Harriet Martineau’s first literary success was a series of fables promoting utilitarian views, Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34). The notoriety they attracted, particularly the controversy attached to her Malthusian views on family limitation, foreshadowed the pattern of her relationship with the reading public which lasted throughout her career. Like the Illustrations of Political Economy, Martineau’s essays are generally motivated by a desire to instruct the reader and call on narrative and anecdotal material to make their points.
Deaf from childhood, she found solace in reading so that, at an early age, she became “a political economist without knowing it, and, at the same time, a sort of walking Concordance of Milton and Shakespeare.” Compelled by a fall in the family’s finances to earn an income, Martineau rejected urgings to eke out a living by needlework and chose instead “female authorship.” Her consciousness of how she was marginalized by her gender and by her deafness, combined with the need to make her writing appeal to the widest possible audience, shaped her writing throughout her career.
One of her most interesting early essays, “Letter to the Deaf” (1834), sets out to advise deaf readers on how best to manage their disability. Although the essay affects to be unconcerned with the reactions “of those who do not belong to our fraternity,” it implicitly encourages the hearing reader to take a more matter-of-fact approach to others’ deafness. She urges the deaf to be as independent as possible and develop an active social life. The essay was seized upon and reprinted as a booklet for deaf readers by various charitable organizations concerned with the welfare of the deaf.
In the seven years following her first literary success Martineau consolidated her reputation with two books on her American travels, and a major novel, Deerbrook (1839). She was forced into retirement from London literary life by five years of illness until her symptoms seemed miraculously relieved by hypnosis. Her illness and dramatic recovery resulted in two important publications. Life in the Sick-Room (1844), a collection of essays which, like “Letter to the Deaf,” was ostensibly addressed to “fellowsufferers,” examined the psychological aspects of prolonged illness. Letters on Mesmerism (1845) were based on the record she had made of the treatments which had relieved her illness. Martineau submitted the six essays to the Athenaeum in order to counter some of the gossip that had arisen. She was horrified when the Athenaeum appended editorial notes that attempted to discredit mesmerism in general and Martineau’s experiences in particular. The war of words escalated when her brotherinlaw, who had acted as her physician, published a pamphlet detailing the gynecological symptoms from which she had suffered and expressing skepticism about the cure. The episode illustrates not only Martineau’s intensely personal approach, but also her willingness to take the risk of finding herself in the midst of virulent controversy.
Throughout her career Martineau continued to write on various aspects of political economy and to provide commentary on the political questions of the day. Her economic views, arguing for laissez-faire conservatism, were formed by her background in a textile manufacturer’s family and endorsed by her early readings in political economy. This led her into conflict with Dickens, whose Household Words articles had been advocating better and safer factory conditions. Martineau weighed in on behalf of the manufacturers with a pamphlet, The Factory Controversy: A Warning Against Meddling Legislation (1855). John Chapman, in refusing the piece for publication in the Westminster Review, warned of her tendency to see factory owners as “a band of enlightened well-wishers.”
On almost every other issue Martineau was progressive as well as outspoken. Her chief opportunity to influence both politicians and the general public came when she began writing leader articles for the Daily News in 1852. During the 14 years she was associated with the paper she wrote over a thousand articles on topical political events as well as broader issues such as women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. She argued for better access to education for all, and for a less class-ridden education system since “our spirit of caste is quite broad enough without being extended into the kingdom of knowledge.”
Her 1864 article on the Contagious Diseases Bill (legislation allowing the detention and medical examination of women in military towns on the grounds that they might be prostitutes) launched the campaign against the proposed laws. When the law was finally repealed in 1871, her editor at the Daily News suggested to her that she had “done more than anyone else…to defeat the plan of the military.” From the beginning of her tenure at the Daily News she had used her leaders to discuss women’s legal situation. For example, her columns drew attention to the routine police use of the term “wife-beating,” pointing out that the coining of the term indicated “the present prevalence of the ill usage of wives.”
Martineau’s essays are strikingly personal and direct. Even when writing obituary essays she is often refreshingly acerbic. In failing health and straitened circumstances at the end of her life, she was aided by Daily News staff who collected the obituary essays she had written on notable contemporaries. The resulting book was Biographical Sketches (1869), with its trenchant and vivid portraits of the many friends and foes she had so clearly observed throughout her remarkable career.
Martineau’s polemical positions antagonized a number of her contemporaries such as John Stuart Mill and Dickens, but others held her in high regard. Elizabeth Barrett Browning admired her “lucid and able style,” while George Eliot told one correspondent, “she is a trump—the only English woman that possesses thoroughly the art of writing.”
Although many of Martineau’s essays focus on the political and economic questions particular to her times, she remains one of the most accessible and appealing of 19thcentury essayists. Despite the energy with which she promotes her opinions, she is disarmingly frank in her use of the essay as a means of exploration. As she noted at the outset of her career, “There is no education like authorship for ascertaining one’s knowledge and one’s ignorance.”
Born 12 June 1802 in Norwich. Studied privately and at the Reverend Pervy’s school, Norwich, 1813–15. In poor health throughout her life, and began to go deaf at age 12.
Supported herself, her mother, and an aunt, first with needlework, then with writing.
Contributor to the Monthly Repository Unitarian journal, 1820s. Traveled in the United States, 1834–36. Ill, possibly from a uterine tumor, and went to live near her doctor brother-in-law in Tynemouth, Northumberland, 1839–44: tried mesmerism as a cure, writing about her experience. Moved to Clappersgate, near Ambleside, Westmorland, 1845, where she met William Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold. Traveled to Palestine and Egypt, 1846–47. Contributor to Household Words, late 1840s, the People’s Journal,
the London Daily News, 1852–66, and Edinburgh Review, from 1859. Died in Clappersgate, 27 June 1876.
Essays and Related Prose
The Faith as Unfolded by Many Prophets: An Essay Addressed to the Disciples of Mohammed, 1832
Life in the Sick-Room; or, Essays by an Invalid, 1844
Letters on Mesmerism, 1845
Household Education, 1849
Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development, with Henry George Atkinson, 1851
Letters from Ireland, 1853
Biographical Sketches, 1869; revised edition, 1876
Harriet Martineau in the London Daily News: Selected Contributions, 1852–1866, edited by Elisabeth Sanders Arbuckle, 1994
Other writings: fiction (including the novel Deerbrook, 1839), the didactic tales
Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34), four children’s novels, books on a variety of subjects such as travel, politics, and history, and a three-volume autobiography (1877).
Rivlin, J.B., Harriet Martineau: A Bibliography of the Separately Printed Books, New York: New York Public Library, 1946
David, Deirdre, Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, and London: Macmillan, 1987
Hoecker-Drysdale, Susan, Harriet Martineau: First Woman Sociologist, Oxford: Berg, 1992
Marks, Patricia, “Harriet Martineau: Fraser’s Maid of [Dis] Honour,” Victorian Periodicals Review 19 (1986):28–34
Myers, Mitzi, “Unmothered Daughter and Radical Reformer: Harriet Martineau’s Career,” in The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, edited by Cathy
N.Davidson and E.M. Broner, New York: Ungar, 1980:70–80
Pichanick, Valerie Kossew, “An Abominable Submission: Harriet Martineau’s Views on the Role and Place of Women,” Women’s Studies 5, no. 1 (1977):13–32.
Pichanick, Valerie Kossew, Harriet Martineau: The Woman and Her Work, 1802–76, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980
Thomas, Gillian, Harriet Martineau, Boston: Twayne, 1985
Webb, R.K., Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian, London: Heinemann, 1960
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