Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
12 June 1802 – 27 June 1876
Harriet was an English social theorist and Whig writer, often cited as the first female sociologist.
Martineau wrote only one book but multitude of essays from a sociological, holistic, religious, domestic, and, perhaps most controversial, sexual identity, a feminine perspective; she also translated various works from Auguste Comte. She earned enough to be supported entirely by her writing, a challenging feat for a woman in the Victorian era. Martineau has said of her approach: “when one studies a society, one must focus on all its aspects, including key political, religious, and social institutions”. She believed a thorough societal analysis was necessary to understand woman’s status under men.
The sixth of eight children, Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich, England, where her father was a manufacturer. Her mother was the daughter of a sugar refiner and a grocer. The Martineau family was of French Huguenot ancestry and professed Unitarian views. She was closest to her brother, James, who became a clergyman in the tradition of the English Dissenters. According to the writer Diana Postlethwaite, Harriet’s relationship with her mother was strained and lacking affection, which contributed to views expressed in her later writing. Martineau claimed her mother abandoned her to a wet nurse.
Her ideals on domesticity and the “natural faculty for housewifery” as described in her piece, Household Education written in 1848, stemmed from her lack of nurture growing up. Martineau’s mother was the antithesis of the warm and nurturing qualities which Harriet believed to be necessary for girls at an early age. Martineau’s mother urged all her children to be well-read, but at the same time opposed female pedantics “with 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 behavior, pushing her daughter to “hold a sewing needle” as well as the pen.
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. In 1821 she began to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical, and in 1823 she published Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns. 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. Along with her needlework, she began selling her articles to the Monthly Repository. Her first commissioned volume, Illustrations of Political Economy, was published in February 1832 and quickly became successful. Martineau agreed to compose monthly volumes for 24 months, each critiquing various political and economic affairs. She developed the multi-volume work as a fictional tutorial on different political economists such as Malthus, Ricardo, and Bentham for the general public. It was her first piece to receive widespread acclaim. She continued to write for the Repository, earning accolades, including three essay prizes from the Unitarian Association. Her work with the Repository established her as a successful writer.
Writing was considerably gendered 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 gendered expectations in the literary world, Martineau strongly expressed her opinions on a variety of topics. In 1832 Martineau moved to London. Among her acquaintances were: Henry Hallam, Harriet Taylor, Alexander Maconochie, Henry Hart Milman, Thomas Malthus, Monckton Milnes, Sydney Smith, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Lyell, as well as Thomas Carlyle. She met Florence Nightingale and Charlotte Brontë later on in her literary career.
Until 1834 Martineau was occupied with her political economy series as well as a supplemental series of Illustrations of Taxation. About the same time, she published four stories expressing support of the Whig Poor Law reforms. These tales (direct, lucid, written without any appearance of effort, and yet practically effective) display the characteristics of their author’s style. Tory paternalists reacted by calling her a Malthusian “who deprecates charity and provision for the poor”, while Radicals opposed her to the same degree. Whig high society fêted her.
In 1834, after completing the economic series, Harriet Martineau paid a long visit to the United States. During this time, she visited with James Madison, the former president, at his home of Montpelier. She also 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. The two books are considered to have led to the founding of modern sociology.
Her article “The Martyr Age of the United States” (1839), in the Westminster Review, introduced English readers to the struggles of the abolitionists in America several years after Britain had abolished slavery.
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”, who had returned from her trip to the United States. Erasmus and Harriet worked towards an understanding that could have let to marriage but that the Darwin’s father was opposed to fearing that Harriet was too extreme.
Martineau wrote Deerbrook (1838), a three-volume novel published after her American books. She portrayed a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. It was considered her most successful novel. She also wrote The Hour and the Man: An Historical Romance (1839), a three-volume novel about the Haitian slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, who contributed to the island nation’s gaining independence in 1804.
In 1839, during a visit to Continental Europe, Martineau was diagnosed with a uterine tumor. She several times visited her brother-in-law, Thomas Michael Greenhow, who was a celebrated doctor in Newcastle upon Tyne, to try to alleviate her symptoms. On the last occasion she stayed for six months in the Greenhow family house at 28 Eldon Square. Immobile and confined to a couch, she was cared for by her mother until purchasing a house and hiring a nurse to aid her.
She next moved downriver to Tynemouth, where she stayed at Mrs Halliday’s boarding-house, 57 Front Street, for nearly five years from 16 March 1840. Her illness caused her to literally enact the social constraints of her gender during this time.
Martineau wrote at least three books during her illness, and a historical plaque marks this house. In 1844 she published both Crofton Boys, the children’s novel, and Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, an autobiographical reflection on invalidism. She wrote Household Education (1848), the handbook on the ‘proper’ way to raise and educate children. Lastly, she began working on her autobiography. Completed much later, it included some hundred pages to this period. Notable visitors included Richard Cobden and Thomas Carlyle and his wife.
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.’ This series of essays embraced traditional womanhood. Martineau dedicated it to Elizabeth Barrett, 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.” Written during a kind of public break from her mother, this book was Martineau’s proclamation of independence.
At the same time, Martineau turned the traditional patient/doctor relationship on its head by asserting control over her space even in sickness. The sickroom was her space. Life in the Sickroom explained how to regain control even in illness. Alarmed that a woman was suggesting such a position in the power dynamic, critics suggested that, as she was an invalid, her mind must also be sick and the work was not to be taken seriously. British and Foreign Medical Review dismissed Martineau’s piece on the same basis as the critics: 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. They disagreed with the idea that Martineau might hold any sort of “authority to Britain’s invalids.”
During her illness, she for a second time declined a pension on the civil list, fearing to compromise her political independence. After publication of her letter on the subject, some of her friends raised a small annuity for her soon after.
In 1844 Martineau underwent a course of mesmerism, returning to health after a few months. There was national interest in mesmerism at this time. Also known as ‘animal magnetism’, it can be defined as 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.” She eventually published an account of her case in sixteen Letters on Mesmerism, which caused much discussion. Her work led to friction with “the natural prejudices of a surgeon and a surgeon’s wife” (her brother-in-law and sister).
In 1845 she left Tynemouth for Ambleside in the Lake District, where she built herself the house called “The Knoll”, where she spent the greater part of her later life. In 1845 she published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales. In 1846 she toured Egypt, Palestine and Syria with some friends, and on her return published 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 deity and of divine government became at each step more and more abstract and indefinite. She believed the ultimate goal to be philosophic atheism, but did not explicitly say so in the book. She described ancient tombs, “the black pall of oblivion” set against the paschal “puppet show” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and noted that Christian beliefs in reward and punishment were based on and similar to heathen superstitions. Describing an ancient Egyptian tomb, she wrote, “How like ours were his life and death!… Compare him with a retired naval officer made country gentleman in our day, and in how much less do they differ than agree!” The book’s “infidel tendency” was too much for the publisher John Murray, who rejected it.
Martineau wrote Household Education in 1848, lamenting the state of women’s education. She believed women had a natural inclination to motherhood and believed domestic work went hand in hand with academia for a proper, well-rounded education. She stated, “I go further than most persons… in desiring thorough practice in domestic occupations, from an early age, for young girls” She proposed that freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, are the most effectual instruments of education.
Her interest in schemes of instruction led her to start a series of lectures, addressed at first to the school children of Ambleside, but afterward extended to their parents, at the request of the adults. The subjects were sanitary principles and practice, the histories of England and North America, and the scenes of her Eastern travels. At the request of the publisher Charles Knight, in 1849 she wrote The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846, an excellent popular history from the point of view of a “philosophical Radical”. Martineau productively spanned a variety of subjects in her writing and did so with more assertiveness than was expected of women at the time. She has been described as having an “essentially masculine nature”. It was commonly thought that a progressive woman, in order to be progressive, was emulating the qualities of a man.
Martineau’s work included a widely used guide book to the Lake District, “A Complete Guide to the English Lakes”, published in 1855 and in its 4th edition by 1876.
Martineau edited a volume of Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development, published in March 1851. Its epistolary form is based on correspondence between her and the self-styled scientist Henry G. Atkinson. She expounded the doctrine of philosophical atheism, which she thought the tendency of human belief . She did not deny a first cause but declared it unknowable. She and Atkinson thought they affirmed man’s moral obligation. Atkinson was a zealous exponent of mesmerism. 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.
From 1852 to 1866, she contributed regularly to the Daily News, writing sometimes six leaders a week. It also published her Letters from Ireland, written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852. For many years she was a contributor to the Westminster Review; in 1854 she was among financial supporters who prevented its closing down.
Martineau believed she was psychosomatic; this medical belief of the times related the uterus to emotions and hysteria. She had symptoms of hysteria in her loss of taste and smell. Her partial deafness throughout life may have contributed to her problems. Various people, including the maid, her brother, and Spencer T. Hall (a notable mesmerist) performed mesmerism on her. Some historians attribute her apparent recovery from symptoms to a shift in the positioning of her tumor so that it no longer obstructed other organs. As the physical improvements were the first signs of healing she had in five years and happened at the same time of her first mesmeric treatment, Martineau confidentially credited mesmerism with her “cure.”
She continued her political activism during the late 1850s and 1860s. She supported the Married Women’s Property Bill and in 1856 signed a petition for it organized by Barbara Bodichon. She also pushed for licensed prostitution and laws that addressed the customers rather than the women. She supported women’s suffrage and signed Bodichon’s petition in its favor in 1866.
In the early part of 1855, Martineau was suffering from heart disease. She began to write her autobiography, as she expected her life to end. Completing the book rapidly in three months, she postponed its publication until after her death, and lived another two decades. Her autobiography was published posthumously in 1877.
When Darwin’s book The Origin of Species was published in 1859, his brother Erasmus sent a copy to his old flame Harriet Martineau. At age 58, she was still reviewing from her home in the Lake District.
Martineau supported Darwin’s theory because it was not based in theology. Martineau strove for secularism stating, “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.” She wrote to her fellow Malthusian (and atheist) George Holyoake enthusing, “What a book it is! – overthrowing (if true) revealed Religion on the one hand, & Natural (as far as Final Causes & Design are concerned) on the other. The range & mass of knowledge take away one’s breath.”
As early as 1831, Martineau wrote on the subject “Political Economy” (as the field of economics was then known). Her goal was to popularise and illustrate the principles of laissez faire capitalism, though she made no claim to original theorising.
Martineau’s reflections on Society in America, published in 1837, are prime examples of her approach to the area later known as sociological methods. Her ideas in this field were set out in her 1838 book How to Observe Morals and Manners. She believed that some very general social laws influence the life of any society, including the principle of progress, the emergence of science as the most advanced product of human intellectual endeavour, and the significance of population dynamics and the natural physical environment.
Auguste Comte coined the name sociology and published a rambling exposition under the title of Cours de Philosophie Positive in 1839. Martineau undertook a translation that was published in two volumes in 1853 as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau). It was a remarkable achievement, but a successful one. Comte recommended her volumes to his students instead of his own. Some writers regard Martineau as “the first woman sociologist”. Her introduction of Comte to the English-speaking world and the elements of sociological perspective in her original writings support her credit as a sociologist.
Harriet Martineau died at “The Knoll” on 27 June 1876.