John Stuart Mill, of his own free will /On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill" we are told by Monty Python, but this irreverence is not modern. The writer of On Logic and On Liberty was ever a figure of fun. Carlyle beat time with the cutlery at dinner to the chant, "Mill with mud may else bespatter / All your schools of silly fools / Stuart Mill exerts his skill / To make an end of Mind and Matter." After Mill wrote The Subjection of Women he was usually depicted in a dress by cartoonists.
Moving to the present, it is a testament to the low esteem in which intellectuals are held in Britain that the most influential political writer in English in the 19th century should have so few biographies. Moreover, all three full biographies, in the 30 years since Josephine Kamm's John Stuart Mill in Love, were written by Americans. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but he was our prophet of liberty, after all.
Richard Reeves therefore has something close to a virgin field. This is also, it appears, his first book (his other published work is journalism), so it is intriguing to know if his scholarship matches his pluck. On the whole it does. He is interested in scotching the myth of Mill as dry-as-dust, humourless, logic-chopping machine, and keen to show him a flesh and blood man, passionate about his principles to the point of recklessness (and about his wife to the point of derangement).
Under the domination of his father, Mill was perhaps the most hothoused child who has ever lived: at six he had written a history of Rome; at seven he was reading Plato in Greek; he used to be up at five to help his father with his massive history of India. A female acquaintance described him as "that overstrained infant".
Mill does not even mention his mother in his published Autobiography, but Reeves has found that in earlier drafts he lamented the lack of "that rarity in England, a really warm-hearted mother". It is no wonder that when he fell for a woman, it was without restraint.
The beautiful Harriet Taylor was more than eager to unite herself with a man of intellect, but unfortunately she was already married. It required a deal of philosophical inventiveness to render this situation benign. Working it out, Mill and Harriet felt they could behave as they wished because the institution of marriage was so philosophically unacceptable. Matrimony was simply "a lottery and whoever is in a state of mind to calculate the chances calmly and value them correctly, is not at all likely to purchase a ticket", Mill said. The chances of finding happiness in one's first choice of partner were remote; it was therefore ethically acceptable for Mill and Harriet to go off to Paris together. Harriet's decent husband, John Taylor, was not up to such elevated thinking, so he just paid for his wife to run a separate household. Harriet declared that by not living with her husband, but not living with her lover either, "I make no one unhappy and am happy tho' not happiest myself". This gave the greatest happiness to the greatest number: quite easily done.
Thus high-minded Victorianism met the common demands of human relationships. As Carlyle (no stranger to marital problems himself) wrote, the homes of these utilitarians, devoted to philosophical self-improvement, "are little Hells of improvidence, discord, unreason". Eventually the couple married, after Harriet's husband conveniently died in 1849.
Immediately after Mill's own death his relationship with Harriet was being described in print as "the great blot on his career". This was a moral but also a philosophical condemnation: it was largely through Harriet's influence that Mill moved toward socialism in the second half of his life, becoming the first well-known thinker to take the theory seriously. He was not contemplating state-run economies but counterposing a socially based political philosophy to his already well developed notions of individualism.
Another influence on Mill, much admired by him but not mentioned here, was the economist William Thompson, with whom Mill debated at the Co-operation Society in the 1820s; he created the theoretical underpinning of the co-operative movement, and co-wrote the feminist manifesto An Appeal of One Half of the Human Race which predated Mill's Subjection of Women by more than 40 years.
This biography gives us a JS Mill for our times: feminist and anti-racist, radical without being leftwing. It is good on the poets of the first half of the 19th century, particularly Coleridge, to whose work Mill turned as an antidote to his father's dry studies. Reeves examines and judges Mill as an interesting specimen, which is fine as far as it goes, but he never develops the biographer's ability to stand at the shoulder of the subject and see the world as if through his eyes.
Mill's judgments could be badly skewed; he profoundly misjudged Robert Peel as "perhaps the least gifted man that has ever headed a powerful party"; he opposed the secret ballot, in the belief that political principles should be declared publicly. In general, however, his ideas stand the test of time to such an extent that they are now everyone's intellectual currency - but our notions of gender equality and personal freedom first had to be stated by a person of courage and conviction, speaking against the prevailing orthodoxy.
Reeves quotes with approval John Morley's remark that Mill was "a man of extreme sensibility and vital heat in things worth waxing hot about". It is an obituary remark to be coveted. · Jad Adams's biography of Kipling is published by Haus