Harriet Taylor Mill Critical Essays

Introduction

Harriet Taylor Mill 1807-1858

(Born Harriet Hardy) English essayist and poet

Harriet Taylor Mill is best known for her influence over and possible collaboration with long-time friend and eventual husband John Stuart Mill. Their close friendship of over twenty years was controversial to their conservative contemporaries; it was considered an impropriety for a married woman and a single man to have such a close friendship and intellectual partnership. Further controversy was created after the death of both Taylor and Mill; with the publication of Mill's Autobiography, which described Taylor's deep involvement in his writing, the question of authorship became fodder for critical debate. While Taylor's known poems and essays center around the feminist cause and the need for equality among all people, the bulk of critical inquiry focuses on the nature of her relationship with Mill, and the extent to which she collaborated with him on his work.

Biographical Information

There is little documentation on the early life of Harriet Taylor. She was born in London in 1807, and the next record of note is that she married John Taylor just after her eighteenth birthday. Taylor had three children in the first five years of her marriage, and although her marriage was not openly hostile, she was apparently unhappy. Letters to friends infer that while Taylor felt a kind of affection for her husband, his intellect was no match for her own. She did not find this match until she met John Stuart Mill in 1830, a life-altering event for both of them. The two formed an unconventional friendship that hinged on their frequent correspondence and excursions. Plagued by illness throughout her adult life, Taylor traveled frequently, and Mill was often her companion. The relationship between Taylor and Mill grew into a deep connection, and gossip ensued wherever they traveled. Despite the apparent impropriety of their friendship, they always insisted that theirs was not a sexual relationship as long as Taylor's husband was alive. Conflicted over her duty to John Taylor and her desire to be with Mill, Taylor went to Paris in 1833 to decide the fate of her marriage and her future with Mill. After deliberating for several weeks, Taylor decided to remain with her husband for appearance's sake, but to continue her close friendship with Mill. From that point to the time of John Taylor's death in 1849, the Taylors carried on a marriage of convenience. Once free from her obligation to her deceased husband, Taylor married Mill in 1851. They spent much of their time together writing and discussing philosophy. When apart due to illness, the couple actively corresponded about the various projects that Mill was working on. It is through these letters that critics have gained a sense of the relationship between Mill and Taylor. Married only seven years to her intellectual companion, Taylor, after a long struggle with consumption, finally succumbed to a congestion of the lungs in 1858.

Major Works

Little evidence indicates that Taylor wrote prior to meeting Mill; however, in 1830 two of her poems, “To the Summer Wind” and “Nature,” were published in the Monthly Repository. She also wrote book reviews and articles that appeared in various periodicals. During their marriage, Mill wrote several feminist essays that he later attributed in his autobiography either solely or partially to Taylor, including his Autobiography, “The Subjection of Women,” “Enfranchisement of Women,” and “On Liberty.” Of these, the only undisputed Taylor essay is “Enfranchisement of Women” (1851). Letters, chiefly from Taylor to Mill, but also from herself to her contemporaries, constitute the bulk of Taylor's work.

Critical Reception

Taylor's collaboration on Mill's writing has been controversial since the publication of his Autobiography, where Mill asserted that Taylor had been a major influence in all of his writing. He praised her intellect and literary ability, declaring her “a greater poet than Carlyle … and a greater thinker than himself,” and maintained that his essays were the result of their joint efforts. In some instances he attributed most of a work's credit to her, and in the case of “Enfranchisement of Women,” he gave her full credit for authorship. Upon publication, Mill's claims created a stir among critics—most claimed that Mill was exaggerating Taylor's involvement and many, such as S. E. Henshaw, vilified Taylor as having no moral scruples or femininity, and ignoring the possibility of her intelligence all together. Modern critic Jo Ellen Jacobs offers an overview of this initial criticism as well as the ensuing criticism throughout the years, beginning in 1870 and concluding with her own essay in 1994. Over time the vehement insistence against claims of collaboration has faded, and critics have realized that a dual authorship is not only possible, but is probable on most, if not all, of the essays that Mill claims as joint. Sarojini works to clear up misnomers about who wrote what essays by evaluating the writing styles of both Taylor and Mill, and then aligning those styles with their respective work. Francis Mineka, in her evaluation of Taylor's talents, offers a more balanced view of Taylor, stating that although Taylor must have contributed in part to the success of Mill, she was not the great writer and thinker that Mill asserted. Other critics, including Alice Rossi and Susan Groag Bell have studied Taylor's writing in a feminist light. While Bell examines the importance of Taylor's influence on Mill's essays and autobiography, Rossi takes the argument further, explaining the importance of Taylor's “Enfranchisement of Women,” and, in turn assumes Taylor's sole authorship of the piece. Another approach that critics such as Linda Zerilli have taken has been to explore the effect that Mill's excessive praise of Taylor has caused, noting that Mill himself had unintentionally done the most damage to Taylor's credibility by naming her among the intellectual elite, a status that critics could not possibly accept. Thus, while Taylor's body of work is itself small, her influence on and participation in some of the most influential philosophical writings of the nineteenth century have secured her a controversial place in literary and philosophical critical study.