have money withal to command the respect of even mill-owners.
So the days passed, and the months went by, and three years counted themselves with the eternity that lies behind. Harriet’s lover had indeed proved himself worthy. He had worked his way through college, had been graduated at the Divinity School, and his high reputation for character and his ability as a speaker won for him at once a position to which many older than he aspired. He became the pastor of the Unitarian Church at Manchester–and this was no small matter!
Now Norwich, where the Martineaus lived, is a long way from Manchester, where Harriet’s lover preached, or it was then, in stagecoach times. It cost money, too, to send letters.
And there was quite an interval once when Harriet sent several letters, and anxiously looked for one; but none arrived.
Then word came that the brilliant young preacher was ill; he wished to see his betrothed. She started to go to him, but her parents opposed such an unprecedented thing. She hesitated, deferred her visit–intending soon to go at all hazards–hoping all the while to hear better news.
Word came that Harriet’s lover was dead. Soon after this the Martineau mills, through various foolish speculations, got into a bad way. Harriet’s father found himself with more debts than he could pay; his endeavors to buffet the storm broke his health–he gave up hope, languished and died.
Mrs. Martineau and the family were thus suddenly deprived of all means of support. The boys were sent to work in the mills, and the two older girls, having five sound senses each, found places where they could do housework and put money in their purses. Harriet Martineau stayed at home and kept house. She also studied, read and wrote a little–there was no other way!
* * * * *
Six years passed, and the name of Harriet Martineau was recognized as a power in the land. Her “Illustrations of Political Economy” had sold well up into the hundred thousands. The little stories were read by old and young, rich and poor, learned and unlearned. Sir Robert Peel had written Harriet a personal letter of encouragement; Lord Brougham had paid for and given away a thousand copies of the booklets; Richard Cobden had publicly endorsed them; Coleridge had courted the author; Florence Nightingale had sung her praises, and the Czar of Russia had ordered that “all the books of Harriet Martineau’s found in Russia shall be destroyed.” Besides, she had incurred the wrath of King Philippe of France, who after first lavishly praising her and ordering the “Illustrations” translated into French, to be used in the public schools, suddenly discovered a hot chapter entitled, “The Error Called the Divine Right of Kings,” and although Philippe was only a “citizen-king” he made haste to recall his kind words.
And I wish here to remark in parentheses that the author who has not made warm friends and then lost them in an hour by writing things that did not agree with the preconceived idea of these friends, has either not written well or not been read. Every preacher who preaches ably has two doors to his church–one where the people come in and another through which he preaches them out. And I do not see how any man, even though he be divine, could expect or hope to have as many as twelve disciples and hold them for three years without being doubted, denied and betrayed. If you have thoughts, and honestly speak your mind, Golgotha for you is not far away.
Harriet Martineau was essentially an agitator. She entered into life in its fullest sense, and no phase of existence escaped her keen and penetrating investigation. From writing books giving minute directions to housemaids, to lengthy advice to prime ministers, her work never lagged. She was widely read, beloved, respected, feared and well hated.
When her political-economy tales were selling their best, the Government sent her word that on application she could have a pension of two hundred pounds a year for life. A pension of this kind comes nominally as a reward for excellent work or heroic service. But a pension may mean something else: it often implies that the receiver shall not offend nor affront the one that bestows it. Could we trace the true inner history of pensions granted by monarchies, we would find that they are usually diplomatic moves.
Harriet made no response to the generous offer of a lifelong maintenance from the State, but continued to work away after her own methods. Yet the offer of a pension did her good in one way: it suggested the wisdom of setting aside a sum that would support her when her earning powers were diminished. From her two books written concerning her trip to America she received the sum of seven thousand five hundred dollars. With this she purchased an insurance policy in the form of a deferred annuity, providing that from her fiftieth year to her death she should receive the annual sum of five hundred dollars. Nowhere in all the realm of Grub Street do we find a man who set such an example of cool wisdom for this crippled woman. At this time she was supporting her mother, who had become blind, and also a brother, who was a slave to drink.
Twenty-five years after the first offer of pension, the Government renewed the proposition. But Harriet said that her needs were few and her wants simple; that she had enough anyway, and besides, she could not consent to the policy of pensioning one class of persons for well-doing and forgetting all the toilers who have worked just as conscientiously, but along lowly lines; if she ever did need aid, she would do as other old women were obliged to do, that is, apply to the parish.
Miss Martineau wrote for the “Daily London News” alone, sixteen hundred forty-two editorials. She also wrote more than two hundred magazine articles, and published upwards of fifty books. Her work was not classic, for it was written for the times. That her influence for good on the thought of the times was wide and far-reaching, all thoughtful men agree. And he who influences the thought of his times influences all the times that follow. He has made his impress on eternity.
* * * * *
Opinions may differ as to what constitutes Harriet Martineau’s best work, but my view is that her translation and condensation of Auguste Comte’s six volumes into two will live when all her other work is forgotten. Comte’s own writings were filled with many repetitions and rhetorical flounderings. He was more of a philosopher than a writer. He had an idea too big for him to express, but he expressed at it right bravely. Miss Martineau, trained writer and thinker, did not translate verbally: she caught the idea, and translated the thought rather than the language. And so it has come about that her work has been literally translated back into French and is accepted as a textbook of Positivism, while the original books of the philosopher are merely collected by museums and bibliophiles as curiosities.
Comte taught that man passes through three distinct mental stages in his development: First, man attributes all phenomena to a “Personal God,” and to this God he servilely prays. Second, he believes in a “Supreme Essence,” a “Universal Principle” or a “First Cause,” and seeks to discover its hiding-place. Third, he ceases to hunt out the unknowable, and is content to live and work for a positive present good, fully believing that what is best today can not fail to bring the best results tomorrow.
Harriet had long considered that one reason for the very slow advancement of civilization was that men had ever busied themselves with supernatural concerns; and in fearsome endeavors to make themselves secure for another world had neglected this. Man had tried to make peace with the skies instead of peace with his neighbor. She also thought she saw clearly that right living was one thing, and a belief in theological dogma another. That these things sometimes go together, she of course admitted, but a belief in a “vicarious atonement” and a “miraculous conception” she did not believe made a man a gentler husband, a better neighbor or a more patriotic citizen. Man does what he does because he thinks at the moment it is the best thing to do. And if you could make men believe that peace, truth, honesty and industry were the best standards to adopt–bringing the best results–all men would adopt them.
There are no such things as reward and punishment, as these terms are ordinarily used: there are only good results and bad results. We sow, and reap what we have sown.
Miss Martineau had long believed these things, but Comte proved them–proved them in six ponderous tomes–and she set herself the task to simplify his philosophy.
There is one point of attraction that Comte’s thought had for Harriet Martineau that I have never seen mentioned in print–that is, his mental attitude on the value of love in a well-ordered life.
In the springtime of his manhood, Auguste Comte, sensitive, confiding, generous, loved a beautiful girl. She did not share his intellectual ambitions, his divine aspiration: she was only a beautiful animal. Man proposes, but is not always accepted. She married another, and Comte was disconsolate–for a day.
He pondered the subject, read the lives of various great men, talked with monks and sundry friars gray, and after five years wrote out at length the reasons why a man, in order to accomplish a far-reaching and splendid work, must live the life of a celibate. “To achieve,” said Comte, “you must be married to your work.”
Comte lived for some time content in this philosophy, constantly strengthening it and buttressing it against attack; for we believe a thing first and skirmish for our proof afterward. But when past forty, and his hair was turning to silver, and crow’s-feet were showing themselves in his fine face, and when there was a halt in his step and his laughter had died away into a weary smile, he met a woman whose nature was as finely sensitive and as silkenly strong as his own. She had intellect, aspiration, power. She was gentle, and a womanly woman withal; his best mood was matched by hers, she sympathized with his highest ideal.
They loved and they married.
The crow’s-feet disappeared from Comte’s face, the halt in his step was gone, the laugh returned, and people said that the silver in his hair was becoming.
Shortly after, Comte set himself to work overhauling all the foolish things he had said about the necessity of celibacy. He declared that a man without his mate only stumbled his way through life. There was the male man and the female man, and only by working together could these two souls hope to progress. It requires two to generate thought. Comte felt sure that he was writing the final word. He avowed that there was no more to say. He declared that should his wife go hence the fountains of his soul would dry up, his mind would famish, and the light of his life would go out in darkness.
The gods were envious of such love as this.
Comte’s mate passed away.
He was stricken dumb; the calamity was too great for speech or tears.
But five years after, he got down his books and went over his manuscripts and again revised his philosophy of what constitutes the true condition for the highest and purest thought. To have known a great and exalted love and have it fade from your grasp and flee as shadow, living only in memory, is the highest good, he wrote. A great sorrow at one stroke purchases a redemption from all petty troubles; it sinks all trivial annoyances into nothingness, and grants the man lifelong freedom from all petty, corroding cares. His feelings have been sounded to their depths–the plummet has touched bottom. Fate has done her worst: she has brought him face to face with the Supreme Calamity, and thereafter there is nothing that can inspire terror.
The memory of a great love can never die from out the heart. It affords a ballast ‘gainst all the storms that blow. And although it lends an unutterable sadness, it imparts an unspeakable peace.
A great love, even when fully possessed, affords no complete gratification. There is an essence in it that eludes all ownership. Its highest use seems to be a purifying impulse for nobler endeavor. It says at the last, “Arise, and get thee hence, for this is not thy rest.”
Where there is this haunting memory of a great love lost there is always forgiveness, charity, and a sympathy that makes the man brother to all who endure and suffer. The individual himself is nothing; he has nothing to hope for, nothing to gain, nothing to win, nothing to lose; for the first time and the last he has a selflessness that is wide as the world, and wherein there is no room for the recollection of a wrong. In this memory of a great love, there is a nourishing source of strength by which the possessor lives and works; he is in communication with elemental conditions.
Harriet Martineau was a lifelong widow of the heart. That first great passion of her early womanhood, the love that was lost, remained with her all the days of her life: springing fresh every morning, her last thought as she closed her eyes at night. Other loves came to her, attachments varying in nature and degree, but in this supreme love all was fused and absorbed. In this love, you get the secret of power.
A great love is a pain, yet it is a benison and a benediction. If we carry any possession from this world to another it is the memory of a great love. For even in the last hour, when the coldness of death shall creep into the stiffening limbs, and the brain shall be stunned and the thoughts stifled, there shall come to the tongue a name, a name not mentioned aloud for years–there shall come a name; and as the last flickering rays of life flare up to go out on earth forever, the tongue will speak this name that was long, long ago burned into the soul by the passion of a love that fadeth not away.
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