Martineau, Harriet (1802–1876)
Martineau, Harriet (1802–1876)
English author of fiction, reviews, travel writings, and religious, philosophical, and sociological essays, who was an advocate for women's rights, education, the abolition of slavery, and other liberal and radical causes of the 19th century . Pronunciation: MAR-tin-O. Born Harriet Martineau on June 12, 1802, in Norwich, England; died at Ambleside, in the Lake District, on June 27, 1876; daughter of Thomas Martineau (a textile manufacturer) and Elizabeth (Rankin) Martineau; educated at home before being sent to Reverend Isaac Perry's school from 1813 to 1815; continued education at home under private teachers; never married; no children.
Grew up in Norwich in middle-class family of Unitarian faith; led an unhappy childhood beset by fears, illnesses, and the onset of deafness at age 12; sent from home at age 15 to relatives in Bristol for 15 months, and came under the influence of philosophical traditions of Locke, Hartley, and Priestley; published her first writings in the Unitarian journal, the Monthly Repository (1822–23); following her father's death and an engagement that ended with the death of her fiancé, contributed to household support first through needlework and eventually by her writing (1826); gained fame by popularizing principles of political economy through a series of didactic narratives (1832–34); traveled extensively in America (1834–36); became a strong advocate of abolitionism and women's rights; established her reputation as a social analyst through writings on her American travels; suffered a period of invalidism (1839–44), from which she announced her cure through mesmerism; settled in the Lake District (1845) where she continued to write, lectured to the working classes, and established a model farm and low-income housing; traveled to the Near East (1846–47); published Household Education and her most important historical work, The History of the Thirty Years' Peace 1816–1846 (1849); declared her break with religious faith (1851); following a recurrence of illness (1855) from which she did not expect to recover, wrote her Autobiography ; continued writing to support herself until incapacitated by illness (1866).
Illustrations of Political Economy (25 vols., 1832–34); Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (10 vols., 1833–34); Illustrations of Taxation (5 vols., 1834); Society in America (1837); Retrospect of Western Travel (1838); Deerbrook, a novel (1839); Eastern Life, Past and Present (1848); Household Education (1849); The History of the Thirty Years' Peace 1816–1846 (1849); Letters on Man's Nature and Development (1851); a popular translation and abridgment of Comte's Positive Philosophy (1853); and a posthumously published Autobiography (1877).
Many prominent figures of 19th-century England can be described as both typical and eccentric. Certainly Harriet Martineau's life reflects typical patterns of development of individuals who rose to distinction during a century that saw an unprecedented transformation in the material conditions of English life and serious challenges to the intellectual, political, and religious traditions of the English people. Like Charles Dickens, she learned firsthand the precarious nature of traditional middle-class social and economic stability and responded by forging a new professionalism based on ambition and talent rather than inherited position. Like George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ), Martineau underwent a spiritual conversion from an ardent religious faith to a hopeful secular belief in human progress. The far-reaching social and economic changes of the century put her in the position of Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Brontë , educated middle-class women who had to support themselves or accept a life of dependence, and who resolutely took as their tool the pen rather than the traditional needle. Martineau was among the pioneering women of her time who extended their sphere to the public space of authorship and the popular press from the private space of the nursery and schoolroom that had previously marked the limits of respectable female employment.
While the social and intellectual patterns of her life have much in common with those of her contemporaries, her distinctiveness, indeed her eccentricity, emerges from a character marked by fierce independence, strong opinions, and fearless self-assertion. Martineau's unwavering belief in democratic principles and egalitarianism led to her association with unpopular causes ranging from abolitionism to women's right to obtain a divorce; her receptiveness to unconventional ideas and experiences allowed her to proclaim a cure from invalidism through mesmerism and to enjoy a good cigar; her independence and principles motivated her to build a home of her own, she wrote in her Autobiography, where she could enjoy her life as "probably the happiest single woman in England" and to turn down pensions offered by the government three times because she feared they would compromise her reputation for intellectual and political autonomy.
Believing as she did from early adulthood in the inevitable operation of the law of causality, Martineau looked back at her life when she wrote her Autobiography in 1855 to trace how her family background, childhood experiences, and physical and mental health shaped her character and opinions. As the third daughter and the sixth of eight children of Thomas and Elizabeth Martineau , she was born in 1802 into a family well able to provide for the material needs of their children. Her father, a descendant of French Huguenots who settled in the cathedral city of Norwich in the 17th century, was a cloth manufacturer and wine importer in Norwich, a largely Nonconformist and economically prosperous manufacturing town and cultural center. As a member of the intellectual community that included such literary figures as William Taylor, Anna Letitia Barbauld , and Amelia Opie , he provided for the education of his large family of sons and daughters equally during their early childhood. From 1813 to 1815, he sent Harriet and her sister Rachael Martineau to Reverend Isaac Perry's school, where girls were taught the same curriculum as boys: Latin, French, composition, and arithmetic. When the school closed, Harriet continued lessons in Latin, French, and music at home. The Martineau daughters thus received a deeper education than girls in most middle-class families of the time. Thomas Martineau passed the values he espoused as a Unitarian, a political radical, and a manufacturer on to his children, and Harriet's understanding and advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism owe much to his views and example. Elizabeth Martineau, like most middle-class women of the 19th century, was responsible for domestic arrangements and supervision of the children. She was a stern disciplinarian who seems to have regarded motherhood as a moral duty rather than an intimate relationship. Harriet especially among her children was frustrated by the inability to establish a warm and trusting relationship with her mother.
Harriet was described as difficult and delicate from infancy. Her Autobiography shows that she retained vivid memories of an unhappy childhood, which she summarized bleakly: "My life began with winter. … I have had no spring." She records memories of fears that haunted her, the yearning for love she desperately needed and missed, and the pain she suffered physically and mentally from poor health and perceived emotional neglect. It seems clear that her physical and mental symptoms reinforced and intensified one another. She suffered from digestive problems and nervous fears through much of her early childhood. She was easily upset by the rough play and bullying of her older siblings. Choosing solitude to avoid conflict, she became an astute observer and avid reader, completing Paradise Lost by the time she was eight and having memorized it shortly after. When she was 12, the first signs of deafness added to her sense of isolation and intensified her tendency to be withdrawn and sullen. She claimed to have no sense of smell or taste. By the time she was 16, deafness made personal relationships and social situations difficult. Her closest family relationships were with her younger brother, James, on whom she lavished her frustrated affection, and Ellen Martineau , the baby of the family, toward whom she consciously assumed the role of surrogate mother. The lack of love she felt during her childhood accounts to a great extent for the independence she assumed throughout her adult years and also for her sympathetic insight into the feelings of children, invalids, the disadvantaged, and the disabled.
A turning point in Harriet's life came at the age of 15 when she was sent away from home to relatives in Bristol in the hope that a change of scene would improve her health and disposition. In her aunt, she found for the first time a warm and affectionate adult in whom she could confide, and in her cousins she found companionship within her peer group she had not experienced at home. Her aunt kept a school for girls, and the intellectual discussions of the school and the household stimulated her active mind. She was taught by Lane Carpenter, a Unitarian minister whose influence intensified the religious fervor she had turned to earlier as a substitute for family affection. Through Carpenter, she became acquainted with the philosophical ideas of Locke on the importance of sensation and experience, and of Hartley on the principles of association and causation. As a result, she became attracted to the branch of Unitarian thought associated with Joseph Priestley, who had achieved, through Hartley's doctrine of "philosophical necessity," an optimistic reconciliation between the scientific, materialist thought of the Enlightenment and faith in a divine creator as a first cause. Harriet readily adopted Hartleyan necessarianism as a governing principle for
much of her later thought on politics, morals, and education.
Upon her return home in 1819, Harriet's family found her much improved in mind and temper. She studied the Bible systematically and continued reading philosophy. Over the next few years, the ideas that were to inform Martineau's mature opinions—the concept of necessity and an optimistic faith in individual and social perfectibility—guided her intellectual development. Encouraged by her brother James, she submitted an article she had written on "Female Writers and Practical Divinity" to the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian journal. Her first literary production was published pseudonymously in 1822, to be followed in 1823 by "On Female Education." Thus her literary debut announced one of the persistent themes in the writing she produced over a 54-year career: the position of women in society.
During the decade when Martineau was developing her literary talent, she confronted several crises in her family and personal life. She began writing when her brother James suggested it as a distraction from the loneliness she felt when he left home to attend college in 1821. The death of her oldest brother Thomas of consumption in 1824 was a devastating blow to the family, especially her father, whose manufacturing business was in a serious decline, partly as a result of competition from the power looms gaining wide use in the Yorkshire textile industry and partly because of the general economic depression of 1825–26. Her father died of an incurable liver ailment in 1826, after he had been forced to reduce the inheritances he had set aside for his daughters to save his business. When the firm he left behind finally went bankrupt in 1829, the family was nearly penniless; two of the daughters, Rachael and Ellen, found positions as governesses, and Harriet, limited in her choices even more than most women of her time by her deafness, realized that she would have to make her way in the world through her needle or her pen.
It seems that marriage had been ruled out of the question by her experience of 1826, when she became engaged to John Hugh Worthington, a fellow seminarian introduced to her in 1823 by her brother James. In what appears to be the closest approximation to a romantic relationship in her life, Harriet was strangely ambivalent toward her fiancé. When Worthington suffered a mental and physical breakdown and lapsed into insanity in December 1826, Martineau reacted at first with shock, then broke off the engagement and distanced herself abruptly, refusing to visit him and shutting him out from her thoughts. When he died a few months later, she seemed more relieved than grieved.
The prospect of a single, independent life as a writer was attractive to her, and although beset by grief, disappointment, and precarious health between 1826 and 1829, she was encouraged by her success in earning small sums for the religious works, novellas, stories, and tracts she wrote. With the final collapse of her father's business in 1829, the need to earn a reliable income became urgent. Her literary ambition was thwarted, however, by her mother's reluctance to allow her to move to London where she hoped to find markets for her work. After a three-month stay with relatives in London in 1829, during which she made her first acquaintance with a literary community and first used the trademark ear trumpet that made social relationships much easier, her mother called her home to Norwich, where Harriet continued to produce the fancy needlework that was her chief source of income and did what writing she could at night. By appearing tractable to her mother's wishes, she extracted a promise that she might spend three months of each year in London to cultivate literary relationships and pursue a career as a writer.
Liberated from middle-class conventionality by her circumstances following her father's economic failure and death, yet dedicated to the ideals of competitive individualism and a belief in the benevolent workings of capitalism that he had represented for her, Martineau discovered her special gifts and her appeal as a writer in the intellectual and political ferment that led to the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832. The confluence of personal, national, and international events that transformed her from a provincial but ambitious young woman of unconventional religious and political views to a celebrated, controversial, cosmopolitan speaker for radical causes must have reinforced her necessarian beliefs. Surely, Martineau and the decade of the tumultuous '30s were made for one another.
The transformation began when Martineau won in all three categories of a contest sponsored by the Unitarian Association in 1830 to argue the superiority of Unitarianism to Catholicism, Mohamedanism, and Judaism. She used her prize money to visit her brother James in Dublin in 1831. With his encouragement, she conceived the plan of writing a series of narratives to illustrate the principles of "political economy," a term with a great deal of currency as a slogan but with little meaning to the general public at the time. Martineau was convinced that she could make the theories on political economy of the "philosophical radicals" comprehensible to moderately educated artisan and middle-class readers through narratives. After rejections from several publishers, she persuaded Charles Fox to publish the series, agreeing to his condition that she raise a subscription to guarantee a market for the project. The series began in February 1832 and was an immediate popular success. Readers awaited the publication of the monthly tales as eagerly as the installments of serialized novels. Martineau produced the tales rapidly, writing a story a month for 25 numbers, the last appearing in February 1834. Each tale illustrated specific principles associated with the radical reform movement of the time, particularly Bentham's greatest happiness principle, Smith's laissez-faire doctrine, Malthus' theory on population, and Ricardo's anti-Corn Law rationale. Martineau's chief source for her series was James Mill's Elements of Political Economy, a primer intended for students of the subject. Through this project, she discovered her strength as a writer, that of translating contemporary political, social, and economic theoretical concepts and texts into forms and language suitable for a growing mass audience. The market for what Dierdre David has called such "textual services" as Martineau provided is attested to by the institution of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which provided informative publications at reasonable prices to educate the public on the many contemporary issues during this era of rapid cultural change. The extent of the public's need for information in accessible language and form is suggested by the fact that the first number in Martineau's series sold the entire first edition of 1,500 copies in ten days, and that by 1834, the series was selling 10,000 copies monthly. By contrast, John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, published for a more sophisticated audience in 1848, sold 3,000 copies in four years. Although Mill wrote to Thomas Carlyle in April of 1833 that Martineau "reduces the laissez-faire system to absurdity," by November of the same year, he also wrote to Carlyle that Harriet Martineau and the "political economy tales" that made her famous were "surely a sign of this country and Time."
Harriet Martineau had become a celebrity. She settled in London with her mother and aunt, where she dined out almost every night and was visited daily by journalists, novelists, and political figures. Her views on capital and labor, which she saw as bound by an "identity of interests"; her opposition to governmental regulation of wages and working conditions; her support of mechanization of industry as a sign of progress; her advocacy of birth control, emigration, and colonization as means of balancing population and resources; and her support of free trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws put her in the mainstream of the Benthamite Radicals and Whig Reformers. Although she repeatedly denied affiliation with the Whigs and held firmly to her radical credentials, she was courted by the Whig Cabinet and press, praised by Lord Brougham as "a deaf girl from Norwich" who was doing more good for the country than any man and recruited by him as a publicist for Poor Law reform. He supplied her with private government reports, and she responded by writing a series of tales, Poor Laws and Paupers, for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Her career as a writer was firmly established and sufficiently compensated to permit her to refuse a civil-list pension. She wisely invested her earnings in a deferred annuity that would pay her £100 a year beginning in 1850.
I believe myself possessed of no uncommon talents, and of not an atom of genius; but as various circumstances have led me to think more accurately and read more extensively than some women, I believe that I may so write on subjects of universal concern as to inform some minds and stir up others.
Martineau was exhausted by the pace and volume of her literary production and the demands of her social life; her health once again suffered. When a voyage to America was suggested for rest, she was excited by the prospect of viewing the American experiment in democracy at firsthand and quickly arranged to sail in August of 1834 on an extended holiday that was to take her on a demanding two-year itinerary that included virtually all of the existing 24 states. On her voyage to New York, she wrote How to Observe: Morals and Manners, a handbook that outlined a primitive sociological methodology that would permit a traveler to "read" the correlation between social theory and practice much as her tales had illustrated the connection between the theory and practice of political economy. This handbook, and the two other volumes that resulted from her American travels, earned her the title of the "first woman sociologist."
Her fame having preceded her, Martineau had dinner at the White House with President Andrew Jackson, stayed with James Madison, attended debates of the Senate and House of Representatives, and visited the homes of the socially and intellectually prominent from New England to New Orleans. Although her opposition to slavery was well known from her writings, she refrained from judgment and assumed the role of an objective observer as she traveled south from New York, observing the social scene and enjoying the generous hospitality provided through the Carolinas, Georgia, and west to Louisiana before sailing up the Mississippi to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. She found anti-abolitionist feeling at its height in the southern and middle states during the time of her visit. William Lloyd Garrison and his abolitionist colleagues were regarded as dangerous extremists whose radical methods opposed a policy of gradual emancipation and colonization supported by moderates, including many people in the northern states. In Massachusetts, she was asked to attend an abolitionist meeting, which presented a threat of physical danger because such meetings had been mobbed in the past. Although she had not agreed entirely with Garrison's call for immediate emancipation and integration of slaves and free blacks into the full privileges of American citizenship, when she was asked to speak at the meeting, she spoke unequivocally in favor of abolition. Following her endorsement of the abolitionist cause, she found her welcome in many quarters less enthusiastic, and during the remaining months of her travels, she was sometimes forced to cancel plans because of apprehension about her personal safety. She maintained her connection with abolitionist leaders and her fervor for the cause throughout her lifetime.
Martineau kept a detailed journal of her travels, observations, and conversations, and on her return to England had several offers from publishers for books on her impressions of America. She wrote Society in America (1837), in which she declared her purpose was "to compare the existing state of society in America with the principles on which it was professedly founded." On the basis of her analysis, she announced that America had indeed been founded on admirable egalitarian principles and in many ways exemplified and validated the theories of political economy; nonetheless, she found that America's democratic ideals could not be realized while slavery persisted and while women were denied equal rights and representation under the law. In her chapter on "The Political Non-Existence of Women," she took issue with the idea prevalent in both England and America that women's interests were fairly represented through a system of surrogate representation by males. She criticized the limitations of women's education and deplored their limited opportunities to earn an independent living. She wrote about marriage as an institution that, like slavery, was based primarily on economics. As a proponent of divorce and as an outspoken advocate of women's political and economic rights, Martineau was ahead of the mainstream of public opinion in both England and American by several decades. A second book to come from her American journey, Retrospect of Western Travel (1838), is a less analytical, more personal account of her travels that still holds interest as a vivid and detailed contemporary depiction of American life and society in the 1830s.
On her return to England, she continued to write for various periodicals, was offered but did not accept the editorship of a proposed sociological journal, wrote three volumes for The Guide to Service, manuals commissioned by the Poor Law authorities to train girls for domestic service, completed a three-volume novel, Deerbrook, attended Queen Victoria 's coronation, and traveled to the north of England and Scotland. In the spring of 1839, she left England for an extended continental tour, but became so seriously ill in Venice shortly after her departure that her brother James and her future brother-in-law were sent to bring her back to England, where she was immediately placed under the care of another brother-in-law, Thomas Greenhow, who practiced medicine in Newcastle.
Greenhow diagnosed an enlarged and prolapsed uterus, and suspected an inoperable uterine tumor as the source of her pain. He prescribed leeches, bed rest, and opiates for discomfort. After staying six months with her sister and brother-in-law in Newcastle, she took lodgings in nearby Tynemouth, on the North Sea. There she lived as an invalid for the next five years in a two-room apartment where she could observe, from her bed or couch, the activities of the outside world through a telescope given her by a friend. During her illness, she continued to write, completing a novel based on the life of Toussaint L'Overture, The Hour and the Man, four children's stories for the Playfellow series, and Life in the Sickroom, a book that describes the psychological effects of physical illness. She and Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) maintained a correspondence from their respective sickbeds, and she welcomed visits from friends when she was not in pain.
In 1844, her symptoms began to abate, probably as a result of a shift in the position of the tumor so that it no longer pressed on her abdominal organs. At about the same time, she was introduced by friends to a visiting mesmerist, Spencer Hall, and experienced a sense of health and well being after her first treatment. She continued the mesmeric treatments and gained enough strength in a few months to give up opiates; she ventured out of doors for the first time in five years. By December of 1844, she was walking 15 miles a day. Having been convinced that she was dying for the last five years, she was now equally convinced that her cure was a result of mesmerism, and with characteristic haste and conviction, she published "Letters on Mesmerism" in the Athenaeum, linking mesmerism, an almost respectable alternative medical treatment of the time, with clairvoyance, which was much more generally suspect. Her advocacy in this case stretched the credulity of many of her friends, and she was the subject of sharp criticism from medical authorities and her family, including her brother James, with whose religious views she increasingly disagreed. Her association with Henry Atkinson, who promoted a self-styled "scientific" philosophy based largely on phrenology and mesmerism, further alienated her from James, who had become a prominent voice in theological writing of the time.
Following her recovery, she energetically set about reestablishing her active life by building a home in the Lake District, near Ambleside, where she spent the rest of her life. There she wrote according to a regular schedule, received visits from such luminaries as Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, exchanged neighborly visits with William and Dorothy Wordsworth and the Arnolds, gave lectures on social improvement, and established a small model farm to demonstrate that agricultural workers could gain self-sufficiency through industry, careful planning, and thrift. She joined friends for a trip to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in 1847, an experience that apparently confirmed her conversion to a secular philosophical perspective. Her travel book on the journey, Eastern Life, Past and Present (1848), was a great success. In 1849, she wrote Household Education and researched and wrote a social history of England during the first half of the 19th century, A History of the Thirty Years' Peace, an astute analysis of the changes wrought through the influence of the philosophical radicals and informed by the meliorist view of social progress that became the basis of her secular faith. She shocked many of her friends and readers by declaring her religious apostasy publicly in Letters on the Laws of Man's Social Nature and Development in 1851, letters largely written by Atkinson, with commentary by Martineau. The book, widely attacked for its atheism, caused her final break with her brother James, who wrote a devastating review for the Prospective Review. They never again met or spoke to one another.
Acting as "governess to the nation," the role that Martineau had fashioned for herself over the past 20 years, she undertook a translation and condensation of Comte's Positive Philosophy to make accessible to the public Comte's view of social development as an inevitable reflection of the progression of human thought from a religious to a metaphysical to a scientific
understanding of the world. Although she disagreed with much of Comte's thought as authoritarian and anti-egalitarian, she was in sympathy with his general meliorist tendencies.
As signs of deteriorating health in 1854 led her to believe that time was short, she set about writing her Autobiography, in effect an apologia to offer an "account of my conscious transition from the Xn faith to my present philosophy." The Autobiography remains her most important work for modern readers. In the great tradition of such 19th-century autobiographical writing as Wordsworth's The Prelude, John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, its appeal lies in the account it provides of the individual mind struggling with the imperatives of faith, knowledge, and self-discovery, the essential experience of humanity coming to terms with modernity. In this work, Martineau looks forward to a future in which "men will have risen to a capacity for higher work than saving themselves,—to that of 'working out' the welfare of their race, not in 'fear and trembling,' but with serene hope and joyful assurance."
Martineau's indomitable spirit and resilience again triumphed, and she was to live for 22 more years. Though debilitated and often in pain, she continued to write until 1866, contributing articles as a regular leader writer for the Daily News from 1852. She pursued her mission as governess to the nation in her journalism, writing on the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Indian Mutiny, and continuing her advocacy for a more democratic world in her pieces on education, women's issues, abolitionism, and the condition of the working class. She roused herself from virtual retirement to work with Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1866 and 1869, deploring the double standard that permitted the forcible medical examination for venereal disease of any woman in a military town but did not require the soldiers themselves to be examined. Finally too ill to write, she lingered under the palliative effects of opiates until her death at Ambleside on June 27,1876. The many tributes of those who wrote memoirs for the third volume of her Autobiography testify that she was indeed "a sign of this country and Time."
Harriet Martineau's Autobiography. 2 vols. London: Virago Press, 1983.
Rossi, Alice S., ed. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to deBeauvoir. NY: Columbia University Press, 1973.
Thomas, Gillian. Harriet Martineau. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1985.
Webb, R.K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. NY: Columbia University Press, 1960.
Wheatley, Vera. The Life and Work of Harriet Martineau. Fair Lawn, NJ: Essential Books, 1957.
Patricia B. Heaman , Ph.D., Professor of English, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania