Summed up on a sundial
`COME light! Visit me!'' This motto was chosen by writer Harriet Martineau for the sundial at her home in Ambleside in the English Lake District. The motto received the approval of poet William Wordsworth, who lived about a mile away at Rydal Mount. It is still visible on the sundial at The Knoll, the house she had built on land he encouraged her to buy.
The solid, stone-built house is still very much as it was in Miss Martineau's day, and recently a plaque was placed on the wall telling of her occupancy there from 1846 until her death in 1876. The plaque was put up by Virago Books, which had just republished her autobiography. It has served to remind both local residents and tourists of the remarkable Victorian lady who once lived there.
Miss Martineau, born in Norwich in 1802, chose to live in Ambleside, at the northern end of Lake Windermere, after she had made an international name for herself as a Radical writer and journalist. She was a respected writer on education, history, philosophy, politics, science, and social reform. Her nine-volume ``Illustrations of Political Economy'' (1832-34) made her a literary celebrity.
An ardent feminist, she knew many distinguished people, including Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, Robert Southey, and Anthony Trollope, and she corresponded with many leading statesmen and politicians.
After a visit to the United States in 1834-36 -- when she made her antislavery views clearly known -- she wrote her well-known ``Society in America.''
Harriet first saw the English Lake District in 1838. In January 1845 she returned to stay with friends on the shores of Windermere to complete a cure after a long illness and, as she wrote in her autobiography, to ``determine on my course of life.''
Soon she was looking there for lodgings ``in which to undergo my transformation into a Laker!'' Shortly after she was shown a building plot in Ambleside that ``was a rocky knoll, commanding a charming view.'' She bought it, had a house built on it, and moved in on April 7, 1846.
Wordsworth, then 76, helped her with her new garden and even planted a Stone Pine -- which survives. ``On occasion of the planting of his pine,'' she wrote, ``he dug and planted in a most experienced manner -- then washed his hands in the watering-pot, took my hands in both his, and wished me many happy years in my new abode.''
Then a friend gave her a sundial, something she had always wanted.
``The motto was an important affair,'' stated Harriet. ``On this occasion, I preferred a motto of my own to all that were offered in English; and Wordsworth gave it his emphatic approbation. `Come Light! Visit Me!' stand emblazoned on my dial; and it has been, I believe, as frequent and impressive a monitor to me as ever was any dial which bore warning of the fugacious nature of time and life.''
Among many famous people whom Harriet received at The Knoll was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she first met in America. He spent a few days at her home in February 1847. ``It was a great pleasure to me to have for my guest one of the most honoured of my American hosts,'' she wrote, ``and to find him as full as ever of the sincerity and serenity which had inspired me with so cordial reverence twelve years before.''
In November 1849 she received a book called ``Shirley'' from ``Currer Bell, Esq.'' She at once realized it was by a woman and sent a reply starting ``Madam.'' The next month, when Harriet was in London, the author of that book, Charlotte Bront"e, who had much admired Harriet's only novel, ``Deerbrook,'' contacted her and they met. A year later Charlotte stayed for a week at The Knoll, and Harriet helped her with her next novel, ``Villette.''
After settling in Ambleside, Harriet determined ``to become acquainted with the Lake District in a complete and orderly manner,'' and this eventually resulted in her excellent ``Complete Guide to the Lake District.''
From The Knoll, she wrote for Charles Dickens's ``Household Words'' from its inception in 1849 until 1857; he said she was ``grimly bent on the enlightenment of mankind.'' She contributed to the Daily News (supplying 1,642 editorials), the Westminster Review, the National Anti-Slavery Standard (New York), and many other publications. She wrote more books (50 in all).
She demonstrated the same great and enduring qualities which she had praised in a well-known hymn about faith. Written early in her life, it is still included in various hymnals today.
Light truly did visit her -- as her faith-lighted hymn, her eloquent life, and her sundial make plain.