Turbulent Londoners: Harriet Taylor Mill, 1807-1858

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Harriet Taylor Mill, a radical thinker who made a significant contribution to the work of John Stuart Mill.


Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill, around 1834 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

The well-known phrase ‘Behind every man is a great woman’ could have been invented for the philosopher John Stuart Mill. His wife Harriet Taylor Mill was hugely significant to his work, and, whilst we may never know the full extent of her contribution, she may well have co-authored substantial amounts of the writing attributed to him. She was also a radical thinker and writer in her own right.

Harriet Hardy was born in Walworth, south London on the 8th of October 1807. The daughter of a surgeon, she was educated at home. Her relationship with John Stuart  Mill was unconventional, even by modern standards. In 1826 Harriet married he first husband, the merchant John Taylor. They had three children. Four years into their marriage, Harriet became active in the Unitarian church community in London, and was introduced to John Stuart Mill. The two became close friends, exchanging essays on marriage and women’s rights. Mill was the first man to treat Harriet as an intellectual equal. Harriet was the more radical of the two, criticising the degrading effects of women’s economic dependence on men. She believed the situation could only be changed by the drastic reform of marriage laws.

By 1833, Harriet was living apart from John Taylor with her daughter, Helen. She spent six weeks in Paris with John Stuart Mill, and despite claiming they did not have a sexual relationship, they caused a scandal that left them both socially isolated. Harriet lived in a house in Walton-on-Thames, and Mill visited her at the weekends. John Taylor eventually accepted Harriet’s relationship with Mill, on the condition that she move back in with him.

John Taylor died in 1849, and Harriet married Mill two years later. The same year, 1851, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ was published by The Westminster Review. It is one of the few pieces of writing that can be solely attributed to Harriet, but at the time it was published in Mill’s name. Mill would build on Harriet’s arguments in The Subjection of Women (1869), although his arguments were less radical than Harriet’s.

Harriet published little of her own work, but contributed extensively to Mill’s. It is hard to know exactly the extent of this contribution though. At least, Harriet commented on all of Mill’s writing. In his autobiography, he claimed that she co-authored most of his work. In 1832, Early Essays on Marriage on divorce was published, co-authored by Harriet and Mill. It is unclear why Harriet might have been reluctant to take credit for her work– perhaps she was worried it would affect how the ideas were received. What was clear, however, was that Mill valued Harriet’s contribution; he dedicated On Liberty (1859) to her.

In her later years, Harriet traveled a lot due to ill health. She died in Avignon on the 3rd of November 1858. Mill bought a villa near Avignon, and spent most of the rest of the life there. Harriet’s daughter Helen helped Mill finish The Subjection of Women.

Even if Harriet Taylor Mill wasn’t a significant contributor to the work of John Stuart Mill, I think she would be worthy of admiration for to bravery she showed in pursuing happiness in her personal life in the face of social ostracism. Although the extent of her abilities will probably never be know for sure, she was also an accomplished thinker and writer. She deserves recognition.

Sources and Further Reading

Anschutz, Richard Paul. “John Stuart Mill.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last modified June 15, 2017, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Stuart-Mill.

Miller, Dale E. “Harriet Taylor Mill.’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified October 5, 2015, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/harriet-mill/#EnfWom

Simkin, John. “Harriet Mill.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wtaylor.htm

Wikipedia, “Harriet Taylor Mill.” Last modified August 22 2017, accessed September 28, 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Taylor_Mill

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