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).

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.