Harriet Taylor Mill Essay - Critical Essays

Mill, Harriet Taylor


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.

Principal Works

*“Enfranchisement of Women” (essay) 1851

John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Correspondence and Subsequent Marriage (letters) 1951

Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill (essays, poems, reviews, letters) 1998

*Originally printed in the Westminster Review.


S. E. Henshaw (essay date 1874)

SOURCE: “John Stuart Mill and Mrs. Taylor,” in Overland Monthly, Vol. 13, No. 6, 1874, pp. 516-23.

[In the following essay, Henshaw examines John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, focusing on Mill's excessive praise of Harriet Taylor.]

As we lay down the deeply interesting biography of John Stuart Mill, we can not help wondering whether the volume will raise or lower him in the general regard, and what is the place that will be finally assigned him in the world of letters. His own estimate of himself can not be accepted at all. He did not know enough of children to judge his own attainments in childhood, nor enough of religion to comprehend the extent to which he...

(The entire section is 4953 words.)

Mary Taylor (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: “Mrs. John Stuart Mill: A Vindication by Her Granddaughter,” in Nineteenth Century and After, Vol. 71, 1912, pp. 357-63.

[In the following essay, Taylor refutes an earlier article questioning both Harriet Taylor's intellect as well as her influence on John Stuart Mill.]

In an article entitled ‘Famous Autobiographies,’ by an anonymous writer in the Edinburgh Review for October, certain statements have been made that must have grated upon all admirers of John Stuart Mill, accustomed as they are to pay respect to the memory of the woman whom he loved with unfailing constancy from youth to the day of his death; and also to that of his step-daughter,...

(The entire section is 3227 words.)

Guy Linton Diffenbaugh (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: “Mrs. Taylor Seen Through Other Eyes than John Stuart Mill's,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 31, No. 2, April, 1923, pp. 198-204.

[In the following essay, Diffenbaugh examines various opinions of both the character and intellectual abilities of Harriet Taylor by her contemporaries, concluding that although she was certainly an intelligent woman, Taylor could not have been the intellectual giant that John Stuart Mill claimed she was.]

Mill in reply to Grote's letter of sympathy on the death of Mrs. Mill writes: “If I were to attempt to express in the most moderate terms what she was, even you would hardly believe me.”1 This doubt appears to be not...

(The entire section is 2342 words.)

Francis E. Mineka (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “The Autobiography and the Lady,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3, April, 1963, pp. 301-6.

[In the following essay, Mineka explores the initial reaction to John Stuart Mill's Autobiography and his implications that Harriet Taylor collaborated on several of his essays.]

The publication of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography in October 1873, less than six months after his death, created something of a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Mill's reputation and influence were still at their height, his Logic and his Political Economy were widely used college textbooks in both England and America, and his...

(The entire section is 3231 words.)

Alice S. Rossi (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “Sentiment and Intellect: The Story of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill,” in Essays on Sex Equality: John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 3-63.

[In the following excerpt, Rossi examines the Mill/Taylor controversy from a sociological perspective, paying particular attention to the influence of the Unitarian Radicals and the Philosophical Radicals on the early stages of the couple's relationship.]

If we could go back to the town of Avignon in the year 1860, we might take a two-mile stroll along the banks of the Rhone, through meadows and groves of mulberries, to the house in which John Stuart Mill wrote the...

(The entire section is 20183 words.)

Susan Groag Bell (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Feminization of John Stuart Mill,” in Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender, edited by Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom, State University of New York Press, 1990, pp. 81-92.

[In the following essay, Bell explores critics' refusal to acknowledge Harriet Taylor's contribution to John Stuart Mill's writing, and offers possible reasons for this resistance.]

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, the most famous male feminist of the nineteenth century, is inspired by a presence that has infuriated many critics—that of his wife Harriet. In Mill's words, she was “the most admirable person I had ever known” (p. 114). He insisted...

(The entire section is 5219 words.)

Leah D. Hackleman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Suppressed Speech: The Language of Emotion in Harriet Taylor's The Enfranchisement of Women,” in Women’s Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3-4, 1992, pp. 273-86.

[In the following essay, Hackleman explores the impact that Harriet Taylor's “Enfranchisement of Women” had on the feminist movement.]

Suppressed speech gathers into a storm …

Eliza Sharples, 1832

Histories of the early English feminist movement often locate its beginning in the middle nineteenth century with the rise of women's reform societies and trace its development to the suffrage movement of the early...

(The entire section is 6015 words.)

Linda M.-G. Zerilli (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Constructing ‘Harriet Taylor’: Another Look at J. S. Mill's Autobiography,” in Constructions of the Self, edited by George Levine, Rutgers University Press, 1992, pp. 191-212.

[In the following essay, Zerilli explores Harriet Taylor's impact on John Stuart Mill's life, including the possibility that Taylor acted as a “mother-figure” to Mill.]

But if I were to say in what above all she is preeminent, it is her profound knowledge of human nature. To know all its depths and elevations she had only to study herself.

John Stuart Mill

Readers of John Stuart Mill...

(The entire section is 10274 words.)

Jo Ellen Jacobs (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “‘The Lot of Gifted Ladies Is Hard’: A Study of Harriet Taylor Mill Criticism,” in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 132-62.

[In the following essay, Jacobs considers critiques written about Harriet Taylor and attempts to offer a new perspective on her life and influence on Mill.]

Who can tell a life? How can I reconstruct the inside, not merely the shell, of another? Margaret Atwood quotes the end of Arnold Bennett's biography by Margaret Drabble:

“Many a time, … reading a letter or a piece of his journal, I have wanted to shake his hand, or to thank him, to say well...

(The entire section is 14970 words.)

Sarojini (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Better Deal for the Better Half: Mill and Harriet Taylor on the Subjection of Women,” in Women’s Writing: Text and Context, edited by Jasbir Jain, Rawat Publications, 1996, pp. 56-63.

[In the following essay, Sarojini offers a comparison of the essential views that Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill held concerning men and women, marriage and divorce.]

In the English speaking world the feminist movement might be said to have begun with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. It made very little impact on its contemporaries, partly because it was so obviously a child of the French Revolution, and partly...

(The entire section is 2346 words.)

Further Reading


Hayek, F. A. “On Marriage and Divorce.” In Midway 16, (Autumn 1963): 100-26.

Includes a brief background on Harriet Taylor and John Mill's relationship, and two essays, one written from Taylor to Mill and one from Mill to Taylor, both on the subject of marriage and divorce.


Allen, Virginia. “On Liberty and Logic: The Collaboration of Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill.” In Listening to Their Voices: The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women,” pp. 42-68. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Discusses the strong likelihood that...

(The entire section is 236 words.)