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Available on Amazon
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Sources returnpage

Martineau, Harriet

Category: Writer

Harriet Martineau (12 June 1802 – 27 June 1876) was an English social theorist, often cited as the first female sociologist; in a sense she was one of the first English feminists.  She was, in many respects, a sort of hero for women, not just an inspired and wise writer.  She supported the Married Women’s Property Bill and pushed for licensed prostitution and laws that applied to the customers rather than the women. She supported women’s suffrage.  It was difficult to know how to classify her on the site, as ‘writer’ hardly does her justice.  But writer it has had to be, as no other classification seems to fit as well.

I have used the description from Wikipedia for the following as the quotes they found about the way women were treated in those days are priceless, and give you some idea of what an uphill battle she and others like her faced.

Martineau wrote 35 books and a multitude of essays from a sociological, holistic, spiritual and  feminine perspective.  She earned enough to be supported entirely by her writing, a considerable achievement for a woman in the Victorian era.

Harriet basically wanted to be treated like a person and not a sex.  She was intellectually gifted and persistent in her wish to be able to study and be treated as an equal to men.  She was condescendingly described by men as having “ a masculine intellect”, presumably because at the time, women who were wise were not allowed to be so.

The intellect of women is confined by an unjustifiable restriction of... education... As women have none of the objects in life for which an enlarged education is considered requisite, the education is not given... The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.

Harriet Martineau by Moses Bowness

albumen print, 1860s NPG

Martineau began losing her sense of taste and smell, becoming increasingly deaf at a young age and having to use an ear trumpet. It was the beginning of many health problems in her life.  There is no hint in the literature of what caused this, it may have been patent medicines or viruses, but the overall effect appeared to be a strange kind of brain damage, which turned out to be extremely advantageous.

The sixth of eight children, Harriet was born in Norwich, where her father was a manufacturer. Her mother was the daughter of a sugar refiner and a grocer. The family was of French Huguenot ancestry.  According to the writer Diana Postlethwaite, Harriet's relationship with her mother was strained and lacking affection.  This is often the way when a domesticated submissive mother produces a strong intellectually brilliant daughter.  The put-downs can be subtle but constant.  We have confirmation of this in the following:

Martineau's mother urged all her children to be well-read, but at the same time opposed female pedantics [sic] and had a sharp eye for feminine propriety and good manners. Her daughters could never be seen in public with a pen in their hand. Her mother strictly enforced proper feminine behaviour, pushing her daughter to hold a sewing needle as well as the pen.

Harriet Martineau by Camille Silvy

albumen print, 1 March 1861 NPG

Her father's business failed in 1829. At 27 years old, Martineau stepped out of feminine propriety in order to earn a living for her family. She began selling articles to the Monthly Repository. Her first commissioned volume, Illustrations of Political Economy, was published in February 1832 and quickly became successful. Her work with the Repository established her as a successful writer.

Writing was horrendously sexist in the Victorian era. Non-fiction and prose about social, economic and political issues was dominated by men, while lighter writing about romance and domesticity were considered to be ‘appropriate for women authors’. Despite these expectations, Martineau expressed her opinions on a variety of topics.  In May 1834, Charles Darwin, on his expedition to the Galapagos Islands, received a letter from his sisters saying that Martineau was:

..."now a great Lion in London, much patronized by Ld. Brougham who has set her to write stories on the poor Laws" They added that their brother Erasmus "knows her & is a very great admirer & every body reads her little books".

 by Anne Whitney

In 1834, after completing the economic series, Harriet Martineau paid a long visit to the United States. During this time, she met numerous abolitionists in Boston and studied the emerging girls' schools established for their education. Her support of abolitionism, unpopular in the South, caused controversy. Her publication, soon after her return, of Society in America (1837) and How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), added to the controversy.

In October 1836, soon after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin went to London to stay with his brother Erasmus. He found him spending his days "driving out Miss Martineau". Charles wrote to his sister;

"Our only protection from so admirable a sister-in-law is in her working him too hard." [He commented], "She already takes him to task about his idleness— She is going some day to explain to him her notions about marriage— Perfect equality of rights is part of her doctrine. I much doubt whether it will be equality in practice."

In early December 1836 Charles Darwin called on Martineau and wrote this wonderful piece of male chauvinist piggery about her

"She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects, considering the limited time. I was astonished to find how little ugly she is [sic], ….. Erasmus palliated all this, by maintaining one ought not to look at her as a woman."

In 1839, during a visit to Continental Europe, Martineau was diagnosed with a uterine tumour. Immobile and confined to a couch, she was cared for by her mother until purchasing a house and hiring a nurse to aid her.  Martineau wrote at least three books during her illness, including Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid.   Life in the Sickroom is considered to be one of Martineau's most underrated works. It “upset evangelical readers as they thought it dangerous in its supposition of self-reliance”.  Martineau dedicated it to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as it was:

"an outpouring of feeling to an idealized female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family."

At the same time, Martineau turned the traditional patient/doctor relationship on its head by asserting control over her sickness. The British and Foreign Medical Review dismissed Martineau's book on the basis that ‘an ill person cannot write a healthy work’. They thought it was unheard of for a woman to suggest being in a position of control, especially in sickness. Instead, the Review recommended patients' follow "unconditional submission" to the advice of doctors.  Plus ca change.


In 1844, Martineau underwent a course of mesmerism.  She dropped all the patent medicines and suggested that her doctors and various other people, including the maid, her brother, and Spencer T. Hall (a notable mesmerist), performed mesmerism on her. And she gradually got better.  As the physical improvements were the first signs of healing she had had in five years, and happened at the same time as her first mesmeric treatment, Martineau confidentially credited mesmerism with her cure.  It could of course have also been that she dropped the doctors and their 'cures'.  She eventually published an account of her case in sixteen Letters on Mesmerism, ‘which caused much discussion’.  

In 1846 she toured Egypt, Palestine and Syria with some friends, and on her return wrote Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). This travelogue expressed her concept that, as humanity passed through one after another of the world's historic religions, the conception of the spiritual world became at each step more and more abstract and remote from the reality of the spiritual.  The book's "infidel tendency" was too much for the publisher John Murray, who rejected it. 

In March 1851, Martineau edited a volume of Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, based on correspondence between her and Henry G. Atkinson.

“The prominence given to the topics of mesmerism and clairvoyance heightened the general disapproval of the book. Literary London was outraged by its mesmeric evolutionary atheism, and the book caused a lasting division between Martineau and some of her friends.”

Harriet Martineau died at "The Knoll" on 27 June 1876. The following is supposed to have been published by the Daily News, after her death.

"Her original power was nothing more than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range. With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore nothing approaching to genius, she could see clearly what she did see, and give a clear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent."



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