Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858), née Harriet Hardy, has for a long time been overshadowed by her second husband, the great Victorian Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). They met in fall or winter 1830 at a dinner party of the leader of Harriet’s Unitarian congregation, Reverend William J. Fox. Letters written as early as 1831 indicate that Mill and Taylor a very close intellectual friendship. Their correspondence provides both a valuable source concerning the details of Victorian life and starting point of a debate that continues to this day. Given the great extent and detail to which Mill’s work is being discussed in those letters, scholars still argue about whether or not Taylor Mill can legitimately be considered the co-author of her future husband (cf. Himmelfarb 1974, Pappe 1960, Jacobs 2002, Kinzer 2007). Mill himself states in his Autobiography:
When two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common […] it is of little consequence in respect to the question of originality, which of them holds the pen; the one who contributes least to the composition may contribute most to the thought; the writings which result are the joint product of both. […] In this wide sense, not only during the years of our married life, but during many of the years of confidential friendship which preceded, all my published writings were as much her work as mine. [204f]
Nonetheless, for some scholars, the fact that Mill devotes an entire chapter of his autobiography to his relationship with Taylor (which has the telling title “Commencement of the Most Valuable Friendship of My Life” at that) simply proves, as Richard Reeves puts it, that he had a “lifelong mission to deify Harriet” (206).
Their contemporaries debated the influence that Taylor had or may have had on Mill, and many from Mill’s social circle saw Taylor very critically, something that can only partly be explained by nineteenth-century cultural expectations about women. After all, Mill and Taylor both moved in very progressive, even radical circles, where their ideas on sexual equality and women’s rights were far from unusual. According to Alice S. Rossi (1970), we should focus less on gender norms but rather on the political ideals held by those who scoff at the idea of Taylor’s collaboration. In evaluating contemporary accounts of the Taylor-Mill relationship, we have to distinguish between two social sets among which they moved: The Unitarian Radicals and the Philosophic Radicals. The Philosophic Radicals were a Utilitarian group inspired by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, overbearing father of John Stuart. Their political aims were manifold and of mixed success: They aimed at reducing aristocratic power and privilege (which also included plans for the abolition of the monarchy), and campaigned for universal suffrage and secret ballot. John Stuart Mill was among the founders of this group, but stayed mainly in the background of the strife for parliamentary reform. By 1826, however, Mill was suffering from a severe intellectual crisis that led him to question the Utilitarian ideals by which he had been educated. Specifically, he was wondering whether “the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings” (Autobiography, 114) and worried that his education had made him callous. Hence: “[t]he cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed” (118). It was in this transitional phase that he associated more closely with the Unitarian Radicals, many of whom he had already known before. Fox hosted not only that fateful dinner party where Mill and Taylor met, he was also close with some leading disciples of Bentham. And since his parish included both some of Bentham’s followers as well as Harriet Taylor and her husband, the idea that Harriet Taylor became the symbol of Mill’s association with the Unitarian circle does not seem too far-fetched – at least in the eyes of the Philosophical Radicals, who felt deprived of their prodigy. And indeed, those who see Taylor’s influence on Mill negatively belong to the group of Philosophical Radicals, whereas members of the Unitarian circle view the Taylor-Mill relationship more benevolently.
We see a similar pattern in current accounts of the Taylor-Mill relationship. In his study John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, Their Correspondence and Subsequent Marriage (1951), Friedrich August von Hayek concedes that Taylor had considerable influence on Mill, but mainly because doing so allows him to ascribe Mill’s socialist ideals he entertained at a later point in his life to the influence of Taylor. Hayek closes his survey of the Taylor-Mill relationship with the strangely cautious statement that “I believe that a careful study of [Mill’s] later development would show that in some degree he withdrew a little from the more advanced positions which he had taken under her influence and returned to views closer to those he had held in his youth. But this in an impression for which it would be impossible to give here the evidence” (266).
Even though the extent to which Taylor contributed to Mill’s work may still be subject of debate, there are good reasons to view her as an important thinker on social and economic issues in her own right. Her essay “Enfranchisement of Women” (1851) is similar in its tone but more radical in its reasoning than Mill’s Subjection of Women (1869). In her newspaper articles on domestic violence (1846-1851), Taylor Mill offers far-sighted analyses on causes for and possible remedies of domestic violence, which throw an interesting light on nineteenth-century social debates and policies.
Hayek, Friedrich August von. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Their Correspondence and Subsequent Marriage. London: Routledge, 1951.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. On Liberty & Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. New York: Knopf, 1974.
Folbre, Nancy. Greed, Lust & Gender. A History of Economic Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Jacobs, Jo Ellen. The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
Kinzer, Bruce L. J. S. Mill Revisited: Biographical and Political Explorations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Mill, John Stuart. Newspaper Writings. December 1847–July 1873. University of Toronto Press, 1986.
Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. London: Penguin, 1989.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Pappe, H. O. John Stuart Mill and the Harriet Taylor Myth. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1960.
Reeves, Richard. John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand. London: Atlantic Books, 2007.
Taylor Mill, Harriet. “Enfranchisement of Women”, in Alice S. Rossi (ed.): Essays on Sex Equality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. 89-121.
Taylor Mill, Harriet. Complete Works. Ed. J.E. Jacobs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Last modified 25 September 2019