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Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), an English writer and an adherent of positivist philosophy, was one of the most widely admired writers of her day.

Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich on June 12, 1802. Her life is the story of adversity overcome. Armed with an excellent childhood education, she had to overcome deafness, the loss of her senses of smell and taste, extensive nervous disorder, and finally, heart disease. Her father died when she was in her early 20s, leaving the family destitute, and Martineau had to work for pennies by hack writing and doing needlework. With the publication in 1832-1834 of a series of short stories interpreting political economy for the layman, she gained a wide reading public. Her work in magazines and pamphlets, as well as her books, began to bring very adequate, if not rich, returns, and she quickly became one of the literary lions of London. England in the 1830s was a world in which politicians courted popular writers for political support, and Harriet Martineau became one of the most courted.

Attempting to improve her health, Martineau spent 1834 to 1836 in the United States. During this time she adopted the cause of abolitionism, the first of several relatively radical political causes which she would champion. Her impressions of America were recorded in Society in America (1837) and A Retrospect of Western Travel (1838).

Investing her time heavily in journalism, Martineau nevertheless brought out a new volume almost every year, speaking for a variety of forms of "philosophical radicalism." Though she began as a deeply religious person, she finally became a spokesman for the antitheological views of the philosopher Auguste Comte, popularizing him in a two-volume work (1853).

After her heart disease was diagnosed as fatal, Martineau began her autobiography in 1855 (it was published posthumously in 1877). But she lived another 21 years, produced at least eight more volumes of serious work, and became England's leading woman of letters, holding a kind of court at her tiny estate in Westmoreland, where she died on June 27, 1876. Historically she is remembered as a tough-minded writer who fought great odds to achieve a distinguished literary career.

Further Reading

Works on Martineau which subsume most earlier efforts are Vera Wheatley, The Life and Work of Harriet Martineau (1957), and Robert Kiefer Webb, Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian (1960). Also interesting are Theodora Bosanquat, Harriet Martineau: An Essay in Comprehension (1927), and John Cranstoun Nevill, Harriet Martineau (1943). Her life as a cultural commentator is placed in the context of the time by Una Pope-Hennessy, Three English Women in America (1929). See also Maria Weston Chapman, ed., Harriet Martineau's Autobiography (2 vols., 1877).

Additional Sources

Bosanquet, Theodora, Harriet Martineau; an essay in comprehensio, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977; St. Clair Shores, Mich., Scholarly Press, 1971.

David, Deirdre, Intellectual women and Victorian patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Hoecker-Drysdale, Susan, Harriet Martineau, first woman sociologist, Oxford England; New York: Berg; New York: Distributed exclusively in the U.S. and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Martineau, Harriet, Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, London: Virago, 1983.

Nevill, John Cranstoun, Harriet Martinea, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1973 i.e. 1974; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976; Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

Pichanick, Valerie Kossew, Harriet Martineau, the woman and her work, 1802-76, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980.

Webb, R. K. (Robert Kiefer), Harriet Martineau: a radical Victorian, New York: Octagon Books, 1983, 1960. □

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Martineau, Harriet

Martineau, Harriet (1802–76) Harriet Martineau was effectively the first woman sociologist. Martineau, who was English, wrote the first systematic treatise in sociology, carried out numerous cross-national comparative studies of social institutions, and was the first to translate Auguste Comte's Cours de philosophie positive into English. A professional and prolific writer, she popularized much social-scientific information by presenting it in the form of novels. Feminist, Unitarian, critic, social scientist, and atheist, she matched her activism about the issues of slavery and the ‘Woman Question’ to her arguments for equal political, economic, and social rights for women. She undertook many pioneering methodological, theoretical, and substantive studies in the field that would now be called sociology: the analysis of women's rights, biography, disability, education, slavery, history, manufacturing, occupational health, and religion all came within her gamut.

One of her best-known works. Society in America (1837), compared American moral principles with observable social patterns, and outlined a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. Martineau's How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838) is arguably the first systematic methodological treatise in sociology, in which she outlined a positivist solution to the dilemma of reconciling intersubjectively verifiable and observable data with unobservable theoretical entities. She tackled the classic methodological problems of bias, sampling, generalization, corroboration, and interviews, as well as outlining studies of major social institutions such as family, education, religion, markets, and culture. Long before Marx, Weber, or Durkheim, Martineau also studied and wrote about social class, suicide, forms of religions, domestic relations, delinquency, and the status of women. Her neglect by sociologists in subsequent years is therefore often cited as an illustration of the ways in which academic sociology has until more recently excluded women sociologists from its agenda.

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Martineau, Harriet

Harriet Martineau (mär´tĬnō), 1802–76, English author. A journalist rather than a writer of literature, she was an enormously popular author. Her success is the more remarkable since she was deaf from childhood and the victim of various other illnesses throughout her life. The sister of the Unitarian minister James Martineau, she began her career writing articles on religious subjects. Her fame spread with Illustrations of Political Economy (9 vol., 1832–34) and Illustrations of Taxation (1834), two series of stories interpreting classical economics to the layman. After a visit to the United States in 1834, she became an advocate for the abolition of slavery and wrote several unflattering works on the American way of life, including Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). Her later writings include Deerbrook (1839), a novel; The Playfellow (4 vol., 1841), tales for children; Letters on Mesmerism (1845); The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1853); and a very candid autobiography (1877), containing commentaries on the literary figures of her day.

See biography by V. Wheatley (1957); study by R. K. Webb (1960).

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Martineau, Harriet

Martineau, Harriet (1802–76) English writer. Deaf from birth, her works include the nine-volume Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34). In 1834 she visited the USA and her anti-slavery views are contained in Society in America (1837).

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