Human beings have a remarkable tendency to attempt to re-make themselves, to form a cohesive narrative of their lives, and to make meaning of the world around them. In “The Authoress’s Tale,” Dallas Liddle accurately observes that Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography “is not in fact the story of Harriet Martineau’s life up to 1855, as scholars have not unreasonably assumed, but rather the story of her life as she wanted to represent it in 1855″ (67). Martineau’s self-reflection was encouraged when she discovered she was facing a “mortal disease” (tumors and/or a severe heart condition) “which might spare me some considerable space of life, but which might, as likely as not, destroy me at any moment” (35). Though she lived fifteen years after this terminal diagnosis, it provided her enough uncertainty and urgency to begin the attempt to “clean up” her tarnished image, to fashion the legacy she desired to leave behind, and to determine what qualities she wished to be known for.
However, surprisingly, the Autobiography voluntarily reveals Martineau’s vulnerability. She is no longer the character which my colleague Hannah Hannover describes in “Angry Single Woman Seeks Basic Rights.” Instead, we see her as a nervous child who suffered from anxiety attacks and seriously contemplated suicide. She had “scarcely any respite from the terror,” avoiding contact with people at all costs until her aunt “won my heart and my confidence when I was sixteen” (Martineau, Autobiography, 40). We see her as the woman who fell deeply in love with a man who later went “suddenly insane” and died (Autobiography, 119). We see her grieving for her dead father and brother, persevering through her family’s financial ruin, and struggling with shame over her growing deafness.
After a career of passionate activism, why did she choose to portray this side of herself?
I believe the answer lies in the 1837 essay which she chose to reprint in her Autobiography, “Literary Lionism.” In this essay, she describes the female author thrust to the center of the drawing-room, the spectacle of entertainment, observed, praised, and engaged by all but befriended by none. She also wistfully describes an author on the other side of the publicity spectrum: the cloistered monk, secluded from all society.
Though she concludes that the ideal author strikes a balance between the monk and the lion, “active in some common business of life, not dividing the whole of his life between the study and the drawing-room, and so confining himself to the narrow world of books and readers” (228), her descriptions of the monk reveal a nostalgic longing for the seclusion and anonymity of the cloister.
The monk has a unique “pleasure of intellectual exercise”: “We may even now witness with the mind’s eye the delight of it painted upon the face under the cowl. One may see the student hastening from the refectory to the cell, drawn thither by the strong desire of solving a problem, of elucidating a fact, of indulging the imagination with heavenly delights… One may see him come down with radiant countenance from the heights of speculation….” (213) Though he may perhaps hope that future generations will find his work useful, and though he may share his devotional insights with fellow monks, the act of composition for Martineau’s monk is completely insulated from the excessive, isolating praise received by the literary lion. Implicitly, he is also protected from vehement blame– which Martineau herself received in abundance.
Yet despite her longing, Martineau was denied this quiet, cloistered life. And in many ways, the story she tells reveals the alienation of the literary lion. While fashionable society pumps her with questions about “her opinion of this, that, and the other book,” making painful small talk about “black and green tea, or the state of the roads, or the age of the moon,” (217) then roughly discards her with offhand comments (“O, I am so disappointed! I don’t find that she has anything in her” ), she really just wants to speak with the children. And for a person who struggled as a child with severe anxiety about social interaction, being the center of attention must have been very painful indeed.
One sees in Martineau’s autobiography the simple human desire to know and be known, to experience genuine friendship without the social frippery. Perhaps the revelations of vulnerability are her attempts to “pop the bubble” of inflated fame and literary lionism, to come back down to earth and just be ordinary. And perhaps it is our place to read graciously.
Liddle, Dallas. “The Authoress’s Tale: The Triumph of Journalism in Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography.” In The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain. 46-72. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007.