Martineau, Harriet

views updated May 11 2018


MARTINEAU, HARRIET (1802–1876), English writer and journalist.

Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich on 12 June 1802, the sixth of eight children of Thomas Martineau, a textile manufacturer of Huguenot descent, and his wife, Elizabeth. Well educated at home and, briefly, in schools in Norwich and Bristol, she nevertheless recalled her childhood as unhappy. Often in ill health, she suffered from deafness that became total by age twenty, necessitating the use of an ear trumpet.

The Martineaus belonged to the religiously liberal and politically radical circle centered on the Octagon Chapel, Norwich, originally Presbyterian but by then Unitarian. Religious fantasies had brought solace in her early unhappiness, but as a young woman she became convinced by Necessarianism—the deterministic philosophy derived from the physician David Hartley (1705–1757) and the minister and scientist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804)—which by then was dominant among English Unitarians. With family encouragement, she contributed to the Monthly Repository, the leading Unitarian periodical, and when the family business foundered in 1825 and failed in 1829, she turned to writing as a career. In 1827, the minister William Johnson Fox (1785–1864)—later an important journalist and politician—had become editor of the Monthly Repository; he offered her a small stipend and encouraged her to explore a wide range of subjects.

In 1831 she began Illustrations of Political Economy, twenty-three tales that appeared in twenty-five monthly parts between 1832 and 1834, catching current enthusiasm for both economic science and popularization; two shorter, commissioned sets of tales followed, on the poor laws (1834) and taxation (1835). An almost instant celebrity in 1832, she moved to London and was thereafter rarely out of the public eye. In the years 1834 to 1836, she traveled widely in the United States, and wrote two books based on her experiences, notably Society in America (1837). Back in London, she contributed to various periodicals and published a revealing but not particularly successful novel, Deerbrook (1839), as well as a long-popular series of children's stories, Playfellow (1841–1842).

In 1840, suffering from complications of an ovarian cyst, she retreated to Tynemouth, near Newcastle, where for an extended period she was bedridden, an episode memorialized in Life in the Sickroom (1844). Turning to the much-discussed pseudoscience of mesmerism, she soon claimed a complete cure; Letters on Mesmerism (1844), originally published in the Athenaeum, aroused much medical controversy and brought her considerable notoriety. She settled in the Lake District, where she farmed, walked great distances, and wrote a guidebook, socialized with famous neighbors and a stream of visitors, and engaged in extensive philanthropy. She resumed her travels, most importantly to the Near East in 1846 and 1847.

After her fiancé, a college friend of her brother James, died in 1827, she determined with evident relief to remain single. She had long been close to James (1805–1900), who emerged by the 1830s as a leading minister, philosopher, and teacher, but they grew apart as his mounting attack on Unitarian organization and theology led him to reject determinism for free will; when he savagely reviewed her Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development (1851), written in collaboration with Henry George Atkinson, a close friend from her mesmeric years, the break became irreparable.

While she never abandoned Necessarianism, she came to reject Unitarianism and all religion, proclaiming her atheism in Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848), a reflection on her travels, and in an important translation and abridgment, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1853), though she could not follow Comte in his later political speculations. In 1852 she began writing leading articles for the radical London paper, the Daily News, contributing over 1,600 editorials before her retirement in 1866. She continued to publish widely in British and American periodicals and also wrote a brilliant annalistic account of her own times, the History of the Thirty Years' Peace (1849–1850). Widely recognized as an expert on America, she was a passionate follower of the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) and formed a close friendship with Garrison's disciple Maria Weston Chapman (1806–1885), who became her first biographer.

Martineau died on 27 June 1876, of heart failure induced by the ovarian cyst that had brought on her illness in the 1840s. In 1877 a magnificent autobiography appeared, published unchanged from its composition in 1855, when she had been expecting imminent death. Its unsparing frankness caused her reputation to decline, as did her increasingly unfashionable advocacy of classical economics, but since the mid-twentieth century her reputation has soared, as her works and her many contributions to Victorian life, notably her idiosyncratic feminism, have been newly assessed.

See alsoEconomists, Classical; Feminism .


Primary Sources

Arbuckle, Elisabeth Sanders. Harriet Martineau's Letters to Fanny Wedgwood. Stanford, Calif., 1983.

——. Harriet Martineau in the London Daily News: Selected Contributions, 1852–1866. New York and London, 1994.

Sanders, Valerie. Harriet Martineau: Selected Letters. Oxford, U.K., 1990.

Secondary Sources

Hoecker-Drysdale, Susan. Harriet Martineau: First Woman Sociologist. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Sanders, Valerie. Reason over Passion: Harriet Martineau and the Victorian Novel. London, 1986.

Webb, Robert K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. London and New York, 1960. Biographical study emphasizing her intellectual concerns.

R. K. Webb

Harriet Martineau

views updated May 14 2018

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. □

Martineau, Harriet

views updated Jun 27 2018

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.

Martineau, Harriet

views updated May 21 2018

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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