Harriet Martineau (1802-76)

In 1839 Harriet Martineau produced her first novel, Deerbrook. This was followed a year later by The Hour and the Man and based on the life of the Haitian leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The Playfellow, a series of children’s stories, was published in 1841.

Harriet was travelling in Europe in 1839 when she fell ill and was brought to Newcastle to be treated nearby, by her medical brother-in-law, Thomas Michael Greenhow. Moving to lodgings in Tynemouth, she spent five years as an invalid, suffering from a prolapsed uterus and ovarian cyst. Fully expecting to die, she claimed to have been cured by mesmerism, on the basis of which she eagerly resumed work.

She moved to the Lake District in 1845, where she designed and organised the constructiong of her house at Ambleside. Her next publications were Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848), based on her trip to Egypt and the Holy Lands, and History of the Peace (1849), a history of England between 1816 and 1846, followed by the Introduction to the History of the Peace 1800 – 1815 (1851), with later extensions.

Next came Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development (1851), this book which created a sensation due to the assertion of her belief in a First Cause but rejecting her former religious beliefs. The publication of the book ended her relationship with her brother, James Martineau, who was now a leading figure in the Unitarian Church (see James Martineau).

In 1852, Harriet joined the staff of the Daily News and over the next 16 years, wrote more than 1500 articles for the newspaper. She also wrote articles elsewhere on various subjects, including the employment of women for the Edinburgh Review, and education provision for girls for the Cornhill Magazine. She also contributed articles and stories to smaller journals such as Tait’s, Dicken’s Household Words and Once a Week.

In 1853 she published The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, a popular translation and condensation of Comte’s larger work in French, and in 1866 she joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss to present a petition to Parliament to grant women the vote. She had already written articles in favour of women entering the medical profession. During the American Civil War (1861-5), she saw it as her role in her regular leaders for the Daily News to ‘sustain…. the virtuous people & their cause, & to expose the weakness, as well as the ignorance & guilt of the – (not South but) Seccessionists.’

After her retirement, in 1869 Harriet again wrote a short series of articles for the Daily News, attacking the notorious Contagious Diseases Acts which had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Harriet objected in principle to laws that only applied to women. Under the terms of these Acts, the police could arrest any woman they believed was a prostitute and insist that she underwent a medical examination to check she was ‘clean’. Harriet helped form the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which later Josephine Butler was to lead, and acknowledged the importance of Harriet’s contribution.

Having enjoyed a ten-year respite illness,, Harriet began again to feel unwell in 1855. Convinced that she was about to die from heart failure, she wrote a two-volume Autobiography at breakneck speed over three months. Although she lived for another twenty-one years and continued her work for the Daily News, the Autobiography remained unaltered and was only published after her death in 1876, when it was completed by a third volume of commentary by Maria Weston Chapman, an American abolitionist friend.

An autopsy proved that the cyst she believed to have been cured by mesmerism in 1845 had in fact continued growing and had caused the symptoms she and her doctors at first wrongly attributed to heart disease. She died in Ambleside in 1876.

Although much of Harriet Martineau’s work was closely tied to social and political events of her day, she remains significant as a campaigner for the rights of women, against slavery, and for other minority groups who lacked a voice. Her Autobiography is vivid, and outspoken: indeed it is considered one of the best autobiographies by a woman in the nineteenth century. There were few areas of Victorian life on which she was not willing to comment, and few well-known contemporaries from the worlds of literature and politics with whom she was not familiar.