An Autobiography/Chapter IV


The last year of my girlish freedom was drawing to its close; how shall I hope to make commonsense readers understand how I became betrothed maiden ere yet nineteen, girl-wife when twenty years had struck? Looking back over twenty-five years, I feel a profound pity for the girl standing at that critical point of life, so utterly, hopelessly ignorant of all that marriage meant, so filled with impossible dreams, so unfitted for the rôle of wife. As I have said, my day-dreams held little place for love, partly from the absence of love novels from my reading, partly from the mystic fancies that twined themselves round the figure of the Christ. Catholic books of devotion—English or Roman, it matters not, for to a large extent they are translations of the same hymns and prayers—are exceedingly glowing in their language, and the dawning feelings of womanhood unconsciously lend to them a passionate fervour. I longed to spend my time in worshipping Jesus, and was, as far as my inner life was concerned, absorbed in that passionate love of "the Saviour" which, among emotional Catholics, really is the human passion of love transferred to an ideal—for women to Jesus, for men to the Virgin Mary. In order to show that I am not here exaggerating, I subjoin a few of the prayers in which I found daily delight, and I do this in order to show how an emotional girl may be attracted by these so-called devotional exercises:—

"O crucified Love, raise in me fresh ardours of love and consolation, that it may henceforth be the greatest torment I can endure ever to offend Thee; that it may be my greatest delight to please Thee."

"Let the remembrance of Thy death, O Lord Jesu, make me to desire and pant after Thee, that I may delight in Thy gracious presence."

"O most sweet Jesu Christ, I, unworthy sinner, yet redeemed by Thy precious blood.... Thine I am and will be, in life and in death."

"O Jesu, beloved, fairer than the sons of men, draw me after Thee with the cords of Thy love."

"Blessed are Thou, O most merciful God, who didst vouchsafe to espouse me to the heavenly Bridegroom in the waters of baptism, and hast imparted Thy body and blood as a new gift of espousal and the meet consummation of Thy love."

"O most sweet Lord Jesu, transfix the affections of my inmost soul with that most joyous and most healthful wound of Thy love, with true, serene, most holy, apostolical charity; that my soul may ever languish and melt with entire love and longing for Thee. Let it desire Thee and faint for Thy courts; long to be dissolved and be with Thee."

"Oh, that I could embrace Thee with that most burning love of angels."

"Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth; for Thy love is better than wine. Draw me, we will run after Thee. The king hath brought me into his chambers.... Let my soul, O Lord, feel the sweetness of Thy presence. May it taste how sweet Thou art.... May the sweet and burning power of Thy love, I beseech Thee, absorb my soul."

All girls have in them the germ of passion, and the line of its development depends on the character brought into the world, and the surrounding influences of education. I had but two ideals in my childhood and youth, round whom twined these budding tendrils of passion; they were my mother and the Christ. I know this may seem strange, but I am trying to state things as they were in this life-story, and not give mere conventionalisms, and so it was. I had men friends, but no lovers—at least, to my knowledge, for I have since heard that my mother received two or three offers of marriage for me, but declined them on account of my youth and my childishness—friends with whom I liked to talk, because they knew more than I did; but they had no place in my day-dreams. These were more and more filled with the one Ideal Man, and my hopes turned towards the life of the Sister of Mercy, who ever worships the Christ, and devotes her life to the service of His poor. I knew my dear mother would set herself against this idea, but it nestled warm at my heart, for ever that idea of escaping from the humdrum of ordinary life by some complete sacrifice lured me onwards with its overmastering fascination.

Now one unlucky result of this view of religion is the idealisation of the clergyman, the special messenger and chosen servant of the Lord. Far more lofty than any title bestowed by earthly monarch is that patent of nobility straight from the hand of the "King of kings," that seems to give to the mortal something of the authority of the immortal, and to crown the head of the priest with the diadem that belongs to those who are "kings and priests unto God." Viewed in this way, the position of the priest's wife seems second only to that of the nun, and has, therefore, a wonderful attractiveness, an attractiveness in which the particular clergyman affected plays a very subordinate part; it is the "sacred office," the nearness to "holy things," the consecration which seems to include the wife—it is these things that shed a glamour over the clerical life which attracts most those who are most apt to self-devotion, most swayed by imagination. And the saddest pity of all this is that the glamour is most over those whose brains are quick, whose hearts are pure, who are responsive to all forms of noble emotions, all suggestions of personal self-sacrifice; if such in later life rise to the higher emotions whose shadows have attracted them, and to that higher self-sacrifice whose whispers reached them in their early youth, then the false prophet's veil is raised, the poverty of the conception seen, and the life is either wrecked, or through storm-wind and surge of battling billows, with loss of mast and sail, is steered by firm hand into the port of a nobler faith.

That summer of 1866 saw me engaged to the young clergyman I had met at the mission church in the spring, our knowledge of each other being an almost negligeable quantity. We were thrown together for a week, the only two young ones in a small party of holiday-makers, and in our walks, rides, and drives we were naturally companions; an hour or two before he left he asked me to marry him, taking my consent for granted as I had allowed him such full companionship—a perfectly fair assumption with girls accustomed to look on all men as possible husbands, but wholly mistaken as regarded myself, whose thoughts were in quite other directions. Startled, and my sensitive pride touched by what seemed to my strict views an assumption that I had been flirting, I hesitated, did not follow my first impulse of refusal, but took refuge in silence; my suitor had to catch his train, and bound me over to silence till he could himself speak to my mother, urging authoritatively that it would be dishonourable of me to break his confidence, and left me—the most upset and distressed little person on the Sussex coast. The fortnight that followed was the first unhappy one of my life, for I had a secret from my mother, a secret which I passionately longed to tell her, but dared not speak at the risk of doing a dishonourable thing. On meeting my suitor on our return to town I positively refused to keep silence any longer, and then out of sheer weakness and fear of inflicting pain I drifted into an engagement with a man I did not pretend to love. "Drifted" is the right word, for two or three months passed, on the ground that I was so much of a child, before my mother would consent to a definite engagement; my dislike of the thought of marriage faded before the idea of becoming the wife of a priest, working ever in the Church and among the poor. I had no outlet for my growing desire for usefulness in my happy and peaceful home-life, where all religious enthusiasm was regarded as unbalanced and unbecoming; all that was deepest and truest in my nature chafed against my easy, useless days, longed for work, yearned to devote itself, as I had read women saints had done, to the service of the Church and of the poor, to the battling against sin and misery—what empty names sin and misery then were to me! "You will have more opportunities for doing good as a clergyman's wife than as anything else," was one of the pleas urged on my reluctance.

In the autumn I was definitely betrothed, and I married fourteen months later. Once, in the interval, I tried to break the engagement, but, on my broaching the subject to my mother, all her pride rose up in revolt. Would I, her daughter, break my word, would I dishonour myself by jilting a man I had pledged myself to marry? She could be stern where honour was involved, that sweet mother of mine, and I yielded to her wish as I had been ever wont to do, for a look or a word from her had ever been my law, save where religion was concerned. So I married in the winter of 1867 with no more idea of the marriage relation than if I had been four years old instead of twenty. My dreamy life, into which no knowledge of evil had been allowed to penetrate, in which I had been guarded from all pain, shielded from all anxiety, kept, innocent on all questions of sex, was no preparation for married existence, and left me defenceless to face a rude awakening. Looking back on it all, I deliberately say that no more fatal blunder can be made than to train a girl to womanhood in ignorance of all life's duties and burdens, and then to let her face them for the first time away from all the old associations, the old helps, the old refuge on the mother's breast. That "perfect innocence" may be very beautiful, but it is a perilous possession, and Eve should have the knowledge of good and evil ere she wanders forth from the paradise of a mother's love. Many an unhappy marriage dates from its very beginning, from the terrible shock to a young girl's sensitive modesty and pride, her helpless bewilderment and fear. Men, with their public school and college education, or the knowledge that comes by living in the outside world, may find it hard to realise the possibility of such infantile ignorance in many girls. None the less, such ignorance is a fact in the case of some girls at least, and no mother should let her daughter, blindfold, slip her neck under the marriage yoke.

Before leaving the harbourage of girlhood to set sail on the troublous sea of life, there is an occurrence of which I must make mention, as it marks my first awakening of interest in the outer world of political struggle. In the autumn of 1867 my mother and I were staying with some dear friends of ours, the Robertses, at Pendleton, near Manchester. Mr. Roberts was "the poor man's lawyer," in the affectionate phrase used of him by many a hundred men. He was a close friend of Ernest Jones, and was always ready to fight a poor man's battle without fee. He worked hard in the agitation which saved women from working in the mines, and I have heard him tell how he had seen them toiling, naked to the waist, with short petticoats barely reaching to their knees, rough, foul-tongued, brutalised out of all womanly decency and grace; and how he had seen little children working there too, babies of three and four set to watch a door, and falling asleep at their work to be roused by curse and kick to the unfair toil. The old man's eye would begin to flash and his voice to rise as he told of these horrors, and then his face would soften as he added that, after it was all over and the slavery was put an end to, as he went through a coal district the women standing at their doors would lift up their children to see "Lawyer Roberts" go by, and would bid "God bless him" for what he had done. This dear old man was my first tutor in Radicalism, and I was an apt pupil. I had taken no interest in politics, but had unconsciously reflected more or less the decorous Whiggism which had always surrounded me. I regarded "the poor" as folk to be educated, looked after, charitably dealt with, and always treated with most perfect courtesy, the courtesy being due from me, as a lady, to all equally, whether they were rich or poor. But to Mr. Roberts "the poor" were the working-bees, the wealth producers, with a right to self-rule not to looking after, with a right to justice, not to charity, and he preached his doctrines to me in season and out of season. I was a pet of his, and used often to drive him to his office in the morning, glorying much in the fact that my skill was trusted in guiding a horse through the crowded Manchester streets. During these drives, and on all other available occasions, Mr. Roberts would preach to me the cause of the people. "What do you think of John Bright?" he demanded suddenly one day, looking at me with fiery eyes from under heavy brows. "I have never thought of him at all," was the careless answer. "Isn't he a rather rough sort of man, who goes about making rows?" "There, I thought so!" he thundered at me fiercely. "That's just what I say. I believe some of you fine ladies would not go to heaven if you had to rub shoulders with John Bright, the noblest man God ever gave to the cause of the poor."

This was the hot-tempered and lovable "demagogue," as he was called, with whom we were staying when Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy, two Fenian leaders, were arrested in Manchester and put on their trial. The whole Irish population became seething with excitement, and on September 18th the police van carrying them to Salford Gaol was stopped at the Bellevue Railway Arch by the sudden fall of one of the horses, shot from the side of the road. In a moment the van was surrounded, and crowbars were wrenching at the van door. It resisted; a body of police was rapidly approaching, and if the rescue was to be effective the door must be opened. The rescuers shouted to Brett, the constable inside, to pass out his keys; he refused, and some one exclaimed, "Blow off the lock!" In a moment the muzzle of a revolver was against the lock, and it was blown off; but Brett, stooping down to look through the keyhole, received the bullet in his head, and fell dying as the door flew open. Another moment, and Allen, a lad of seventeen, had wrenched open the doors of the compartments occupied by Kelly and Deasy, dragged them out, and while two or three hurried them off to a place of safety, the others threw themselves between the fugitives and the police, and with levelled revolvers guarded their flight. The Fenian leaders once safe, they scattered, and young William Allen, whose one thought had been for his chiefs, seeing them safe, fired his revolver in the air, for he would not shed blood in his own defence. Disarmed by his own act, he was set on by the police, brutally struck down, kicked and stoned, and was dragged off to gaol, faint and bleeding, to meet there some of his comrades in much the same plight as himself. Then Manchester went mad, and race-passions flared up into flame; no Irish workman was safe in a crowd of Englishmen, no Englishman safe in the Irish quarter. The friends of the prisoners besieged "Lawyer Roberts's" house, praying his aid, and he threw his whole fiery soul into their defence. The man who had fired the accidentally fatal shot was safely out of the way, and none of the others had hurt a human being. A Special Commission was issued, with Mr. Justice Blackburn at its head—"the hanging judge," groaned Mr. Roberts—and it was soon in Manchester, for all Mr. Roberts's efforts to get the venue of the trial changed were futile, though of fair trial then in Manchester there was no chance. On October 25th the prisoners were actually brought up before the magistrates in irons, and Mr. Ernest Jones, their counsel, failing in his protest against this outrage, threw down his brief and left the court. So great was the haste with which the trial was hurried on that on the 29th Allen, Larkin, Gould (O'Brien), Maguire, and Condon were standing in the dock before the Commission charged with murder.

My first experience of an angry crowd was on that day as we drove to the court; the streets were barricaded, the soldiers were under arms, every approach to the court crowded with surging throngs. At last our carriage was stopped as we were passing at a foot's pace through an Irish section of the crowd, and various vehement fists came through the window, with hearty curses at the "d——d English who were going to see the boys murdered." The situation was critical, for we were two women and three girls, when I bethought myself that we were unknown, and gently touched the nearest fist: "Friends, these are Mr. Roberts' wife and daughters." "Roberts! Lawyer Roberts! God bless Roberts! Let his carriage through." And all the scowling faces became smile-wreathen, and curses changed to cheers, as a road to the court steps was cleared for us.

Alas! if there was passion on behalf of the prisoners outside, there was passion against them within, and the very opening of the trial showed the spirit that animated the prosecution and the bench. Digby Seymour, Q.C., and Ernest Jones, were briefed for the defence, and Mr. Roberts did not think that they exercised sufficiently their right of challenge; he knew, as we all did, that many on the panel had loudly proclaimed their hostility to the Irish, and Mr. Roberts persisted in challenging them as his counsel would not. In vain Judge Blackburn threatened to commit the rebellious solicitor: "These men's lives are at stake, my lord," was his indignant plea. "Remove that man!" cried the angry judge, but as the officers of the court came forward very slowly—for all poor men loved and honoured the sturdy fighter—he changed his mind and let him stay. Despite all his efforts, the jury contained a man who had declared that he "didn't care what the evidence was, he would hang every d——d Irishman of the lot." And the result showed that he was not alone in his view, for evidence of the most disreputable kind was admitted; women of the lowest type were put into the box as witnesses, and their word taken as unchallengeable; thus was destroyed an alibi for Maguire, afterwards accepted by the Crown, a free pardon being issued on the strength of it. Nothing could save the doomed men from the determined verdict, and I could see from where I was sitting into a little room behind the bench, where an official was quietly preparing the black caps before the verdict had been delivered. The foregone "Guilty" was duly repeated as verdict on each of the five cases, and the prisoners asked if they had anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed on them. Allen, boy as he was, made a very brave and manly speech; he had not fired, save in the air—if he had done so he might have escaped; he had helped to free Kelly and Deasy, and did not regret it; he was willing to die for Ireland. Maguire and Condon (he also was reprieved) declared they were not present, but, like Allen, were ready to die for their country. Sentence of death was passed, and, as echo to the sardonic "The Lord have mercy on your souls," rang back from the dock in five clear voices, with never a quiver of fear in them, "God save Ireland!" and the men passed one by one from the sight of my tear-dimmed eyes.

It was a sorrowful time that followed; the despair of the heart-broken girl who was Allen's sweetheart, and who cried to us on her knees, "Save my William!" was hard to see; nothing we or any one could do availed to avert the doom, and on November 23rd Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien were hanged outside Salford Gaol. Had they striven for freedom in Italy England would have honoured them; here she buried them as common murderers in quicklime in the prison yard.

I have found, with a keen sense of pleasure, that Mr. Bradlaugh and myself were in 1867 to some extent co-workers, although we knew not of each other's existence, and although he was doing much, and I only giving such poor sympathy as a young girl might, who was only just awakening to the duty of political work. I read in the National Reformer for November 24, 1867, that in the preceding week he was pleading on Clerkenwell Green for these men's lives:—"According to the evidence at the trial, Deasy and Kelly were illegally arrested. They had been arrested for vagrancy of which no evidence was given, and apparently remanded for felony without a shadow of justification. He had yet to learn that in England the same state of things existed as in Ireland; he had yet to learn that an illegal arrest was sufficient ground to detain any of the citizens of any country in the prisons of this one. If he were illegally held, he was justified in using enough force to procure his release. Wearing a policeman's coat gave no authority when the officer exceeded his jurisdiction. He had argued this before Lord Chief Justice Erie in the Court of Common Pleas, and that learned judge did not venture to contradict the argument which he submitted. There was another reason why they should spare these men, although he hardly expected the Government to listen, because the Government sent down one of the judges who was predetermined to convict the prisoners; it was that the offence was purely a political one. The death of Brett was a sad mischance, but no one who read the evidence could regard the killing of Brett as an intentional murder. Legally, it was murder; morally, it was homicide in the rescue of a political captive. If it were a question of the rescue of the political captives of Varignano, or of political captives in Bourbon, in Naples, or in Poland, or in Paris, even earls might be found so to argue. Wherein is our sister Ireland less than these? In executing these men, they would throw down the gauntlet for terrible reprisals. It was a grave and solemn question. It had been said by a previous speaker that they were prepared to go to any lengths to save these Irishmen. They were not. He wished they were. If they were, if the men of England, from one end to the other, were prepared to say, 'These men shall not be executed,' they would not be. He was afraid they had not pluck enough for that. Their moral courage was not equal to their physical strength. Therefore he would not say that they were prepared to do so. They must plead ad misericordiam. He appealed to the press, which represented the power of England; to that press which in its panic-stricken moments had done much harm, and which ought now to save these four doomed men. If the press demanded it, no Government would be mad enough to resist. The memory of the blood which was shed in 1798 rose up like a bloody ghost against them to-day. He only feared that what they said upon the subject might do the poor men more harm than good. If it were not so, he would coin words that should speak in words of fire. As it was, he could only say to the Government: You are strong to-day; you hold these men's lives in your hands; but if you want to reconcile their country to you, if you want to win back Ireland, if you want to make her children love you—then do not embitter their hearts still more by taking the lives of these men. Temper your strength with mercy; do not use the sword of justice like one of vengeance, for the day may come when it shall be broken in your hands, and you yourselves brained by the hilt of the weapon you have so wickedly wielded." In October he had printed a plea for Ireland, strong and earnest, asking:—

"Where is our boasted English freedom when you cross to Kingstown pier? Where has it been for near two years? The Habeas Corpus Act suspended, the gaols crowded, the steamers searched, spies listening at shebeen shops for sedition, and the end of it a Fenian panic in England. Oh, before it be too late, before more blood stain the pages of our present history, before we exasperate and arouse bitter animosities, let us try and do justice to our sister land. Abolish once and for all the land laws, which in their iniquitous operation have ruined her peasantry. Sweep away the leech-like Church which has sucked her vitality, and has given her back no word even of comfort in her degradation. Turn her barracks into flax mills, encourage a spirit of independence in her citizens, restore to her people the protection of the law, so that they may speak without fear of arrest, and beg them to plainly and boldly state their grievances. Let a commission of the best and wisest amongst Irishmen, with some of our highest English judges added, sit solemnly to hear all complaints, and then let us honestly legislate, not for the punishment of the discontented, but to remove the causes of the discontent. It is not the Fenians who have depopulated Ireland's strength and increased her misery. It is not the Fenians who have evicted tenants by the score. It is not the Fenians who have checked cultivation. Those who have caused the wrong at least should frame the remedy."

In December, 1867, I sailed out of the safe harbour of my happy and peaceful girlhood on to the wide sea of life, and the waves broke roughly as soon as the bar was crossed. We were an ill-matched pair, my husband and I, from the very outset; he, with very high ideas of a husband's authority and a wife's submission, holding strongly to the "master-in-my-own-house theory," thinking much of the details of home arrangements, precise, methodical, easily angered and with difficulty appeased. I, accustomed to freedom, indifferent to home details, impulsive, very hot-tempered, and proud as Lucifer. I had never had a harsh word spoken to me, never been ordered to do anything, had had my way smoothed for my feet, and never a worry had touched me. Harshness roused first incredulous wonder, then a storm of indignant tears, and after a time a proud, defiant resistance, cold and hard as iron. The easy-going, sunshiny, enthusiastic girl changed—and changed pretty rapidly—into a grave, proud, reticent woman, burying deep in her own heart all her hopes, her fears, and her disillusions. I must have been a very unsatisfactory wife from the beginning, though I think other treatment might gradually have turned me into a fair imitation of the proper conventional article. Beginning with the ignorance before alluded to, and so scared and outraged at heart from the very first; knowing nothing of household management or economical use of money—I had never had an allowance or even bought myself a pair of gloves—though eager to perform my new duties creditably; unwilling to potter over little things, and liking to do swiftly what I had to do, and then turn to my beloved books; at heart fretting for my mother but rarely speaking of her, as I found my longing for her presence raised jealous vexation; with strangers about me with whom I had no sympathy; visited by ladies who talked to me only about babies and servants—troubles of which I knew nothing and which bored me unutterably—and who were as uninterested in all that had filled my life, in theology, in politics, in science, as I was uninterested in the discussions on the housemaid's young man and on the cook's extravagance in using "butter, when dripping would have done perfectly well, my dear"; was it wonderful that I became timid, dull, and depressed?

All my eager, passionate enthusiasm, so attractive to men in a young girl, were doubtless incompatible with "the solid comfort of a wife," and I must have been inexpressibly tiring to the Rev. Frank Besant. And, in truth, I ought never to have married, for under the soft, loving, pliable girl there lay hidden, as much unknown to herself as to her surroundings, a woman of strong dominant will, strength that panted for expression and rebelled against restraint, fiery and passionate emotions that were seething under compression—a most undesirable partner to sit in the lady's arm-chair on the domestic rug before the fire. [Que le diable faisait-elle dans cette galère,] I have often thought, looking back at my past self, and asking, Why did that foolish girl make her bed so foolishly? But self-analysis shows the contradictories in my nature that led me into so mistaken a course. I have ever been the queerest mixture of weakness and strength, and have paid heavily for the weakness. As a child I used to suffer tortures of shyness, and if my shoe-lace was untied would feel shamefacedly that every eye was fixed on the unlucky string; as a girl I would shrink away from strangers and think myself unwanted and unliked, so that I was full of eager gratitude to any one who noticed me kindly; as the young mistress of a house, I was afraid of my servants, and would let careless work pass rather than bear the pain of reproving the ill-doer; when I have been lecturing and debating with no lack of spirit on the platform, I have preferred to go without what I wanted at the hotel rather than to ring and make the waiter fetch it; combative on the platform in defence of any cause I cared for, I shrink from quarrel or disapproval in the home, and am a coward at heart in private while a good fighter in public. How often have I passed unhappy quarters of an hour screwing up my courage to find fault with some subordinate whom my duty compelled me to reprove, and how often have I jeered at myself for a fraud as the doughty platform combatant, when shrinking from blaming some lad or lass for doing their work badly! An unkind look or word has availed to make me shrink into myself as a snail into its shell, while on the platform opposition makes me speak my best. So I slid into marriage blindly and stupidly, fearing to give pain; fretted my heart out for a year; then, roused by harshness and injustice, stiffened and hardened, and lived with a wall of ice round me within which I waged mental conflicts that nearly killed me; and learned at last how to live and work in armour that turned the edge of the weapons that struck it, and left the flesh beneath unwounded, armour laid aside, but in the presence of a very few.

My first serious attempts at writing were made in 1868, and I took up two very different lines of composition; I wrote some short stories of a very flimsy type, and also a work of a much more ambitious character, "The Lives of the Black Letter Saints." For the sake of the unecclesiastically trained it may be as well to mention that in the Calendar of the Church of England there are a number of Saints' Days; some of these are printed in red, and are Red Letter Days, for which services are appointed by the Church; others are printed in black, and are Black Letter Days, and have no special services fixed for them. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to take each of these days and write a sketch of the life of the saint belonging to it, and accordingly I set to work to do so, and gathered various books of history and legend where-from to collect my "facts." I do not in the least know what became of that valuable book; I tried Macmillans with it, and it was sent on by them to some one who was preparing a series of Church books for the young; later I had a letter from a Church brotherhood offering to publish it, if I would give it as "an act of piety" to their order; its ultimate fate is to me unknown.

The short stories were more fortunate. I sent the first to the Family Herald, and some weeks afterwards received a letter from which dropped a cheque as I opened it. Dear me! I have earned a good deal of money since by my pen, but never any that gave me the intense delight of that first thirty shillings. It was the first money I had ever earned, and the pride of the earning was added to the pride of authorship. In my childish delight and practical religion, I went down on my knees and thanked God for sending it to me, and I saw myself earning heaps of golden guineas, and becoming quite a support of the household. Besides, it was "my very own," I thought, and a delightful sense of independence came over me. I had not then realised the beauty of the English law, and the dignified position in which it placed the married woman; I did not understand that all a married woman earned by law belonged to her owner, and that she could have nothing that belonged to her of right.[1] I did not want the money: I was only so glad to have something of my own to give, and it was rather a shock to learn that it was not really mine at all.

From time to time after that I earned a few pounds for stories in the same journal; and the Family Herald, let me say, has one peculiarity which should render it beloved by poor authors; it pays its contributor when it accepts the paper, whether it prints it immediately or not; thus my first story was not printed for some weeks after I received the cheque, and it was the same with all the others accepted by the same journal. Encouraged by these small successes, I began writing a novel! It took a long time to do, but was at last finished, and sent off to the Family Herald. The poor thing came back, but with a kind note, telling me that it was too political for their pages, but that if I would write one of "purely domestic interest," and up to the same level, it would probably be accepted. But by that time I was in the full struggle of theological doubt, and that novel of "purely domestic interest" never got itself written.

I contributed further to the literature of my country a theological pamphlet, of which I forget the exact title, but it dealt with the duty of fasting incumbent on all faithful Christians, and was very patristic in its tone.

In January, 1869, my little son was born, and as I was very ill for some months before, and was far too much interested in the tiny creature afterwards, to devote myself to pen and paper, my literary career was checked for a while. The baby gave a new interest and a new pleasure to life, and as we could not afford a nurse I had plenty to do in looking after his small majesty. My energy in reading became less feverish when it was done by the side of the baby's cradle, and the little one's presence almost healed the abiding pain of my mother's loss.

I may pass very quickly over the next two years. In August, 1870, a little sister was born to my son, and the recovery was slow and tedious, for my general health had been failing for some time.

The boy was a bright, healthy little fellow, but the girl was delicate from birth, suffering from her mother's unhappiness, and born somewhat prematurely in consequence of a shock. When, in the spring of 1871, the two children caught the whooping cough, my Mabel's delicacy made the ordeal well-nigh fatal to her. She was very young for so trying a disease, and after a while bronchitis set in and was followed by congestion of the lungs. For weeks she lay in hourly peril of death We arranged a screen round the fire like a tent, and kept it full of steam to ease the panting breath; and there I sat, day and night, all through those weary weeks, the tortured baby on my knees. I loved my little ones passionately, for their clinging love soothed the aching at my heart, and their baby eyes could not critically scan the unhappiness that grew deeper month by month; and that steam-filled tent became my world, and there, alone, I fought with Death for my child. The doctor said that recovery was impossible, and that in one of the paroxysms of coughing she must die; the most distressing thing was that, at last, even a drop or two of milk would bring on the terrible convulsive choking, and it seemed cruel to add to the pain of the apparently dying child. At length, one morning the doctor said she could not last through the day; I had sent for him hurriedly, for the body had suddenly swollen up as a result of the perforation of one of the pleurae, and the consequent escape of air into the cavity of the chest. While he was there one of the fits of coughing came on, and it seemed as though it must be the last. He took a small bottle of chloroform out of his pocket, and putting a drop on a handkerchief held it near the child's face, till the drug soothed the convulsive struggle. "It can't do any harm at this stage," he said, "and it checks the suffering." He went away, saying that he feared he would never see the child alive again. One of the kindest friends I had in my married life was that same doctor, Mr. Lauriston Winterbotham; he was as good as he was clever, and, like so many of his noble profession, he had the merits of discretion and silence. He never breathed a word as to my unhappiness, until in 1878 he came up to town to give evidence as to cruelty which—had the deed of separation not been held as condonation—would have secured me a divorce a mensa et thoro.

The child, however, recovered, and her recovery was due, I think, to that chance thought of Mr. Winterbotham's about the chloroform, for I used it whenever the first sign of a fit of coughing appeared, and so warded off the convulsive attack and the profound exhaustion that followed, in which a mere flicker of breath at the top of the throat was the only sign of life, and sometimes even that disappeared, and I thought her gone. For years the child remained ailing and delicate, requiring the tenderest care, but those weeks of anguish left a deeper trace on mother than on child. Once she was out of danger I collapsed physically, and lay in bed for a week unmoving, and then rose to face a struggle which lasted for three years and two months, and nearly cost me my life, the struggle which transformed me from a Christian into an Atheist. The agony of the struggle was in the first nineteen months—a time to be looked back upon with shrinking, as it was a hell to live through at the time. For no one who has not felt it knows the fearful anguish inflicted by doubt on the earnestly religious soul. There is in life no other pain so horrible, so keen in its torture, so crushing in its weight. It seems to shipwreck everything, to destroy the one steady gleam of happiness "on the other side" that no earthly storm could obscure; to make all life gloomy with a horror of despair, a darkness that verily may be felt. Nothing but an imperious intellectual and moral necessity can drive into doubt a religious mind, for it is as though an earthquake shook the foundations of the soul, and the very being quivers and sways under the shock. No life in the empty sky; no gleam in the blackness of the night; no voice to break the deadly silence; no hand outstretched to save. Empty-brained triflers who have never tried to think, who take their creed as they take their fashions, speak of Atheism as the outcome of foul life and vicious desires. In their shallow heartlessness and shallower thought they cannot even dimly imagine the anguish of entering the mere penumbra of the Eclipse of Faith, much less the horror of that great darkness in which the orphaned soul cries out into the infinite emptiness: "Is it a Devil that has made the world? Is the echo, 'Children, ye have no Father,' true? Is all blind chance, is all the clash of unconscious forces, or are we the sentient toys of an Almighty Power that sports with our agony, whose peals of awful mockery of laughter ring back answer to the wailings of our despair?"

How true are the noble words of Mrs. Hamilton King:—

  "For some may follow Truth from dawn to dark,
  As a child follows by his mother's hand,
  Knowing no fear, rejoicing all the way;
  And unto some her face is as a Star
  Set through an avenue of thorns and fires,
  And waving branches black without a leaf;
  And still It draws them, though the feet must bleed,
  Though garments must be rent, and eyes be scorched:
  And if the valley of the shadow of death
  Be passed, and to the level road they come,
  Still with their faces to the polar star,
  It is not with the same looks, the same limbs,
  But halt, and maimed, and of infirmity.
  And for the rest of the way they have to go
  It is not day but night, and oftentimes
  A night of clouds wherein the stars are lost."[2]

Aye! but never lost is the Star of Truth to which the face is set, and while that shines all lesser lights may go. It was the long months of suffering through which I had been passing, with the seemingly purposeless torturing of my little one as a climax, that struck the first stunning blow at my belief in God as a merciful Father of men. I had been visiting the poor a good deal, and had marked the patient suffering of their lives; my idolised mother had been defrauded by a lawyer she had trusted, and was plunged into debt by his non-payment of the sums that should have passed through his hands to others; my own bright life had been enshrouded by pain and rendered to me degraded by an intolerable sense of bondage; and here was my helpless, sinless babe tortured for weeks and left frail and suffering. The smooth brightness of my previous life made all the disillusionment more startling, and the sudden plunge into conditions so new and so unfavourable dazed and stunned me. My religious past became the worst enemy of the suffering present. All my personal belief in Christ, all my intense faith in His constant direction of affairs, all my habit of continual prayer and of realisation of His Presence—all were against me now. The very height of my trust was the measure of the shock when the trust gave way. To me He was no abstract idea, but a living reality, and all my heart rose up against this Person in whom I believed, and whose individual finger I saw in my baby's agony, my own misery, the breaking of my mother's proud heart under a load of debt, and all the bitter suffering of the poor. The presence of pain and evil in a world made by a good God; the pain falling on the innocent, as on my seven months' old babe; the pain begun here reaching on into eternity unhealed; a sorrow-laden world; a lurid, hopeless hell; all these, while I still believed, drove me desperate, and instead of like the devils believing and trembling, I believed and hated. All the hitherto dormant and unsuspected strength of my nature rose up in rebellion; I did not yet dream of denial, but I would no longer kneel.

As the first stirrings of this hot rebellion moved in my heart I met a clergyman of a very noble type, who did much to help me by his ready and wise sympathy. Mr. Besant brought him to see me during the crisis of the child's illness; he said little, but on the following day I received from him the following note:—

"April 21, 1871.

"My Dear Mrs. Besant,—I am painfully conscious that I gave you but little help in your trouble yesterday. It is needless to say that it was not from want of sympathy. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that it was from excess of sympathy. I shrink intensely from meddling with the sorrow of any one whom I feel to be of a sensitive nature. 'The heart hath its own bitterness, and the stranger meddleth not therewith.' It is to me a positively fearful thought that I might awaken such a reflection as

"'And common was the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.'

Conventional consolations, conventional verses out of the Bible, and conventional prayers are, it seems to me, an intolerable aggravation of suffering. And so I acted on a principle that I mentioned to your husband that 'there is no power so great as that of one human faith looking upon another human faith.' The promises of God, the love of Christ for little children, and all that has been given to us of hope and comfort, are as deeply planted in your heart as in mine, and I did not care to quote them. But when I talk face to face with one who is in sore need of them, my faith in them suddenly becomes so vast and heart-stirring that I think I must help most by talking naturally, and letting the faith find its own way from soul to soul. Indeed, I could not find words for it if I tried. And yet I am compelled, as a messenger of the glad tidings of God, to solemnly assure you that all is well. We have no key to the 'mystery of pain' excepting the Cross of Christ. But there is another and a deeper solution in the hands of our Father; and it will be ours when we can understand it. There is—in the place to which we travelsome blessed explanation of your baby's pain and your grief, which will fill with light the darkest heart. Now you must believe without having seen; that is true faith. You must

"'Reach a hand through time to catch
The far-off interest of tears.'

That you may have strength so to do is part of your share in the prayers of

"Yours very faithfully,

"W. D——."

A noble letter, but the storm was beating too fiercely to be stilled, and one night in that summer of 1871 stands out clearly before me. Mr. Besant was away, and there had been a fierce quarrel before he left. I was outraged, desperate, with no door of escape from a life that, losing its hope in God, had not yet learned to live for hope for man. No door of escape? The thought came like a flash: "There is one!" And before me there swung open, with lure of peace and of safety, the gateway into silence and security, the gateway of the tomb. I was standing by the drawing-room window, staring hopelessly at the evening sky; with the thought came the remembrance that the means was at hand—the chloroform that had soothed my baby's pain, and that I had locked away upstairs. I ran up to my room, took out the bottle, and carried it downstairs, standing again at the window in the summer twilight, glad that the struggle was over and peace at hand. I uncorked the bottle, and was raising it to my lips, when, as though the words were spoken softly and clearly, I heard: "O coward, coward, who used to dream of martyrdom, and cannot bear a few short years of pain!" A rush of shame swept over me, and I flung the bottle far away among the shrubs in the garden at my feet, and for a moment I felt strong as for a struggle, and then fell fainting on the floor. Only once again in all the strifes of my career did the thought of suicide recur, and then it was but for a moment, to be put aside as unworthy a strong soul.

My new friend, Mr. D——, proved a very real help. The endless torture of hell, the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, the trustworthiness of revelation, doubts on all these hitherto accepted doctrines grew and heaped themselves on my bewildered soul. My questionings were neither shirked nor discouraged by Mr. D——; he was not horrified nor was he sanctimoniously rebukeful, but met them all with a wide comprehension inexpressibly soothing to one writhing in the first agonies of doubt. He left Cheltenham in the early autumn of 1871, but the following extracts from a letter written in November will show the kind of net in which I was struggling (I had been reading M'Leod Campbell's work "On the Atonement"):—

"You forget one great principle—that God is impassive, cannot suffer. Christ, quâ God, did not suffer, but as Son of Man and in His humanity. Still, it may be correctly stated that He felt to sin and sinners 'as God eternally feels'—i.e., abhorrence of sin, and love of the sinner. But to infer from that that the Father in His Godhead feels the sufferings which Christ experienced solely in humanity, and because incarnate is, I think, wrong.

"(2) I felt strongly inclined to blow you up for the last part of your letter. You assume, I think quite gratuitously, that God condemns the major part of His children to objectless future suffering. You say that if He does not, He places a book in their hands which threatens what He does not mean to inflict. But how utterly this seems to me opposed to the gospel of Christ! All Christ's references to eternal punishment may be resolved into references to the Valley of Hinnom, by way of imagery; with the exception of the Dives parable, where is distinctly inferred a moral amendment beyond the grave. I speak of the unselfish desire of Dives to save his brothers. The more I see of the controversy, the more baseless does the eternal punishment theory appear. It seems then, to me, that instead of feeling aggrieved and shaken, you ought to feel encouraged and thankful that God is so much better than you were taught to believe Him. You will have discovered by this time in Maurice's 'What is Revelation?' (I suppose you have the 'Sequel,' too?), that God's truth is our truth, and His love is our love, only more perfect and full. There is no position more utterly defeated in modern philosophy and theology than Dean Mansel's attempt to show that God's love, justice, &c., are different in kind from ours. Mill and Maurice, from totally alien points of view, have shown up the preposterous nature of the notion.

"(3) A good deal of what you have thought is, I fancy, based on a strange forgetfulness of your former experience. If you have known Christ—(whom to know is eternal life)—and that you have known Him I am certain—can you really say that a few intellectual difficulties, nay, a few moral difficulties if you will, are able at once to obliterate the testimony of that higher state of being?

"Why, the keynote of all my theology is that Christ is lovable because, and just because, He is the perfection of all that I know to be noble and generous, and loving, and tender, and true. If an angel from heaven brought me a gospel which contained doctrines that would not stand the test of such perfect lovableness—doctrines hard, or cruel, or unjust—I should reject him and his trumpery gospel with scorn, knowing that neither could be Christ's. Know Christ and judge religions by Him; don't judge Him by religions, and then complain because they find yourself looking at Him through a blood-coloured glass."

"I am saturating myself with Maurice, who is the antidote given by God to this age against all dreary doublings and temptings of the devil to despair."

Many a one, in this age of controversy over all things once held sacred, has found peace and new light on this line of thought, and has succeeded in thus reconciling theological doctrines with the demands of the conscience for love and justice in a world made by a just and loving God. I could not do so. The awakening to what the world was, to the facts of human misery, to the ruthless tramp of nature and of events over the human heart, making no difference between innocent and guilty—the shock had been too great for the equilibrium to be restored by arguments that appealed to the emotions and left the intellect unconvinced. Months of this long-drawn-out mental anguish wrought their natural effects on physical health, and at last I broke down completely, and lay for weeks helpless and prostrate, in raging and unceasing head-pain, unable to sleep, unable to bear the light, lying like a log on the bed, not unconscious, but indifferent to everything, consciousness centred, as it were, in the ceaseless pain. The doctor tried every form of relief, but, entrenched in its citadel, the pain defied his puny efforts. He covered my head with ice, he gave me opium—which only drove me mad—he did all that skill and kindness could do, but all in vain. Finally the pain wore itself out, and the moment he dared to do so, he tried mental diversion; he brought me books on anatomy, on science, and persuaded me to study them; and out of his busy life would steal an hour to explain to me knotty points on physiology. He saw that if I were to be brought back to reasonable life, it could only be by diverting thought from the channels in which the current had been running to a dangerous extent. I have often felt that I owed life and sanity to that good man, who felt for the helpless, bewildered child-woman, beaten down by the cyclone of doubt and misery.

So it will easily be understood that my religious wretchedness only increased the unhappiness of homelife, for how absurd it was that any reasonable human being should be so tossed with anguish over intellectual and moral difficulties on religious matters, and should make herself ill over these unsubstantial troubles. Surely it was a woman's business to attend to her husband's comforts and to see after her children, and not to break her heart over misery here and hell hereafter, and distract her brain with questions that had puzzled the greatest thinkers and still remained unsolved! And, truly, women or men who get themselves concerned about the universe at large, would do well not to plunge hastily into marriage, for they do not run smoothly in the double-harness of that honourable estate. Sturm und Drang should be faced alone, and the soul should go out alone into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, and not bring his majesty and all his imps into the placid circle of the home. Unhappy they who go into marriage with the glamour of youth upon them and the destiny of conflict imprinted on their nature, for they make misery for their partner in marriage as well as for themselves. And if that partner, strong in traditional authority and conventional habits, seeks to "break in" the turbulent and storm-tossed creature—well, it comes to a mere trial of strength and endurance, whether that driven creature will fall panting and crushed, or whether it will turn in its despair, assert its Divine right to intellectual liberty, rend its fetters in pieces, and, discovering its own strength in its extremity, speak at all risks its "No" when bidden to live a lie.

When that physical crisis was over I decided on my line of action. I resolved to take Christianity as it had been taught in the Churches, and carefully and thoroughly examine its dogmas one by one, so that I should never again say "I believe" where I had not proved, and that, however diminished my area of belief, what was left of it might at least be firm under my feet. I found that four chief problems were pressing for solution, and to these I addressed myself. How many are to-day the souls facing just these problems, and disputing every inch of their old ground of faith with the steadily advancing waves of historical and scientific criticism! Alas! for the many Canutes, as the waves wash over their feet. These problems were:—

(1) The eternity of punishment after death.

(2) The meaning of "goodness" and "love," as applied to a God who had made this world, with all its sin and misery.

(3) The nature of the atonement of Christ, and the "justice" of God in accepting a vicarious suffering from Christ, and a vicarious righteousness from the sinner.

(4) The meaning of "inspiration" as applied to the Bible, and the reconciliation of the perfections of the author with the blunders and immoralities of the work.

It will be seen that the deeper problems of religion—the deity of Christ, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul—were not yet brought into question, and, looking back, I cannot but see how orderly was the progression of thought, how steady the growth, after that first terrible earthquake, and the first wild swirl of agony. The points that I set myself to study were those which would naturally be first faced by any one whose first rebellion against the dogmas of the Churches was a rebellion of the moral nature rather than of the intellectual, a protest of the conscience rather than of the brain. It was not a desire for moral licence which gave me the impulse that finally landed me in Atheism; it was the sense of outraged justice and insulted right. I was a wife and mother, blameless in moral life, with a deep sense of duty and a proud self-respect; it was while I was this that doubt struck me, and while I was in the guarded circle of the home, with no dream of outside work or outside liberty, that I lost all faith in Christianity. My education, my mother's example, my inner timidity and self-distrust, all fenced me in from temptations from without. It was the uprising of an outraged conscience that made me a rebel against the Churches and finally an unbeliever in God. And I place this on record, because the progress of Materialism will never be checked by diatribes against unbelievers, as though they became unbelievers from desire for vice and for licence to do evil. What Religion has to face in the controversies of to-day is not the unbelief of the sty, but the unbelief of the educated conscience and of the soaring intellect; and unless it can arm itself with a loftier ethic and a grander philosophy than its opponent, it will lose its hold over the purest and the strongest of the younger generation.


FootnotesEdit

  1. This odious law has now been altered, and a married woman is a person, not a chattel.
  2. "The Disciples," p. 14.