The social economist, journalist, and feminist Harriet Martineau was one of the most widely read women writers of her era and a leading intellectual whose economic theories and liberal ideas in particular were taken seriously even in Parliament. In a classic account of her travels in the United States, she voiced her objections to slavery and noted similar parallels in the constraints placed by society upon women. As a regular commentator on the social and political status of women and a supporter of women’s education and employment rights, Martineau viewed women’s confinement to the purely domestic sphere as training them for only one objective in life—marriage. Martineau also collaborated with leading women reformers of her day, including Josephine Butler, in the campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, and in the wake of the Crimean War, with Florence Nightingale, in her calls for sanitary reforms in the British army at home and in India.
Martineau’s family was descended from French Huguenot refugees who had settled in Norwich in the seventeenth century. One of eight children of a fabric manufacturer, she grew up in a Unitarian environment of piety but was provided with a sound education at school in Norwich and also had tuition from the Unitarian educator Dr. Lant Carpenter (the father of social reformer Mary Carpenter) in Bristol. But her primary intellectual stimulus came from her brothers at home, most particularly her adored brother James, with whom she later quarreled. She was a sickly child, who suffered from increasing deafness from her early teens and also lost her senses of taste and smell. Denied the intellectual outlet of university studies accorded to her brothers, she became intensely pious and published her first work in 1823, three essays in the Unitarian Monthly Repository in which, among other issues, she discussed the rights of girls to equal standards of education with boys. Her first published book was the suitably sober Devotional Exercises: Consisting of Reflections and Prayers for the Use of Young Persons, also in 1823.
Martineau’s circumstances changed dramatically after her father died in 1826 and his business collapsed three years later, leaving the family without an income. Martineau was briefly engaged in 1826, but her fiancé died soon after. With little prospect of marriage and, in fact, looking upon her changes in fortune as liberating her from a life of “small means, sewing, and economizing, and growing narrower every year” (Martineau 1877, vol. 1, 143), she began using her writing skills to support herself, contributing further articles to the Monthly Repository and entering essay-writing competitions. Needing to find a much more regular means of support, she set about writing a major series of populist moral tales, based on the thinking on political economy of men such as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo and aimed at enlightening ordinary people. Martineau was acutely aware of the economic problems posed by a rapidly industrializing society and the widespread poverty and social deprivation of urban living. In particular, she sympathized with the plight of low-paid agricultural workers and those in the textile industry whose labor was being supplanted by machinery. Her work was also partly prompted by the example of Swiss writer Jane Marcet (with whom she later became close friends), who had produced a series of simple, didactic texts accessible to ordinary working people in Conversations on Political Economy (1816).
Writing in a similar vein, Martineau produced a stream of such anecdotal and homiletic writings and dialogues, covering direct taxation, laissez-faire, and other economic issues, and published them monthly during 1832–1834. They were collected in twenty-five volumes as Illustrations of Political Economy and were later translated into French and German. They enjoyed such unprecedented popular success that Martineau’s fame and fortune were secured, with printruns of individual tales often being as large as 10,000. Two further sequences of tales, which in their depiction of contemporary issues helped to set the trend for the social-problem novels of the 1840s by Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, were produced by Martineau for Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: the ten-volume Poor Laws and Paupers (1833) and the five-volume Illustrations of Taxation (1834).
Such a prodigious output might have exhausted the most energetic of writers, but Martineau had now earned enough to finance a visit to the United States. She embarked on the perilous sea voyage across the Atlantic in 1834, during which she passed the time by writing How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), an early prototype in the methodology of social observation. She spent the next two years touring the United States with a female companion (a necessity both socially and in view of her deafness). American society was upset by her later critiques, published as Society in America (1837) and A Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). Having witnessed slave auctions and visited southern plantations during her trip, Martineau was disturbed by slavery but convinced that its demise was inevitable, pointing out that the slave system flew in the face of the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. She was also heavily critical of the very marked sexual inequality she had perceived in the United States. Describing the widespread indifference to women’s rights among male politicians and the indolent, enclosed lives of American women in a famous chapter entitled “The Political Non-existence of Women” in Society in America, she drew comparisons between the enslavement of blacks and the domestic enslavement of women. Asserting the freedom of the individual and the importance of women’s education, which she argued enhanced rather than detracted from their domestic roles, she lamented what she perceived as the legal prostitution of marriage and the passivity and subservience of American women.
In 1839 Martineau was forced by illness (an ovarian cyst) to stop writing. Turning down the offer of a pension from the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, she retired to her sickbed, spending the next five years mainly recumbent on a sofa (as she later recalled in her Autobiography) while recuperating at Tynemouth on the northeastern coast. While there, she wrote a novel of provincial life, Deerbrook (1839), that in content predates the work of Gaskell and George Eliot, and The Hour and the Man (1840), a novel based on the story of the rebel slave leader Toussaint-Louverture. A number of children’s stories were collected in 1841 as The Playfellow. During this time, Martineau continued to search for medical treatment for her condition and eventually submitted herself to the new fringe cure of hypnosis. She was so impressed with her recovery that she became a passionate convert to mesmerism, describing its efficacy in Life in the Sick Room (1843) and Letters on Mesmerism (1845). These works and Martineau’s increasing obsession with mysticism after she rejected her Unitarian faith caused considerable embarrassment to her friends and family, particularly her theologian brother James.
In 1844 Martineau moved to Clappergate in the Lake District, where she built a house with royalties from her writing and became friendly with the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. Reinvigorated since her recovery from illness, she decided to go on an investigative trip to Egypt and Palestine, the product of which—Eastern Life, Past and Present (1848)—contains a discussion of the development of non-Christian religions and a critique of harems and the practice of polygamy. She produced two heavyweight works in later life: the major radical study A History of England during the Thirty Years’ Peace, A.D. 1816–1846 (1849–1850), and an antitheological, rationalist work written with H. G. Atkinson, Letters on the Laws of Man’s Social Nature and Development (1841). The agnosticism of the latter work further alienated her friends and supporters. Martineau’s most scholarly work was a translation of Auguste Comte’s six-volume philosophical writings, edited down as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, Freely Translated and Condensed (1853). A further example of her belief in making intellectual writing more accessible to the reader, it contributed greatly to the dissemination of Comte’s ideas in Britain.
Martineau’s social and feminist concerns were many and were expressed in 1,642 articles contributed to the liberal newspaper, the Daily News, between 1852 and 1866, as well as others on women’s role, published in the Edinburgh Review. Her article “Female Industry,” published there in 1859, prompted the establishment of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women by Jessie Boucherett and women of the Langham Place Circle. Martineau wrote on political economy, abolition and the work of pioneer abolitionists, women’s employment, her support for a Married Women’s Property Bill (the petition for which, organized by Barbara Bodichon, she had signed in 1856), licensed prostitution, and women’s suffrage (she was also a signatory of Bodichon’s 1866 petition).
Martineau lent much moral and written support to Josephine Butler’s campaign for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. In 1864, after the passage of the first of these acts, she published four important “letters from an Englishwoman” in the Daily News, in which she decried the state regulation of prostitution. She argued for preventive measures to control vice and the men who solicited the services of prostitutes rather than infringing on the civil liberties of the prostitutes themselves through enforced medical examinations. In 1869 she drafted a “Solemn Protest” against the acts for Butler’s Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which was published again in the Daily News (31 December), and followed this with her 1870 The Contagious Diseases Acts, as Applied to Garrison Towns and Naval Stations. Her moral support for the campaign was still apparent in an 1871 letter, in which she wryly commented on the sexual double standard and noted the “phenomenon of innocent wickedness—educational and conventional—of the upper and middle classes—men who go to church on Sundays and call themselves Christians, who set out from the supposition that men’s passions must be gratified, and that, if women are ruined in that process it is simply necessary and a matter of course” (McDonald 1998, 164).
Martineau also worked closely with Florence Nightingale, endorsing her work for improved medical care in the British army and collaborating with her on England and Her Soldiers (1859). Nightingale had insisted that her contribution remain anonymous, although she funded publication of the book. In it, Martineau drew on Nightingale’s reports on hospital conditions in the Crimea and demystified the image of the “lady with the lamp” in an exposé (with Nightingale’s full collusion) of the bad ventilation and sanitation that had been the cause of the high death rate in Nightingale’s Barrack Hospital at Scutari. Martineau shared Nightingale’s interests in sanitary reform and from 1859 onward also published numerous articles in the Daily News on improvements in sanitation in army barracks in India after an inquiry by a royal commission. She also advocated political and economic reform in India, suggesting more efficient ways of raising taxes.
Suffering from what she thought was incurable heart disease from 1855, Martineau settled down to die but kept up her professional life for another ten years or so before spending the remainder of her days at her home in the Lake District. She wrote her autobiography in three months (1856) but vetoed its publication until after her death. Now one of her most admired works, the three-volume Autobiography appeared eventually in 1877, edited by her friend, the American abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman. In it, Martineau averred she was “very thankful” for never having married and thus never having “suffered anything at all in relation to that matter which is held to be all important to women, love and marriage” (Martineau 1877, I: 66). A website containing links to several articles on Martineau can be found at http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/martineau.htm.
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