I have just returned from the annual meeting of the Martineau Society, held this year at the Eaton Hotel in Birmingham. As well as the usual set of interesting papers (see conference speakers for details) and good atmosphere, we had a fabulous set of Martineau-linked trails round the city, a mind-boggling pub quiz designed by Stuart Hobday and an auction of Martineau writing and ‘memorabilia’ which raised £270. Another high point of the meeting was the new (to most of us) portrait of Harriet Martineau which had hitherto been known only to the inner Martineau family, brought in by James Martineau. For a photograph of the new portrait, click here.
Each year I ask myself the same question about the Martineau conference. Why do I go every year? The 2016 conference provided several answer. First, I found the talks beguiling – almost always triggering further thoughts about topics that are unresolved in my mind. For instance, a key idea in the Birmingham presentations was the fact that Harriet Martineau’s view of economics or, more accurately ‘political economy’, was not only steered by the writings of her (male) peers but also by the fact that she sought to incorporate a view of women’s labour (housework, child-rearing etc.). Thus, as Keiko Funaki made clear at the conference, Harriet was a not merely a populariser of classical economic ideas but also a prescient source of much later ideas about socioeconomics or feminist economics, both of which focus on economics as the collective workings of human beings rather than the independent working of market mechanisms.
A second insight, relates to the relationship between Unitarian thought and municipal socialism (a feature of the 19th century politics of Birmingham). In the nineteenth century, socialism was contrasted with individualism – and, it seems to me that there was a close affinity between associations such as congregations, cooperatives and unions and varieties of political organisation that, individually and collectively, sought to ‘progress’ society. Indeed, the humanist aspiration of such organisations flourished until it was undermined by the idea that any group is merely the sum of its parts, a viewpoint remembered, more recently, in the form ‘there is no such thing as society’.
My third insight came with the presentation by a present-day Martineau family member, James Martineau, of an unknown portrait of Harriet Martineau (still in private hands) and the reference, in the Cadbury Archive at the University of Birmingham library, of a further portrait of Harriet in the Fruitlands Museum, Harvard (USA). Although a welcome surprise for Martineau scholars aware that the pool of illustrations suitable for book covers and frontispieces has been near-exhausted in recent years, these finds were also, for me, a salutary reminder of the iron law of inquiry and research: there is always more material to be found. Thus, as one of the founder members of the Martineau Society, Elizabeth Sanders Arbuckle, has come to realise, her two-volume, manuscript biography of Harriet Martineau will, we hope, soon be published but it will never be complete. She will be back next summer from the USA rummaging in the British Library to further ‘polish’ her text. And she’ll attend the annual conference in Hull. I’ll be there to recharge my intellectual batteries. Will you?