John Stuart Mill’s marginalia tells us much about the great thinker’s mind

John Stuart Mill.

In The Man of the Year Million, originally printed in the Pall Mall Gazette on November 6 1893, then-journalist H. G. Wells imagines the descendants of humanity as “enormous brains” with bodies “shrivelled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendant to their minds”. Wells’ facetious vision of an explicitly cerebral future may be scientifically suspect, but it is accurate with respect to the reputation of pre-eminent 19th-century logician, liberal, and cultural and social critic John Stuart Mill.

Remembered principally by philosophers for his System of Logic and Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, by political scientists for his Principles of Political Economy and Considerations on Representative Government, and by literary scholars for his Autobiography and for On Liberty, Mill’s carefully cultivated image of himself as a mind – exhaustively educated, disinterestedly logical, and meticulously organised – persists nearly 150 years after his death.

Spines of books in JS Mill’s personal library, all transcribed in Mill Marginalia Online. Somerville College Oxford, Author provided

And yet, Mill’s humanity ought to count for more than a degraded pendant to his place in intellectual history. An anxiously precocious child, he grew into a complicated, endearing – and sometimes amusing – adult. These less well-remembered features of his prodigious intelligence have recently begun to reemerge from the title pages, endpapers, flyleaves and textual margins of his personal library.

Donated to Oxford University’s Somerville College in 1905, Mill’s book collection from his house in Blackheath has history – including Mill’s personal history – literally inscribed on thousands of its pages. Like many serious readers, Mill read with pen or pencil in hand, marking passages he found interesting, protesting against premises and conclusions he judged facile, and sometimes summarising his own thoughts in annotations on unprinted pages.

Somerville College Oxford. Mill Marginalia Online home page., Author provided

Collectively known as marginalia, these unfiltered records of Mill’s original reactions to his books are the subject of an international collaboration between Somerville College and the University of Alabama. The digital component of this effort, Mill Marginalia Online, aspires to digitise all handwritten marginalia in Mill’s library and, in doing so, to reconstruct the sometimes messy process of reading, the initial gut-level reactions, of one of the leading minds of Victorian England.

Great thinkers

“This is all my eye” – Mill’s expression of scepticism never made it into his overwhelmingly positive review of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Part II. It is, nevertheless, clearly legible on page 170 of volume three as Mill’s first reaction to the French thinker’s somewhat imprecise distinction between what he called democratic and aristocratic centuries.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Democratie en Amerique, vol. 3, p. 170, inner margin, Mill’s personal copy. Somerville College Oxford, Author provided

Mill had, in 1835, introduced England to the first two volumes of Tocqueville’s chef-d’oeuvre, and the men traded friendly and intellectually engaged letters on the subject of democracy over the next five years, as the Frenchman prepared the latter half of his treatise. In recognition of their growing mutual regard, Tocqueville even sent Mill an inscribed copy – it was on the basis of this French edition that Mill penned his second, 1840 review.

And it is in the margins of these same two volumes that Mill recorded comments that might well have tested their friendship. Thus, in response to the aristocratic Frenchman’s thesis, on page 323 of volume three, concerning what we might today call “vocational determinism”, in this case the degrading effects of a life spent “making heads for pins,” Mill wrote “all this mu[st] be taken wi[th] great reserve[ation]. It is not tr[ue] as here state[d]” (I have filled in any missing letters).

What was true, Mill thought, was Tocqueville’s observation, on page 128 of volume four, that Americans were thin-skinned and quick to take offence in response to criticism. Originally marked with a marginal double score (two vertical lines made in the outer margin of p. 128), this passage received fuller attention in Mill’s annotation on the volume’s back flyleaf:

This feeling has nothing to do with democracy – Wait, until the Americans by their great deeds, in arms, arts, science and literature, have taken a place among the great nations of the earth, and they will no longer be quarrelsome, and doubtful of their position – They will then be as proud haughty and self satisfied as the English – But not before – …

It’s hard to tell whether Tocqueville’s “insatiably vain” Americans or Mill’s “haughty and self-satisfied” British middle classes come off worse in this annotation. Either way, such caustic humour may surprise those accustomed to the measured reasonableness of Mill’s mature publications.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Democratie en Amerique, vol. 4, back flyleaf, JSM’s personal copy. Somerville College Oxford, Author provided

With roughly 10,000 examples of marginalia spread across well over 100 titles, Mill Marginalia Online offers numerous, previously unknown points of entry into Mill’s refreshingly versatile and perennial active mind. In addition to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, significant works by Francis Bacon, Thomas Carlyle, Auguste Comte, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Maine, Percy Bysshe Shelley, August Schlegel and many others bear revealing marks and annotations in Mill’s distinctive hand.

Arnoldus Vinnius’s Institutionum Imperialium, pp. 674-75, interleaved material, Mill’s personal copy. Somerville College Oxford, Author provided

Mental acrobatics

Also hinted at in the Mill collection are aspects of his personality and personal life that may never be fully known. For instance, tucked between pages 674 and 675 of Arnoldus Vinnius’s Institutionum Imperialium – a weighty and much-reprinted history of Justinian law – are two paper dolls, with a third waiting between pages 866 and 867.

Two of these bodies in motion have obviously been commercially produced and then either punched or cut from the pages on which they were printed. The bottom of the two acrobats is even more evidently homemade, although no less painstakingly shaped and coloured. I would guess that their presence in the Vinnius has less to do with the book’s subject matter than with its size and the solidity of its binding – it was an excellent choice for keeping one’s dolls flat and safe.

Arnoldus Vinnius’s Institutionum Imperialium, pp. 866-67, interleaved material, Mill’s personal copy. Somerville College Oxford, Author provided

But the question is, whose dolls were they? Printed in 1665, the book is old enough to have been in the Mill family library when the young John Stuart was tutoring his sisters. Left in the library at Blackheath after his death, it might also have served as a toy depository for Harriet Taylor Mill’s daughter Helen (Mill’s stepdaughter) about whose childhood relationship with Mill we know very little. And need these three objects have had only one owner, or could they have been passed down and around, as playthings sometimes are?

The questions posed by these inclusions assume greater intellectual, as opposed to biographical significance, when we examine the handmade figure more closely. Inverted both back to front and top to bottom, we can see that this doll was crafted from a manuscript – one that bears Mill’s handwriting. The partial word written across the torso could be “government” and that underneath it may be “leaves”. It’s too little for an identification, but more than enough to wonder whether this manuscript was volunteered for doll duty or had been fortuitously scavenged.

Close-up on Arnoldus Vinnius’s Institutionum Imperialium, pp. 674-75, inverted interleaved material, JSM’s personal copy. Somerville College Oxford, Author provided

Future conclusions

What is certain is that these dolls – and every other example of human/book interaction in the roughly 1,700-item personal library of Mill’s – will be catalogued, digitised and rendered fully searchable within Mill Marginalia Online. All of us who work on the project are acutely aware that we cannot know what the research questions of the future might be.

So, rather than limiting our data by type or frequency or what we – today – perceive as its significance, we are striving to record everything that we find, to remove ourselves as much as possible from the results – and to welcome the future by refusing to foreclose upon it.