Lydia Mackenzie Falconer Miller – An Inquisitive Woman

Lydia Mackenzie Falconer Miller – An Inquisitive Woman

Some time ago, I wrote an article about Hugh Miller, a Scottish geologist and author who was greatly esteemed by both scientists and common readers during the perplexing times of the Scottish religious Disruption and of Darwin’s new scientific proposals.[1]

            His wife, Lydia Miller, deserves an article of her own.

A Love Story

            Lydia first met Hugh in 1831 in his hometown of Cromarty, Scotland, where she and her widowed mother had set up a school. Lydia was 19 but her delicate features and petite size made her look three or four years younger. Hugh was 29, six-feet tall, with the rough appearance of “ a working man in a Sunday suit.” She was attracted by his eyes, of “a deep blue tinged with sapphire.” He thought she was “very pretty.”[2]

With time, the two became friends and found similar interests in matters of literature, philosophy, and religion. Slowly, friendship turned to love.

Aware of these developments, Lydia’s mother Elizabeth put a veto to their relationship. Hugh was a simple stonemason, largely self-taught, with feeble financial prospects. She wanted something better for her daughter. Lydia’s tears only confirmed Elizabeth’s suspicions that love had already sprouted in her heart.

For a while, Lydia continued to see Hugh clandestinely, but Elizabeth learnt about their meetings and talked to Hugh directly. Hugh did his best to respect Elizabeth’s wishes, but an unplanned encounter with Lydia in 1833 revealed that their feelings had only grown stronger. They became engaged the same November. To appease Elizabeth, they agreed the engagement would last three years and, if by the end of it Hugh had not found a stable and lucrative occupation, they would emigrate to America.

Hugh’s aspiration was to work as writer for a newspaper or magazine. Since he had no qualifications, he thought of writing a book to attract some attention. Lydia offered to help, both in editing and in financing the publication. Hugh refused her latter proposal, looking instead for pledges.

Handling Disagreements

Lydia was an able writer and editor. Hugh didn’t always concur with her corrections, but it didn’t matter. “You know we can differ and yet be very excellent friends,”[3] he said. To him, the only element of a marriage where unity of thought was essential was religion. “However diverse in our tastes, however different in our opinions, however dissimilar in our philosophy,” he wrote, “let us at least desire, my own dearest Lydia, to be at one in our religion.”[4] She agreed, knowing that Hugh was always willing to have honest discussions and was humble and charitable in his judgment.

One example of this willingness to resolve conflicts occurred during a discussion of the necessity of good works in the Christian life. Lydia, who had defended their importance, felt misunderstood by all present and especially offended by the remarks another lady had made. “I was sorry to perceive that you were seriously displeased,” Hugh wrote, “and that in consequence of a rather unskillful statement of doctrine on your part, which was I dare say occasioned by the use of language rather bold than correct on mine, Mrs. __ was led to deem your opinion heretical.”

Hugh understood that sometimes Christians can agree in heart but sound disagreeing in the way they express themselves. “I am confident that in reality we are at one on this subject,” he said. No Christian, he said, doubts that “the law is the rule which God has revealed for our obedience.”

“On the other,” he continued, “neither Mrs. __ nor you nor I can doubt that the injunction ‘Do this and live,’ whether applied to the law as embodied in written commands or as exemplified in the life of Christ, is the now impossible condition of the old covenant, not the glorious watchword of the new; and that under this better covenant the ability of imitating Christ is a grace bestowed, not a condition exacted.

“All this, my Lydia, might have been said and agreed to without any angry feeling or personal remark; but we are so weak and foolish, my lassie, that we cannot so much as contend for the necessity of imitating Christ without showing by something more conclusive than argument how impossible it is for us to imitate Him aright.”[5]

Wife, Mother, and Writer

Hugh published his first book, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, in 1835. Still lacking job prospects in newspapers and magazines, he accepted a clerical job at the Commercial Bank in Cromarty. This provided a steady income, which allowed him to marry his beloved Lydia on January 7, 1837.

            The Millers’ first year of marriage was crowned in November by the birth of their first child, Elizabeth (“Eliza”). But the joy was followed by serious health concerns. First, in the summer of 1838, Hugh contracted smallpox, and was so ill that he experienced hallucinations. The following year, Eliza became gravely sick. Her parents thought her fever was connected with teething, but it lasted nine months, until she died in Lydia’s arms.

Lydia’s description of the scene of the dying child and her weeping father “prostrate in the dust before God”[6] is heart-wrenching. Sonn after, Lydia wrote a poem, based on the child’s last words (which were among her first), “awa, awa,” (which Lydia interpreted as “away”). The last two of the nine stanzas end with a word of hope.

And does my selfish heart then grudge thee,

That angels are thy teachers now,

That glory from thy Saviour's presence

Kindles the crown upon thy brow?

 

O, no! to me earth must be lonelier.

Wanting thy voice, thy hand, thy love;

Yet dost thou dawn a star of promise,

Mild beacon to the world above.[7]

The Millers’ faith was nurtured weekly by the preaching of the gospel, delivered in the local church by Rev. Alexander Stewart, who had become a dear friend of the family. Over time, both Stewart and the Millers agreed with the large group of Christians who ended up dividing from the Church of Scotland in what is known as “the Disruption.”

Divisions in the church are always painful, but these people believed this was necessary in order to preserve the purity of gospel preaching. The main problem was that local churches were supported by patrons who claimed the right to demote and install ministers. The Millers, as many others, believed the choice of pastors belonged to the churches. Their new branch of the church, known as Free Church of Scotland, gave a high priority to the preaching of the gospel as it was recovered during the Protestant Reformation.

The Miller’s religious convictions permeated their lives and writings. In 1840, Hugh became editor of a new Evangelical publication called The Witness (second only to the national newspaper, The Scotsman). Hugh wrote clearly and forcefully about several religious issues. Since the paper was based in Edinburgh, the family moved there. Lydia continued to help Hugh with editing and suggestions, and wrote occasional reviews.

By that time, they had another daughter, Harriet (“Ha-Ha,” as she called herself). Three more children followed: William, born in 1842, Elizabeth (“Bessie”), born in 1843, and Hugh II, born in 1850.

In spite of her busy life and frail health, Lydia spent some of her time writing some books of her own (something Hugh had greatly encouraged her to do). In 1846, she published a children’s book under the pseudonym Mrs. Harriet Myrtle. The name was probably taken from a comparison Hugh used to make of Lydia having “the delicacy of a myrtle” against his “strength of the oak.”[8]

The following year, Lydia published a novel, Passages in the Life of an English Heiress, or Recollections of the Disruption Times in Scotland. The choice of fiction as a medium to express the social context of the Disruption was both a challenge and an opportunity to portray the variety of emotions that accompanied the event. It was also a courageous decision, because many Christians at that time saw fiction as a lie.

Lydia’s convictions are apparent throughout the book. For example, when her protagonist, Jane Hamilton Legh, responds to a litany of praises of the Moderates’ laissez-faire attitude by saying that those accomplishments “are not the chief ends of a clergyman’s life.”[9] That’s something that Hugh and Lydia might have said.

The novel, somewhat too long and unpolished, didn’t produce – to our knowledge – any reviews apart from Hugh’s. After that, Lydia focused on children’s books, ending with the popular Cats and Dogs, Nature's Warriors and God's Workers: or Mrs. Myrtle’s Lessons in Natural History (later reprinted as Cats and Dogs: Or, Notes and Anecdotes of Two Great Families of the Animal Kingdom).

Natural history was one of Lydia’s passions, probably sparked by Hugh’s interest in geology. In spite of being self-taught in this subject, Hugh became a competent expert on the subject, so much that several scientists sought his views and advise.

Like Hugh, Lydia considered science and religion as complementary, with science as a tool to appreciate God’s glory. “An unfailing harmony,” she wrote, “runs through all the works of the Creator.”[10]

Tragedy and Aftermath

            Hugh died by suicide in 1856, leaving Lydia to search for reasons. She tried to explain it as an accident, until Hugh’s friend Thomas Guthrie showed her the suicide note Hugh had left on his desk. “I shall never forget the face that looked up to mine,” Guthrie recalled, “and the cry of agony to which the news, though communicated on my part with all possible delicacy, was received.”[11]

Eventually, a post-mortem examination showed “diseased appearances found in the brain,” leading to the final judgment of suicide committed “under the impulse of insanity.”[12]

            Lydia, who had noticed signs of mental distress for some time, found some consolation in the fact that death had relieved her husband from a life of suffering. The outpouring of support of her church, family, and friends was also a source of encouragement. But her greatest comfort came from God. “Everything that could alleviate the suffering of such a stroke has been given by His loving hand,”[13] she wrote with a shaking hand in a letter to her mother.

            Still stunned by the tragedy and struggling with her own poor health, Lydia began to edit some of Hugh’s unpublished works and applied his desired revisions to some published ones. In order to do so, she had to study pertinent books and seek the advice of experts.

            Like Hugh, Lydia believed that serious scientific discoveries could only magnify God’s glory. In her preface to his Footprints of the Creator, she wrote, “The fact of creative power implies an absence of limit to creative power.”[14]

            In this preface, she had to counter the teachings of Charles Darwin who, with his 1859 On the Origins of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, had challenged biblical teachings. She believed Darwin deserved respect. “In so far as Mr. Darwin bases his reasoning on facts, and not on the absence of them … is Mr. Darwin's work a valuable acquisition to the natural historian.”[15]

Like Hugh, she conceded that science might bring up evidences that have not been taken into consideration and, as long as these are facts and not suppositions, they deserve some serious reflection. But she was convinced that they would always line up with God’s revelation. For example, if science proved by facts that there is an elasticity between species, that would be “an elasticity with which the Creator has, for the wisest purposes, endowed them.”[16]

In Footprints of the Creator, Hugh had discussed the theory of evolution (as “theory of development”) and its contradiction of the biblical teaching of an immortal human soul. The pre-Darwinian proponents of this theory had to ultimately admit that it would lead to a denial of the existence of such soul and – consequently – life after death. Hugh added that it would also lead to atheism and moral indifference (who cares about morals if there is no afterlife?) or – as Lydia said – to a “reign of selfishness.”

            The most efficient protest against this blind exclusive theory, which would inaugurate the reign of selfishness throughout nature, is to be found in the human heart. Childhood recognizes a Father in Heaven in the daily blessings of its little life; and the more enlightened the mind unsophisticated by special theory becomes, the more is it brought into harmony with this first lesson of the heart. As the eyes of the understanding are opened day by day, the magnificent adaptations of Nature press forward evermore, as parts of ‘one stupendous whole.’[17]

            Lydia worked on Hugh’s writings for six years, allowing readers to enjoy many works that might have otherwise remained unpublished. Little is known of her later years. She also assisted Peter Bayne in writing Hugh’s biography. She moved to her hometown of Iverness in 1863, where she continued to write for children.

            She died on March 11, 1876 at Lochinver, Sutherland, where she was staying with her daughter and her husband. On her death certificate, he wrote, “Disease of the spine, 24 years.” She had been suffering all that time, trying different treatments that proved ineffective. Some have speculated that she might have had osteoporosis, which can cause fatal fractures. She was 64.

Hugh and Lydia Miller have been largely forgotten outside of Scotland. Hugh is often remembered as an anomaly in his efforts to reconcile faith and science, and his death provokes more discussions than his life. In his day, however, his writings were greatly valued, and Lydia’s efforts were recognized as essential for a faithful preservation of his legacy.

 



[2] Peter Bayne, The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, vol. 1, London: Strahan and Co, 1871, p. 274.

[3] Ibid., 300.

[4] Ibid., p. 311.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean L. Watson, Life of Hugh Miller, Edinburgh: James Gemmel, George IV Bridge, 1880, p. 74.

[7] Modern Scottish poets, with biographical and critical notices, Brechin: D.D. Edwards, 1881, p. 312.

[8] Sutherland, Lydia, p. 43.

[9] Ibid., p. 79

[10] Lydia Falconer F. Miller (Harriet Myrtle), Cats and Dogs: Or, Notes and Anecdotes of Two Great Families of the Animal Kingdom, London: T. Nelson & Sons, 1868, p. 223.

[11] Thomas Guthrie, Autobiography of Thomas Guthrie and Memoir by His Sons, Rev. David K. Guthrie and Charles J. Guthrie, Detroit: Craig and Taylor, 1878, p. 540

[12] Peter Bayne, The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, vol. 2, Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1871, p. 477

[13] Sutherland, Lydia, p. 110.

[14] Lidia Miller, “Preface,” in Hugh Miller, Footprints of the Creator: Or the Asterolepis of Stromness, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1872, p. lvi.

[15] Ibid., p. lxi

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.