Harriet Taylor Mill

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S. E. Henshaw (essay date 1874)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 was defrauded in being brought up without it, or even to see that he was defrauded at all, nor enough of women to understand Mrs. Taylor and the influence which she exerted over his life. So he underestimates the precocious acquirements of his childhood, and overestimates Mrs. Taylor by confounding that which she was to him with that which she was absolutely and to all the world; while as to Christianity, he passes it by and despises it altogether, as unworthy of serious consideration.

The great sincerity and evident honesty of the memoir, as far as it goes, can not but command respect. That he was so brilliant a scholar, and that he devoted himself as he did to the cause of human progress, challenges the utmost admiration. On the other hand, a certain self-exaltation runs through the story, which is implied, not expressed, and which assumes what it by no means actually states. One can not help feeling, also, his lack of candor in regard to his religious sentiments. That he should have kept these back through life, absolutely refusing to declare what they were when urged even by those whose interest in them was that of a constituency which he was about to represent in Parliament, and that he should have left his atheism to be learned in an autobiography published after his death, to say the least hardly savors of the heroic. Religion is, to be sure, a private affair, as he urges, but there is no question of public interest which may not infringe upon it: therefore, as no one knew better than John Stuart Mill, the request of his constituents that he should declare his religious sentiments was perfectly reasonable, especially where Church and State hold such relations as in England; and the reason which he assigned for refusing was not a reason, but an excuse. And so, when the interest of the story sufficiently abates to allow the judgment to cool, one asks one's self such questions as these: Was he, after all, a man of simple, courageous candor? Was his judgment any nearer infallibility than that of other men? Was he the true philosopher which he thought himself, and which so many believe? And—what about Mrs. Taylor?

The last question illustrates and involves most of the others; for in his association with Mrs. Taylor he found, as he himself considered it, not only his greatest happiness, but the blossom of his intellect, the perfect joy, and blessing, and crown of his existence; while she was, he thought, a creature immeasurably superior to any of the sons and daughters of men. To understand his remarkable attitude toward her, a brief survey of some of his previous life may be helpful; and to understand his life, one must go back to his father.

The elder Mill was a member of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, and was a licensed preacher in its ministry. He owed his education to the benevolence of some Christian ladies of Scotland, who paid his expenses through the Edinburgh University, from a fund raised by their exertions for the education of young men for the ministry of the Scotch Church. After receiving his license, Mr. James Mill made up his mind that he “could not believe the doctrines of that or of any other church,” and so gave up preaching and religion together. The problem of evil was too much for the young student. His nature was fierce and strong, and so was the...

(The entire section is 72,760 words.)