Incomparable Friend

Who was Harriet Taylor-Mill?1 Since her death in 1858 her reputation has been overshadowed by that of her world-famous second husband, John Stuart Mill. But her standing was controversial during her lifetime, too. Mill himself did his best to bring her contributions out from the penumbra into which Victorian society had cast them, crediting his ‘incomparable friend’ with a central role in his work, both muse and equal co-author. ‘All my published writings were as much her work as mine’, he wrote in the Autobiography. Key sections of the Principles of Political Economy were ‘entirely due to her’ or ‘wholly an exposition of her thoughts, often in words taken from her own lips’, while On Liberty was ‘directly and literally our joint production’. For old friends like Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, the young Harriet was an ante diem Yoko Ono, ensnaring the innocent Mill with her radical ideas and breaking up the happy circle of Queen’s Place Benthamites, of which he had been a central figure, to drag him off to isolated Blackheath and Provence.

Mill’s description of their joint work has rarely been taken seriously. To some extent this might be because it is hard to think of great works being ‘authored’ by more than one person, and Mill is such a canonical figure. But there also seems to be at least a whiff of misogyny about it: how could Harriet – how could any woman – really have been Mill’s intellectual equal and collaborator? Central to these evaluations has been the question of her socialist and feminist influence. In his 1951 study, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage, Friedrich Hayek set out to rescue the author of On Liberty from her taint, while attributing to her baleful but fortunately short-lived influence all that is ‘socialist’ in Mill’s work.

More recent – and more feminist – scholarship has aimed to recover her as a canonical figure in the history of political and philosophical thought, exploring her contributions as a thinker in her own right, while also trying to understand the nature of her contribution to ‘Mill’s’ work. In 1998, Indiana University Press brought out a Complete Works of Harriet Taylor-Mill, edited by a professor of philosophy at Millikin University, Jo Ellen Jacobs, which claimed for her a much larger share of ‘Mill’s’ work, as well as early writings which include an 1833 Life of William Caxton.

There are many difficulties in assessing Harriet’s actual contribution to political thought. One problem is that we have very little in her hand from the time before she met Mill: a unique style, completely separate to his, is therefore hard to discern (as noted by scholars addressing the question through stylometric techniques.) There are also very few working manuscripts of any of ‘Mill’s’ works, meaning it is hard to discern two ‘hands’ in the writing (if, indeed, that would be an accurate reflection of their modes of collaboration). During her lifetime, Harriet’s only sole-authored publication was the 23-page essay, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ (1851). Even here, though, the final copy sent to the printers is in Mill’s hand. We do know her handwriting, however, and can discern something of an individual ‘voice’ in what manuscripts do survive, mostly preserved in the London School of Economics’ Women’s Library. At least some of them pre-date her life with Mill, even though these are mainly letters, poetry and literary reviews, rather than overtly political or philosophical works. It’s worth pausing to look at their context.

Born in London in 1807, Harriet Hardy was married at eighteen to a well-off pharmaceuticals merchant, John Taylor, some twenty years her senior. Both were members of the Unitarian congregation of William Johnson Fox, a radical orator and editor of the reform-minded Monthly Repository, to which Harriet would contribute. She had borne Taylor two sons and was newly pregnant with their daughter, Helen, when she first met Mill at a dinner in 1831. At 24, Mill had already made a name for himself with articles in the Westminster Review and the Examiner. They shared interests in radical politics, particularly in women’s rights. In early exchanges they discussed the nature of marriage and of reforms to it; around this time Harriet was writing fragmentary (though often relatively long) manuscripts dealing with questions around women’s education, character-formation, political obligation, tolerance and the need for freedom and independence in the face of stultifying public opinion. Her writings reveal a deep-rooted utilitarianist commitment, which was also reflected in the radical choices of her personal life.

Though they may not have instantly fallen in love (or at least admitted that fact to each other, or to themselves), within a year Mill was referring to her as ‘she to whom I have dedicated my life’. Matters with Harriet’s husband came to a head in November 1835, when she left him and went to Paris. Mill joined her, but despite their personal happiness, she ultimately decided that she should return to her husband, though determining not to have sex with him (or Mill), and retaining the liberty of seeing Mill, a situation which continued until her husband’s death in 1849. She married Mill in 1851 – ‘adding to the partnership of thought, feeling and writing, which had long existed, a partnership of our entire existence’, as he put it in the Autobiography – but they enjoyed only seven years together. Harriet had suffered from tuberculosis for some years (as had Mill) and in 1858 suffered a final, fatal haemorrhage in Avignon. Mill bought a house near her grave and was eventually buried with her.

After his death in 1873 their manuscripts, and the copyright of many of their published works, were bequeathed to Helen Taylor, Harriet’s youngest child. Through her, they eventually came to form part of the Women’s Library. Helen herself had become a key part of Mill’s life – he refers to her as the second of the prizes he won in the ‘lottery of life’ – and he must have been a significant figure in hers. She helped Mill with his correspondence, shared his keen interest in botany – there are dried flowers still pressed within the pages of her commonplace books held at LSE – and edited several of Mill’s posthumous publications, notably the Three Essays on Religion and Chapters on Socialism, including translating long extracts from French socialist writings which Mill had quoted in the original language.

Helen was herself a campaigner for women’s rights, education and suffrage, successfully standing as a candidate to the London School Board in 1876. In 1885, she sought the nomination as Liberal candidate for Camberwell North (with another woman, Ethel Leach, acting as her election agent): the first woman to seek election to Parliament. Henry George supported her candidature, and the atheist freethinker George Jacob Holyoake was an active worker on her behalf. As it was not legal for a woman to stand for Parliament, her nomination papers were rejected by the returning officer. She died in 1907, after spending her last decades in the house in Avignon. Her dogged navigation of the publishing world – including lengthy bargaining over her share of any profits – was crucial in helping to curate her mother and stepfather’s literary legacies; her own and her father’s, too.

In the LSE’s Women’s Library, then, under the title ‘Mill-Taylor Collection’ there are papers by John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor-Mill, Helen Taylor and John Taylor. The same goes for the Mill Library at Somerville, which also holds books that once belonged to Mill’s father, James, which likewise descended to Helen. At LSE, Box 3 in particular has manuscripts by Harriet Taylor-Mill. They cover a wide range of topics, from political theory (freedom, tolerance, rights, obligation) to feminist thought (women’s education, women’s oppression by social structures, the social construction of gender, the nature of marriage), ethics, the arts and religion. There is also correspondence with both her husbands, her children and some of her friends and relations (not all of it friendly), as well as passports, birth and marriage certificates. The manuscripts show Harriet re-writing pieces several times over until she was happy with them (often at the same time as managing a household with three small children). Many of them remained officially unpublished – indeed, often (as far as we can see) unfinished.

Most of the manuscripts in Box 3 were transcribed and published by Jacobs in the Complete Works. In addition, Jacobs included the chapter from Principles of Political Economy, ‘On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes’, as solely authored by Harriet. This, however, is not in line with Mill’s careful account of its composition. Like other pieces – for instance, the series of articles on violence and oppression co-authored in the 1840s and 1850s – it is more plausible to see this chapter as a collaborative endeavour.

Also bulking up Jacob’s edition of the Complete Works is the lengthy Life of William Caxton, dated by her to 1833. As a result, Harriet is often nowadays said to have written a history of printing by the age of 24, on top of her maternal duties. This work was in fact published in 1828 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a group dedicated to producing cheap and accessible reading material for working people. The listed author was William Stevenson. Jacobs notes that the much shorter ‘Caxton’ manuscript (113) in Box 3 bears little resemblance to the finished text, but she claims this is proof that Harriet worked on it a great deal before Caxton’s publication. She makes no mention of Stevenson.

Manuscript 113 itself consists of just four sides of paper, roughly equivalent to A4, water-marked 1826. Three sides are covered in John Taylor’s handwriting. One side is about a quarter covered in his hand, and a quarter in Harriet’s (upside down to his), with the remaining half, between the two, being blank. Even a cursory glance at manuscript 113 shows it to be notes for a book review. It opens with general praise for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, ‘one of whose Publications is now under our review’. The Life of William Caxton is described as a work ‘which will be found equally useful & instructive to those whose means have given them better opportunities of acquiring scientific knowledge’ than the average working man (or woman). Caxton is of interest as ‘the first to introduce printing into England’, an innovation intimately connected with ‘advancement … in knowledge … and happiness’.

The review then goes on to quote at length from Caxton, as well as noting longer extracts with reference to page numbers, which align with extant copies of the 1828 Life. For instance, ‘he had it seems etc. down to Westminster Abbey, page 28’: on p. 28 of Life we find:

He [Caxton] seems to have had a veneration for the memory of this poet [Chaucer], and to have formed, with sound judgement and good taste, a most correct and precise estimate of the peculiar merits of his poetry. As a proof of the former, we may mention, that Caxton at his own expense, procured a long epitaph to be written in honour of Chaucer. This was inscribed on a table, hung on a pillar near the poet’s grave in the south aisle of Westminster Abbey.

There can be no doubt that these are notes for a review of an already-published work, not jottings for future publication. Still more to the point, only a few of them are in Harriet’s hand, and many more in her husband’s. Jacobs suggests that this shows co-authorship, with the lion’s share being Harriet’s. It seems at least as plausible that this was a review being written by Taylor, with some involvement by his young wife. Taylor was a founder-member of the Reform Club, and his ‘liberal opinions’ were noted by Mill in his Autobiography. He may well have wanted to bring Stevenson’s biography – and with it, the wider work of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge – to the attention of people rich enough to help further the Society’s aims.  

This is not to undermine the claims for Harriet Taylor-Mill’s writing, her contributions to ‘Mill’s’ works or to political theory, philosophy or economics more broadly. This bare half-page of jotted notes, mainly quotes from the book, tells us nothing about the depth, breadth or originality of her thought, nor about the ways in which she may have contributed to ‘Mill’s’ works in later life. Instead, it is to set the historical record straight, and perhaps add some nuance to our understanding of her first marriage. (Jacobs not only likens Taylor to George Eliot’s Casaubon, but suggests he infected Harriet with syphilis – a charge which is entirely unfounded, the purported evidence for it failing utterly to support the claim.)

It also adds a mote to our understanding of the radical milieus of the 1820s and 30s in which Mill and Harriet moved. Their ideas were forged, nuanced and changed in and by these circles, and it is through them that they met, and formed what was arguably one of the most productive collaborations in the history of political philosophy, culminating in joint work on On Liberty, one of the canonical texts of modern political thought. Harriet’s contribution to that, and to many other of ‘Mill’s’ texts, has been ignored, denigrated or denied pretty much ever since her death. Her manuscripts suggest we should not only recognise her part in them but also – and this includes manuscript 113 – take cognisance of the co-authored nature of many texts in what is traditionally considered a male-dominated canon, buttressed by – and buttressing – the cult of the lone genius in philosophy.

Read on: Alexander Zevin, ‘Gradualism’s Prophet’, NLR 135.

1 To avoid the confusion of so many overlapping Taylors, Mills and Taylor-Mills, in addition to the two Johns (Stuart Mill and Taylor), I take the liberty here of using Harriet Taylor-Mill’s and Helen Taylor’s first names, rather than following formal academic practice. For the same reason, I don’t call the two men ‘John’.