Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)
You better live your best and act your best and think your best today, for today is the sure preparation for tomorrow and all the other tomorrows that follow.
Harriet Martineau was a British social theorist and Whig writer often cited as the first female sociologist.
Martineau wrote many books and a multitude of essays from a sociological, holistic, religious, domestic and, perhaps most controversially, feminine perspective. She also translated various works by Auguste Comte, and she earned enough to support herself entirely by her writing, a rare feat for a woman in the Victorian era.
The young Princess Victoria enjoyed reading Martineau's publications. She invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838 — an event which Martineau described in great and amusing detail to her many readers.
Martineau said of her own approach to writing: "when one studies a society, one must focus on all its aspects, including key political, religious, and social institutions". She believed a thorough societal analysis was necessary to understand women's status under men. The novelist Margaret Oliphant said "as a born lecturer and politician was less distinctively affected by her sex than perhaps any other, male or female, of her generation".
The sixth of eight children, Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich, England, where her father Thomas was a textile manufacturer. A highly respected Unitarian, he was deacon of the Octagon Chapel, Norwich from 1797. Harriet's mother was the daughter of a sugar refiner and grocer.
The Martineau family was of French Huguenot ancestry and professed Unitarian views. Her uncles included the surgeon Philip Meadows Martineau 1752–1829, whom she had enjoyed visiting at his nearby estate, Bracondale Lodge, and businessman and benefactor Peter Finch Martineau. Martineau was closest to her brother James, who became a philosopher and clergyman in the tradition of the English Dissenters. According to the writer Diana Postlethwaite, Harriet's relationship with her mother was strained and lacking affection, which contributed to views expressed in her later writing. Martineau claimed her mother abandoned her to a wet nurse.
Her ideas on domesticity and the "natural faculty for housewifery", as described in her book Household Education 1848, stemmed from her lack of nurture growing up. Although their relationship was better in adulthood, Harriet saw her mother as the antithesis of the warm and nurturing qualities which she knew to be necessary for girls at an early age. Her mother urged all her children to be well read, but at the same time opposed female pedantics "with a sharp eye for feminine propriety and good manners. Her daughters could never be seen in public with a pen in their hand". Despite this conservative approach to raising girls, Martineau was not the only academically successful daughter in the family; her sister Rachel ran her own Unitarian Academy with artist Hilary Bonham Carter as one of her students. Martineau's mother strictly enforced proper feminine behaviour, pushing her daughter to "hold a sewing needle" as well as the hidden pen.
Martineau began losing her senses of taste and smell at a young age, becoming increasingly deaf and having to use an ear trumpet. It was the beginning of many health problems in her life. In 1821 she began to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical, and in 1823 she published Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.
In 1829, the family's textile business failed. Martineau, then 27 years old, stepped out of the traditional roles of feminine propriety to earn a living for her family. Along with her needlework, she began selling her articles to the Monthly Repository, earning accolades, including three essay prizes from the Unitarian Association. Her regular work with the Repository helped establish her as a reliable and popular freelance writer.
In Martineau's Autobiography, she reflects on her success as a writer and her father's business failure, which she describes as "one of the best things that ever happened to us". She described how she could then "truly live instead of vegetate". Her reflection emphasizes her experience with financial responsibility in her life while she writes " fusion of literary and economic narratives".
Her first commissioned book, Illustrations of Political Economy, was a fictional tutorial intended to help the general public understand the ideas of Adam Smith. Illustrations was published in February 1832 in an edition of just 1500 copies, since the publisher assumed it would not sell well. Yet it very quickly became highly successful, and would steadily out-sell the work of Charles Dickens. Illustrations was her first work to receive widespread acclaim, and its success served to spread the free-market ideas of Adam Smith and others throughout the British Empire. Martineau then agreed to compose a series of similar monthly stories over a period of two years, the work being hastened by having her brother James also work on the series with her.
The subsequent works offered fictional tutorials on a range of political economists such as James Mill, Bentham and Ricardo, the latter especially forming her view of rent law. Martineau relied on Malthus to form her view of the tendency of human population to exceed its means of subsistence. However, in stories such as "Weal and Woe in Garvelock", she promoted the idea of population control through what Malthus referred to as "voluntary checks" such as voluntary chastity and delayed marriages.
London and the United States
In the early 19th century, most social institutions and norms were strongly shaped by gender, or the perception of what was appropriate for men versus for women. Writing was no exception; non-fiction works about social, economic and political issues were dominated by men, while limited areas, such as romance fiction, and topics dealing with domesticity were considered to be appropriate for women authors. Despite these gendered expectations in the literary world, Martineau strongly expressed her opinions on a variety of topics.
Martineau's frequent publication in the Repository acquainted her with editor Rev. William Johnson Fox not William Darwin Fox, see disambiguation. First coming to London around 1830, she joined Fox's social circle of prominent thinkers which also introduced her to Erasmus Alvey Darwin, older brother to Charles Darwin.
In November 1832 Martineau moved to London. Among her acquaintances were: Henry Hallam, Harriet Taylor, Alexander Maconochie, Henry Hart Milman, Thomas Malthus, Monckton Milnes, Sydney Smith, John Stuart Mill, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sarah Austin, and Charles Lyell, as well as Jane Welsh Carlyle and Thomas Carlyle. She met Florence Nightingale, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Charles Dickens later on in her literary career.
Until 1834 Martineau was occupied with her brother James on the political economy series, as well as a supplemental series of Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation which was intended to directly influence government policy. About the same time, she published four stories expressing support of the Whig Poor Law reforms. These tales direct, lucid, written without any appearance of effort, and yet practically effective display the characteristics of their author's style. Tory paternalists reacted by calling her a Malthusian "who deprecates charity and provision for the poor", while Radicals opposed her to the same degree. Whig high society fêted her.
In May 1834 Charles Darwin, on his expedition to the Galapagos Islands, received a letter from his sisters saying that Martineau was "now a great Lion in London, much patronized by Ld. Brougham who has set her to write stories on the poor Laws" and recommending Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated in pamphlet-sized parts. They added that their brother Erasmus "knows her & is a very great admirer & every body reads her little books & if you have a dull hour you can, and then throw them overboard, that they may not take up your precious room".
In 1834, after completing the economic series, Harriet Martineau paid a long visit to the United States during which she visited a great many people, some little known, others as famous as James Madison, the former US president, at his home at Montpelier. She also met numerous abolitionists in Boston and studied the emerging schools for the education of girls. Her support of abolitionism, then widely unpopular across the U.S., caused controversy, which her publication, soon after her return, of Society in America 1837 and How to Observe Morals and Manners 1838, only fuelled. The two books are considered significant contributions to the then-emerging field of sociology.
In Society in America, Martineau angrily criticised the state of women's education. She wrote,
The intellect of women is confined by an unjustifiable restriction of... education... As women have none of the objects in life for which an enlarged education is considered requisite, the education is not given... The choice is to either be 'ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance. The publication of Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy found public success. So much success that, "by 1834, the monthly sales . . . had reached 10,000 in a decade in which a sale of 2,000 or 3,000 copies of a work of fiction was considered highly successful."
The publication of Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy found public success. So much success that, "by 1834, the monthly sales . . . had reached 10,000 in a decade in which a sale of 2,000 or 3,000 copies of a work of fiction was considered highly successful."
Her article "The Martyr Age of the United States" 1839, in the Westminster Review, introduced English readers to the struggles of the abolitionists in America several years after Britain had abolished slavery.
In October 1836, soon after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin went to London to stay with his brother Erasmus. He found him spending his days "driving out Miss Martineau", who had returned from her trip to the United States. Charles wrote to his sister,
She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects, considering the limited time. I was astonished to find how little ugly she is, but as it appears to me, she is overwhelmed with her own projects, her own thoughts and own abilities. Erasmus palliated all this, by maintaining one ought not to look at her as a woman.
The Darwins shared Martineau's Unitarian background and Whig politics, but their father Robert was concerned that, as a potential daughter-in-law, she was too extreme in her politics. Charles noted that his father was upset by a piece in the Westminster Review calling for the radicals to break with the Whigs and give working men the vote "before he knew it was not , and wasted a good deal of indignation, and even now can hardly believe it is not hers". In early December 1836 Charles Darwin called on Martineau and may have discussed the social and natural worlds she was writing about in her book Society in America, including the "grandeur and beauty" of the "process of world making" she had seen at Niagara Falls. He remarked in a letter,
Erasmus has been with her noon, morning, and night: — if her character was not as secure, as a mountain in the polar regions she certainly would lose it. — Lyell called there the other day & there was a beautiful rose on the table, & she coolly showed it to him & said 'Erasmus Darwin' gave me that. — How fortunate it is, she is so very plain; otherwise I should be frightened: She is a wonderful woman.
Significantly, Martineau's earlier popularization of Thomas Malthus' theories of population control may have helped convince Charles to read Malthus, which provided the breakthrough ideas for his nascent theory of evolution. In April 1838 Charles wrote to his older sister Susan that
Martineau wrote Deerbrook 1838, a three-volume novel published after her American books. She portrayed a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. It was considered her most successful novel. She also wrote The Hour and the Man: An Historical Romance 1839, a three-volume novel about the Haitian slave leader Toussaint L'Ouverture, who contributed to the island nation's gaining independence in 1804.
Newcastle and Tynemouth
In 1839, during a visit to Continental Europe, Martineau was diagnosed with a uterine tumour. She several times visited her brother-in-law, Thomas Michael Greenhow, who was a celebrated doctor in Newcastle upon Tyne, to try to alleviate her symptoms. On the last occasion she stayed for six months in the Greenhow family house at 28 Eldon Square. Immobile and confined to a couch, she was cared for by her mother until purchasing a house and hiring a nurse to aid her.
She next moved downriver to Tynemouth, where she stayed at Mrs Halliday's boarding-house, 57 Front Street, for nearly five years from 16 March 1840. The establishment is still open as a guest house today, now named the "Martineau Guest House" in her honour.
The critic Diana Postlethwaite wrote of this period for Martineau:
Being homebound is a major part of the process of becoming feminine. In this interior setting she (Martineau) is taught the home arts of working, serving, and cleaning, as well as the rehearsals for the role of mothering. She sees her mother... doing these things. They define femininity for her.
Her illness caused her to literally enact the social constraints of women during this time.
Martineau wrote a number of books during her illness, and a historical plaque marks this house. In 1841 she published a series of four novels for children, The Playfellow, comprising The Settlers at Home, The Peasant and the Prince, Feats on the Fiord, and The Crofton Boys. In 1844 she published Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, an autobiographical reflection on invalidism. She wrote Household Education 1848, the handbook on the "proper" way to raise and educate children. Lastly, she began working on her autobiography. Completed much later, it included some hundred pages on this period. Notable visitors included Richard Cobden and Thomas and Jane Carlyle.
Life in the Sickroom is considered to be one of Martineau's most under-rated works. It upset evangelical readers as they "thought it dangerous in 'its supposition of self-reliance'". This series of essays embraced traditional womanhood. Martineau dedicated it to Elizabeth Barrett, as it was "an outpouring of feeling to an idealized female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family". Written during a kind of public break from her mother, this book was Martineau's proclamation of independence.
At the same time, Martineau turned the traditional patient–doctor relationship on its head by asserting control over her space even in sickness. The sickroom was her space. Life in the Sickroom explained how to regain control even in illness. Alarmed that a woman was suggesting such a position in the power dynamic, critics suggested that, as she was an invalid, her mind must also be sick and the work was not to be taken seriously. British and Foreign Medical Review dismissed Martineau's piece on the same basis as the critics: an ill person cannot write a healthy work. They thought it was unheard of for a woman to suggest being in a position of control, especially in sickness. Instead, the Review recommended that patients follow "unconditional submission" to the advice of doctors. They disagreed with the idea that Martineau might hold any sort of "authority to Britain's invalids".
Expecting to remain an invalid for the rest of her life, Martineau delighted in the new freedom of views using her telescope. Across the Tyne was the sandy beach ″where there are frequent wrecks—too interesting to an invalid... and above the rocks, a spreading heath, where I watch troops of boys flying their kites; lovers and friends taking their breezy walks on Sundays..." She expressed a lyrical view of Tynemouth:
When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glittering snow, while the myrtle-green sea swells and tumbles... there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash brisk, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes... And at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!
During her illness, she for a second time declined a pension on the civil list, fearing to compromise her political independence. After publication of her letter on the subject, some of her friends raised a small annuity for her soon after.
In 1844 Martineau underwent a course of mesmerism, returning to health after a few months. There was national interest in mesmerism at this time. Also known as 'animal magnetism', it can be defined as a "loosely grouped set of practices in which one person influenced another through a variety of personal actions, or through the direct influence of one mind on another mind. Mesmerism was designed to make invisible forces augment the mental powers of the mesmeric object." She eventually published an account of her case in sixteen Letters on Mesmerism, which caused much discussion. Her work led to friction with "the natural prejudices of a surgeon and a surgeon's wife" i.e., her brother-in-law, Thomas Michael Greenhow and her sister, Elizabeth Greenhow, née Martineau.
Ambleside – views on religion, philosophical atheism, and Darwin
In 1845 she left Tynemouth for Ambleside in the Lake District, where she designed herself and oversaw the construction of the house called The Knoll, Ambleside, where she spent the greater part of her later life. In 1845 she published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales. In 1846, she resided with her elderly mother, Elizabeth, in Birmingham for some time, following which she then toured Egypt, Palestine and Syria with some friends. On her return she published Eastern Life, Present and Past 1848, in which she reports a breakthrough realization standing on a prominence looking out across the Nile and desert to the tombs of the dead, where "the deceased crossed the living valley and river" to "the caves of the death region" where Osiris the supreme judge "is to give the sign of acceptance or condemnation" Eastern Life, Present and Past, Complete in One Volume, Philadelphia, 1848, p. 48. Her summary: "the mortuary ideas of the primitive Egyptians, and through them, of the civilized world at large, have been originated by the everlasting conflict of the Nile and the Desert".
This epiphany changed the course of her life. Eastern Life expressed her concept that, as humanity passed through one after another of the world's historic religions, the conception of the deity and of divine government became at each step more and more abstract and indefinite. She believed the ultimate goal to be philosophic atheism, but did not explicitly say so in the book. She described ancient tombs, "the black pall of oblivion" set against the paschal "puppet show" in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and noted that Christian beliefs in reward and punishment were based on and similar to heathen superstitions. Describing an ancient Egyptian tomb, she wrote, "How like ours were his life and death!... Compare him with a retired naval officer made country gentleman in our day, and in how much less do they differ than agree!" The book's "infidel tendency" was too much for the publisher John Murray, who rejected it. Martineau's biographer, Florence Fenwick Miller, wrote that "all her best moral and intellectual faculties were exerted, and their action becomes visible, at one page or another" of this work.
Martineau wrote Household Education in 1848, lamenting the state of women's education. She believed women had a natural inclination to motherhood and believed domestic work went hand in hand with academia for a proper, well-rounded education. She stated, "I go further than most persons... in desiring thorough practice in domestic occupations, from an early age, for young girls". She proposed that freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, are the most effectual instruments of education.
Her interest in schemes of instruction led her to start a series of lectures, addressed at first to the school children of Ambleside, but afterward extended to their parents at the request of the adults. The subjects were sanitary principles and practice, the histories of England and North America, and the scenes of her Eastern travels. At the request of the publisher Charles Knight, in 1849 she wrote The History of the Thirty Years' Peace, 1816–1846, an excellent popular history from the point of view of a "philosophical Radical". Martineau spanned a wide variety of subject matter in her writing and did so with more assertiveness than was expected of women at the time. She has been described as having an "essentially masculine nature". It was commonly thought that a "progressive" woman, in being progressive, was improperly emulating the qualities of a man.
Martineau's work included a widely used guide book to the Lake District, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, published in 1855 and in its 4th edition by 1876. This served as the definitive guidebook for the area for 25 years, effectively replacing the earlier guide by William Wordsworth, and continued in common usage until the publication of Baddeley's Thorough Guide to the English Lake District in 1880.
Martineau edited a volume of Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, published in March 1851. Its epistolary form is based on correspondence between her and the self-styled scientist Henry G. Atkinson. She expounded the doctrine of philosophical atheism, which she thought the tendency of human belief. She did not deny a first cause but declared it unknowable. She and Atkinson thought they affirmed man's moral obligation. Atkinson was a zealous exponent of mesmerism. The prominence given to the topics of mesmerism and clairvoyance heightened the general disapproval of the book. Literary London was outraged by its mesmeric evolutionary atheism, and the book caused a lasting division between Martineau, her beloved brother, James who had become a Unitarian cleric, and some of her friends.
From 1852 to 1866, she contributed regularly to the Daily News, writing sometimes six leaders a week. She wrote over 1600 articles for the paper in total. It also published her Letters from Ireland, written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852. For many years she was a contributor to the Westminster Review; in 1854 she was among financial supporters who prevented its closing down.
Martineau believed she had experienced psychosomatic symptoms and later benefits from mesmerism; this medical belief of the times related the uterus to emotions and hysteria. She had symptoms of hysteria in her loss of taste and smell. Her partial deafness throughout life may have contributed to her problems. Various people, including the maid, her brother, and Spencer T. Hall a notable mesmerist performed mesmerism on her. Some historians attribute her apparent recovery from symptoms to a shift in the positioning of her tumor so that it no longer obstructed other organs. As the physical improvements were the first signs of healing she had in five years and happened at the same time of her first mesmeric treatment, Martineau confidentially credited mesmerism with her "cure".
She continued her political activism during the late 1850s and 1860s. She supported the Married Women's Property Bill and in 1856 signed a petition for it organised by Barbara Bodichon. She also pushed for licensed prostitution and laws that addressed the customers rather than the women. She supported women's suffrage and signed Bodichon's petition in its favour in 1866.
In the early part of 1855, Martineau was suffering from heart disease. She began to write her autobiography, as she expected her life to end. Completing the book rapidly in three months, she postponed its publication until after her death, and lived another two decades. It was published posthumously in 1877.
When Darwin's book The Origin of Species was published in 1859, his brother Erasmus sent a copy to his old flame Harriet Martineau. At age 58, she was still reviewing from her home in the Lake District. From her "snow landscape", Martineau sent her thanks, adding that she had previously praised
the quality & conduct of your brother's mind, but it is an unspeakable satisfaction to see here the full manifestation of its earnestness & simplicity, its sagacity, its industry, & the patient power by which it has collected such a mass of facts, to transmute them by such sagacious treatment into such portentous knowledge. I should much like to know how large a proportion of our scientific men believe he has found a sound road.
Martineau supported Darwin's theory because it was not based in theology. Martineau strove for secularism stating, "In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished." She wrote to her fellow Malthusian and atheist George Holyoake enthusing, "What a book it is! – overthrowing if true revealed Religion on the one hand, & Natural as far as Final Causes & Design are concerned on the other. The range & mass of knowledge take away one's breath." To Fanny Wedgwood the wife of Hensleigh Wedgwood she wrote,
I rather regret that C.D. went out of his way two or three times to speak of "The Creator" in the popular sense of the First Cause.... His subject is the "Origin of Species" & not the origin of Organisation; & it seems a needless mischief to have opened the latter speculation at all – There now! I have delivered my mind.
Economics and social sciences
Harriet Martineau propounds political economic theories in Illustrations of Political Economy. She is seen as a frontrunner who merges fiction and economy in a time period when "fiction claimed authority over emotional knowledge, while economics claimed authority over empirical knowledge". Moreover, Martineau's text sets the stage for women to enter into economics. For example, Dalley Lana explains that "by bringing the topic of domestic economy to bear on political economy, Martineau places women more centrally within economic theory and practice. In this context, women – as readers of the Illustrations and as characters with the tales – are not only rendered a part of larger-scale economics but also because of their participation encourage to learn the principles of political economy."
As early as 1831, Martineau wrote on the subject "Political Economy" as the field of economics was then known. Her goal was to popularise and illustrate the principles of laissez faire capitalism, though she made no claim to original theorising.
Martineau's reflections on Society in America, published in 1837, are prime examples of her sociological methods. Her ideas in this field were set out in her 1838 book How to Observe Morals and Manners. She believed that some very general social laws influence the life of any society, including the principle of progress, the emergence of science as the most advanced product of human intellectual endeavour, and the significance of population dynamics and the natural physical environment.
Auguste Comte coined the name sociology and published a rambling exposition under the title of Cours de Philosophie Positive in 1839. Martineau undertook a translation that was published in two volumes in 1853 as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau. It was a remarkable achievement, and a successful one; Comte recommended her volumes to his students instead of his own. Some writers regard Martineau as the first female sociologist. Her introduction of Comte to the English-speaking world and the elements of sociological perspective in her original writings support her credit as a sociologist.
Harriet Martineau died of bronchitis at "The Knoll" on 27 June 1876. She was buried alongside her mother in Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley, Birmingham. The following April, at Bracondale, her cousin's estate, much of Martineau's extensive art collection was sold at auction.
Her name is listed on the east face of the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green cemetery in London.
She left an autobiographical sketch to be published by the Daily News, in which she wrote:
Her original power was nothing more than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range. With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore nothing approaching to genius, she could see clearly what she did see, and give a clear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent.
In 1877 her autobiography was published. It was rare for a woman to publish such a work, let alone one secular in nature. Her book was regarded as dispassionate, "philosophic to the core" in its perceived masculinity, and a work of necessitarianism. She deeply explored childhood experiences and memories, expressing feelings of having been deprived of her mother's affection, as well as strong devotion to her brother James Martineau, a theologian.
Anthony Giddens and Simon Griffiths argue that Martineau is a neglected founder of sociology and that she remains important today. She taught that study of the society must include all its aspects, including key political, religious and social institutions, and she insisted on the need to include the lives of women. She was the first sociologist to study such issues as marriage, children, religious life, and race relations. Finally, she called on sociologists to do more than just observe, but also work to benefit the society.
In February 2014, it was reported that London's National Portrait Gallery held several portraits of Harriet, whose great nephew, Francis Martineau Lupton, was the great–great–grandfather of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the gallery's patron. Harriet was close to her niece Frances Lupton, who worked to open up educational opportunities for women.
A large number of letters of Harriet Martineau are held in the University of Birmingham's Special Collections.
- Logan, D. A., ed. 2007. The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau. London: Pickering and Chatto. ISBN 978-1-85196-804-6.
Society in America (1837)
The Hour and the Man (1839)