Harriet Martineau (1802-76)

In brief

Harriet Martineau journalist and writer, was best known as a populariser of political economy, though her career spanned many other aspects of Victorian literary culture. The daughter of a Unitarian Norwich cloth manufacturer, she shot to fame in 1832 as author of Illustrations of Political Economy – twenty-five short stories showing how economic conditions impacted on the lives of ordinary people in a variety of social environments. She visited America in 1834 for two years and identified with the anti-slavery cause, which she promoted in her journalism for the rest of her working life. She also wrote fiction, travel books on America and the Middle East, and political analyses of conditions in India and Ireland, and is regarded by many regarded as the first significant British woman sociologist. Her lively and provocative Autobiography was written in 1855 but published posthumously in 1877. Despite two extended periods of ill-health, from 1839 10 1844, and from 1855 until her death, the last phase of Harriet Martineau’s career was as a journalist primarily for The Daily News (though she wrote for many other journals and papers]. She never married. Harriet Martineau was a unique figure in Victorian culture, and a key contributor to a wide range of its intellectual and social debates.

In more detail

Harriet Martineau, the daughter of a textile manufacturer from Norwich, was born in 1802. Her parents, Thomas and Elizabeth Martineau, were Unitarians and held progressive views on the education of girls. The four daughters of the marriage received a similar education to their four brothers. However, whereas the boys were trained for a career, the girls were expected to stay at home.

Harriet thought this was very unfair and in 1823 publishedan anonymous article entitled ‘On Female Education’ in the Unitarian journal, the Monthly Repository. Her eldest brother, Thomas, praised it, and when he discovered that his sister was the author, said, ‘Now, dear, leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings, and you devote yourself to this.’

James introduced her to his college friend, John Hugh Worthington, to whom she became engaged, but the relationship was beset by doubts and difficulties and later came to an end when Worthington became seriously ill and eventually died. Harriet writes in the Autobiography that despite her grief at his death, she was relieved when circumstances intervened to prevent their marrying.

Harriet continued to write articles for the Monthly Repository, among other things. After her father’s death in 1826 it had become necessary for her to earn her own living. Deaf since the age of twelve, she would have been unsuitable as a governess, and though she was prepared to support herself with needlework, writing soon provided her with a career as well as her independence. Following the successful launch of her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-4), Harriet moved to London in November 1832.

As well as continuing to write articles for the Monthly Repository, Harriet published two religious books: Devotional Exercises for the Use of Young Persons (1823) and Addresses for the Use of Families (1826). She then turned to the ambitious project of writing illustrative tales on the new science of political economy. Presented as a series of stories aimed at the ordinary reader, the tales revealed both her passion for social reform and the influence on her of intellectuals such as Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. The series, Illustrations of Political Economy, was followed by two further series, Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (1833-4) and Illustrations of Taxation (1834).

Now financially secure, Harriet Martineau decided to spend the next two years travelling in the USA. She claimed that her main purpose in going was for rest and recreation and she also felt it would be good to ‘rough it’ for a while. She chose to visit America rather than Europe because she was interested in seeing how the new democratic principles was working. Known as an abolitionist on the strength of her political economy tale, Demerara, she was immediately drawn into the anti-slavery cause, which remained a lifelong passion.

On her return she published Society in America (1837). The book was mainly a critique of America’s attempt to live up to its democratic principles. Harriet was especially concerned about the treatment of women and called one chapter, ‘The Political Non-existence of Women’. She claimed that women were “given indulgence rather than justice”. She argued for an improvement in women’s education, so that “marriage need not be their only object in life”. She also used her American experiences in the more popular travel book, Retrospect of Western Travel (1838).