Unfinished Business – Harriet Martineau

“The progression or emancipation of any class … takes place through the efforts of individuals of that class. All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position.”

Harriet Martineau

The British Library displays a banner of Harriet Martineau’s portrait and a brief description as part of their Unfinished Business exhibition. Focusing on women’s rights, the library reveals Martineau, a British author, was the fore-mother of sociology. Her works were widely read in her day but have since fallen off the radar. Martineau wrote from a feminine perspective at a time when it was rare for a woman to express her opinion so publicly. Not only that, she earned enough money from her works to support herself entirely, a rare feat for a Victorian woman.

Born on 12th June 1802 in Norwich, Harriet Martineau, the sixth of eight children, grew up in the vicinity of Octagon Chapel where her father, Thomas (1764-1826), was deacon. The Martineau family was of French Huguenot descent and were prominent Unitarians. Harriet’s grandfather, David Martineau II (1726-68), purchased the Bracondale Woods near Norwich in 1793 where he built a “handsome mansion with pleasure grounds delightfully laid out”. His fifth son, Thomas, was Harriet’s father.

Thomas Martineau married Elizabeth Rankin (1772-1848), the daughter of a grocer, and had their first daughter in 1794. Named after her mother, Elizabeth (1794-1850) married Dr Thomas Greenhow (1792-1881). The Daily Telegraph recently reported that if Greenhow were alive today, he would have “led the fight against Covid 19”. Through the marriage of their daughter Frances (1820-92) to Francis Lupton (1813-84), they are related to the present Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Harriet’s eldest brother Thomas (1795-1824) became a surgeon, founding an eye infirmary, which is now part of Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Another brother, Robert (1798-1870), became the Mayor of Birmingham in 1846, but it was with her younger brother James (1805-1900) that Harriet felt closest. James was a religious philosopher who Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) regarded as “the mastermind of all the remarkable company with whom he engaged.” Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) maintained James was “beyond question the greatest of living thinkers”.

Few records about Harriet’s childhood survive other than what she mentioned in her later writings. Her mother supposedly lacked affection for her children and abandoned them to wet nurses. Harriet expressed this lack of nurture in her book Household Education (1848), although their relationship improved later in life. Elizabeth wished her daughters to have a conservative education. Whilst she desired them to read well, anything unfeminine, including writing, was strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, her daughters flourished academically and Harriet’s sister Rachel opened a Unitarian Academy, attended by ancestors of Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter (b.1966). 

At a young age, Martineau started to lose some of her senses, beginning with taste and smell, then hearing. By adulthood, she was profoundly deaf and required an ear trumpet, an old form of hearing aid. Determined not to let her disabilities get the better of her, Martineau went against her mother’s wishes and started to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical concerned with the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the reform of the Church of England. These articles led to the publication of Martineau’s first book in 1823, Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.

In 1826, Martineau’s father passed away. His grave rests in Rosary Cemetery, the first non-denominational burial ground in the United Kingdom. His textile business, which none of his children seemed particularly keen to run, began to suffer, eventually closing in 1829. Martineau, then 27 years old, went against traditional gender roles to make a living for her family. She began to publish articles in the Monthly Repository under her real name, earning her a salary and three prizes from the Unitarian Association. These accolades helped to establish her as a freelance writer. 

Although she never wished death upon either of her parents, Martineau admitted the resulting failure of her father’s business was “one of the best things that ever happened to us”. Until then, Martineau going to work was not an option, and she felt she was vegetating at home rather than living. Whilst her brothers were earning, they had families of their own and could not afford to provide for their mothers and sisters as well. Financial responsibility fell to Martineau, which, ironically, gave Martineau her long-desired freedom.

At the beginning of the 1830s, Martineau received her first book commission. Martineau wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, as a work of fiction intended to help readers understand the capitalist ideas of ”The Father of Economics” Adam Smith (1723-90). The publisher, assuming it would not sell well on account of her gender, only printed 1500 copies. Very soon, the public demanded more copies and the book eventually surpassed the sales of works by Charles Dickens (1812-70).

Illustrations of Political Economy was an international success, spreading Smith’s visions of a free-market throughout the British Empire. At the publisher’s request, Martineau wrote a series of fictional tutorials about other political economists, including James Mill (1773-1836), the father of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73); Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832); and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Martineau also wrote about her thoughts on population control, inspired by the economist of demography Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).

As well as writing these Illustrations, Martineau continued producing articles for the Monthly Repository, where her work caught the eye of the editor Reverend William Fox (1786-1864). The Unitarian minister of South Place Chapel, in Finsbury, London, invited Martineau to London to join his circle of progressive thinkers. On her first visit, Fox introduced her to Erasmus Alvey Darwin (1804-81), the brother of Charles Darwin (1809-82), who proved to be a vital connection.

Around 1832, Martineau moved to London and became a regular attendee of meetings held by Fox. Her social circle instantly grew to include well-known writers and thinkers, such as Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Later, she made the acquaintance of Dickens, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Charlotte Brontë (1816-55) and George Eliot (1819-80). Yet, Martineau kept in close contact with her younger brother James, who assisted her with the Illustrations series. She also penned four stories expressing her support for the Whig Poor Law reforms.

Charles Darwin, while exploring the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, received a copy of Martineau’s Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation from his sisters. They described Martineau as a “great Lion” and encouraged Darwin to read her books in his spare time. By this time, Martineau’s popularity had spread to the United States, which spurred her trip to the country in 1834 where she met with former President James Madison (1751-1836).

Martineau received a mixed reception in the US. As a strong supporter of abolitionism, she angered many Americans who remained against the movement. Martineau likewise supported women’s rights, which also caused controversy. On visiting some of the very few girls’ schools in the country, she expressed her anger at the “unjustifiable restriction of education.” In comparison to the educational opportunities for boys, girls had limited choices. On her return to England, Martineau wrote, “The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”

Martineau’s return to London coincided with the completion of Charles Darwin’s expedition. In 1836, Darwin went to stay with his brother Erasmus who spent much of his time “driving out Miss Martineau”. Rumours that Erasmus and Martineau were an item unsettled Darwin who believed his brother would not survive a marriage to “so philosophical & energetic a lady”. Their father Robert (1766-1848) also had concerns that Martineau was too politically minded, despite sharing her Unitarian and Whig views.

On the other hand, Charles Darwin enjoyed discussing ideas with Martineau, commenting that “She is a wonderful woman”. While writing her book Society in America, Martineau discussed both the social and natural aspects of the country with Darwin. In a letter to his sisters, Darwin remarked: “She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects.” Princess Victoria (1819-1901) was also a fan of Martineau’s work and invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838.

Deerbrock

Fears of a marriage between Martineau and Erasmus came to nought after Martineau fell ill during a tour of Europe. Rather than return to London, she moved to Tynemouth near Newcastle to be near her brother. Martineau explored the fateful romance in her novel Deerbrook (1838), which features a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. Fortunately, Martineau and Erasmus remained on good terms, writing to each other frequently.

Doctors diagnosed Martineau with a uterine tumour, which confined her mostly to her home. She received frequent visits from her brother-in-law Dr Greenhow, who helped to relieve some of her symptoms. Unable to walk or stand well, Martineau’s mother cared for her until they found a suitable nurse. Not only did Martineau suffer physically, both from the tumour and deafness, she found herself in the position she had campaigned against, enacting the social constraints of women.

To assert her independence, albeit, with the help of a nurse, Martineau moved to Mrs Halliday’s boarding-house on 16th March 1840, where she resided for five years. The building later became a guest house, renamed “Martineau Guest House” in her honour. Whilst living there, Martineau continued to write, particularly about her illness. Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, published in 1844, is an autobiographical work that explores Martineau’s thoughts during her confinement. She dedicated the book to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, declaring it was “an outpouring of feeling to an idealised female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family”.

Despite her weakened state, Martineau took control of her situation. She often disagreed with doctors and told them what to do, rather than the other way around. Many readers of Life in the Sickroom declared Martineau mentally unwell, presuming her sickness had addled her mind. They were also concerned about the unfeminine hobbies Martineau took up, for instance, astronomy, although it was not only the stars she looked at through her telescope.

“When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glittering snow, while the myrtle-green sea swells and tumbles… there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash brisk, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… And at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!”

Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom, 1844

In 1844, Martineau’s health improved with the help of a new form of alternative medicine called mesmerism, named after the German doctor Franz Mesmer (1743-1815). Also known as animal magnetism, the treatment is a “loosely grouped set of practices in which one person influenced another through a variety of personal actions, or through the direct influence of one mind on another mind. Mesmerism was designed to make invisible forces augment the mental powers of the mesmeric object.” (Alison Winter, 1995) Martineau recorded her progress in a series of sixteen letters, which she eventually published under the title Letters on Mesmerism

In her new-found health, Martineau designed a house called The Knoll, which she oversaw the construction of in Ambleside, Lake District. Although she spent most of her later life in this house, she lived with her elderly mother in Birmingham during 1846. After this, Martineau set off on a tour of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which inspired her book Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). In her writing, Martineau established a connection between the ancient beliefs of the Egyptians with 19th-century Christian beliefs. Once again, she caused controversy with many readers branding her an infidel.

As well as her book about the Eastern world, Martineau published Household Education in 1848, expressing her disdain for the lack of female academia. Although she agreed that motherhood and domesticity were worthy virtues, they did not prevent a woman from receiving a well-rounded education. Martineau proposed that young girls should receive the same schooling as boys, but if they chose to become a housewife, that was their decision rather than command and obedience. 

Eager to change the ways schools taught, Martineau conducted lectures at local schools for both children and their parents. She told them of her trip to America and the Middle East, as well as focusing on British history. The publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873) encouraged Martineau to convert her lectures into books, resulting in The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846.

Martineau’s lectures and books spread to other topics, earning her the reputation of a “progressive” woman. Most of the subjects she tackled were not expected of a woman, making her appear to have a masculine nature. One of her books, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, replaced William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) guide of the Lake District and remained popular for over 25 years. She also become a regular contributor for the Daily News and the Westminster Review.

Despite coming from a strict religious family, Martineau’s ideas bordered on atheism, causing irreparable rifts between her family and some friends. This was principally a result of the spiritual practice of mesmerism, which she credited for her “cure”, although medical doctors had different theories. Not only did her uterine tumour no longer cause her any problems, but Martineau also found it easier to cope with her deafness and lack of taste and smell. Unfortunately, her good health did not last for long; she received a heart disease diagnosis in 1855.

Concerned that she would not live long, Martineau hastily wrote her final autobiography, instructing her publisher to print it after her death. As it turned out, she need not have rushed. Meanwhile, she involved herself with political activism, particularly the Married Women’s Property Bill and women’s suffrage.

In 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent Martineau a copy of his brother’s book On the Origin of Species, which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was one of the first books about the world that did not have a theological premise. Having gushed about what a great book it was, Martineau wrote, “In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished.” Unfortunately, this opinion pushed her even further away from her profoundly religious brother James. 

Throughout the 1860s, Martineau signed petitions for women’s suffrage and continued to write her controversial books. Despite her poor health, she lived to the age of 74, passing away on 27th June 1876 after a bout of bronchitis. Although she lived in Ambleside, her burial took place in Birmingham alongside her mother in Key Hill Cemetery. The publication of her autobiography went ahead the following year.

Over time, Martineau’s books fell out of favour as the increasing number of women fighting for equal rights overshadowed them. Only recently has her work resurfaced in debates about the founder of sociology. Some praise Martineau for being the first sociologist to study issues related to women, such as marriage and children. She also taught that society must include all religions, races, cultures and politics.

Naturally, sociology has developed considerably since Harriet Martineau’s time, but there is clear evidence she pointed sociologists in the right direction. It is thanks to radical women like Martineau that Britain has seen so many changes concerning gender equality. Harriet Martineau features on the Reformers memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery amongst the likes of William Morris (1834-96), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and other radical thinkers.


Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley

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2 thoughts on “Unfinished Business – Harriet Martineau

  1. I’m delighted to be a patreon and supporting Hazel in her work. This was a fascinating article, what a woman, what a family. To be part of a family that produced so many talented thinkers must have been very special. I had not heard about Harriet until today and that’s the value of following Hazel’s work. Always interesting and often opens new horizons of knowledge. Thank You Hazel for sharing your considerable talents.

  2. It was good to read about someone totally unknown to me. How amazing that such a vibrant woman should have all but disappeared in our history books. Thank you for bringing her back where she belongs Hazel.

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