Harriet Martineau's Autobiography

Source: Harriet Martineau (ed. Maria Weston Chapman), Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography vol. 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1877), pp. 11-12

Text: Of all my many fancies, perhaps none was so terrible as a dream that I had at four years old. The impression is as fresh as possible now; but I cannot at all understand what the fright was about. I know nothing more strange than this power of re-entering, as it were, into the narrow mind of an infant, so as to compare it with that of maturity ; and therefore it may be worth while to record that piece of precious nonsense, — my dream at four years old. I imagine I was learning my letters then from cards, where each letter had its picture, — as a stag for S. I dreamed that we children were taking our walk with our nursemaid out of St. Austin’s Gate (the nearest bit of country to our house.) Out of the public-house there came a stag, with prodigious antlers. Passing the pump, it crossed the road to us, and made a polite bow, with its head on one side, and with a scrape of one foot, after which it pointed with its foot to the public-house, and spoke to me, inviting me in. The maid declined, and turned to go home. Then came the terrible part. By the time we were at our own door it was dusk, and we went up the steps in the dark; but in the kitchen it was bright sunshine. My mother was standing at the dresser, breaking sugar; and she lifted me up, and set me in the sun, and gave me a bit of sugar.

Such was the dream which froze me with horror! Who shall say why? But my panics were really unaccountable. They were a matter of pure sensation, without any intellectual justification whatever, even of the wildest kind. A magic-lantern was exhibited to us on Christmas-day, and once or twice in the year besides. I used to see it cleaned by daylight, and to handle all its parts, — understanding its whole structure; yet, such was my terror of the white circle on the wall, and of the moving slides, that, to speak the plain truth, the first apparition always brought on bowel-complaint; and, at the age of thirteen, when I was pretending to take care of little children during the exhibition, I could never look at it without having the back of a chair to grasp, or hurting myself, to carry off the intolerable sensation.

Comments: Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was a British essayist and sociologist, who enjoyed a considerable reputation as a social analyst in her lifetime. Her posthumously published autobiography goes into great detail about her childhood memories and their significance. Her childhood was spent in Norwich.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

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