Harriet Martineau, Social Theorist and Novelist

Harriet Martineau portrait

Harriet Martineau (June 12, 1802 – June 27, 1876)  was an English social theorist, lecturer and novelist. She was also an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage.

Her writings, which earned enough to support herself (very rare for a woman of her time) were proto-feminist and discusses aspects of culture pertaining to religion, politics, economics, and social institutions.

Harriet lost her senses of taste and smell from an early age and was partially deaf. Other health issues hindered her, yet she persevered in bringing her theories to a receptive audience.

The following biography was adapted From The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.


Early life

Harriet Martin was born in Norwich, England. where her father, Thomas Martineau, was a textile manufacturer. Her mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a sugar refiner. The family was of French Huguenot extraction and held Unitarian views.

The atmosphere of the home was industrious, intellectual, and austere. Harriet was clever, but sickly and unhappy. Her loss of taste and smell, and early deafness made her path to young adulthood challenging. She was, however, very well educated at home and developed early interests in political economy, philosophy, history, and the writings of Shakespeare.

At the age of fifteen, the state of her health and nerves led to a prolonged visit to her father’s sister, Mrs. Kentish, who kept a school in Bristol. Here, in the companionship of amiable and talented people, her life became happier.

She also improved under the influence of the Unitarian minister, Dr Lant Carpenter, from whose instructions, she says, she derived “an abominable spiritual rigidity and a truly respectable force of conscience strangely mingled together.”

In 1819, at age seventeen, she returned to Norwich. Around her twentieth year, her deafness was confirmed.

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Harriet Martineau

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A need to earn her way and first writings

In 1821, Harriet began to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical, and in 1823 she published Devotional Exercises and AddressesPrayers and Hymns.

When Thomas Martineau died in 1826,  he left scant inheritance to his wife and daughters. His death had been preceded by that of his eldest son (Harriet’s bother). Soon after, Harriet’s fiancé died as well.

Mrs. Martineau and her daughters after lost all their means of support by the failure of the bank where their money had been placed.

Harriet now had to earn her living. Unable to teach due to her deafness, she took up authorship in earnest. In addition to reviewing for the Repository, she wrote stories (afterwards collected as Traditions of Palestine), and in one year (1830) won three essay prizes from the Unitarian Association. She supplemented her income with needlework.

In 1831 she was sought a publisher for a series of tales designed as Illustrations of Political Economy. After many failures, she accepted less than ideal terms from Charles Fox, to whom she was introduced by his brother, the editor of the Repository.

The sale of the first of the series was hugely successful. The demand increased with each new edition; from that time her literary earnings were secured.


A move to London and a visit to America

She moved to London, where she made the acquaintance of many literary figures of the time including Hallam, Milman, Malthus, Monckton Milnes, Sydney Smith, Bulwer, and later, Carlyle.

She continued to be occupied with her political economy series and a supplemental series of Illustrations of Taxation. Four stories dealing with the poor law came out about the same time. These tales, direct, lucid, written without any appearance of effort, and yet practically effective, display the characteristics of her style.

In 1834, when the series was complete, Harriet paid a long visit to America. Here, her open support of the Abolitionist party, then small and very unpopular gave great offense, which was deepened by the publication, soon after her return, of Society in America (1837) and a Retrospect of Western Travel (1838).

An article in the Westminster Review, “The Martyr Age of the United States,” introduced English readers to the struggles of the Abolitionists.

The American books were followed by a novel, Deerbrook (1839), a story of middle-class country life. At the same time she produced a few little handbooks, forming parts of a Guide to Service.

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Harriet Martineau - how to observe

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A period of ill health and prolific writings

In 1839, during a visit to the Continent, Harriet’s health broke down. She retired to solitary lodgings in Tynemouth, and remained an invalid for some years.

In that time of relative confinement, she wrote The Hour and the Man (1840), Life in the Sickroom (1844), and the Playfellow (1841). She also published a series of tales for children containing some of her most popular work: Settlers at HomeThe Peasant and the Prince, and Feats on the Fiord.

During this period of illness she was offered a pension on the civil list but declined it, fearing to compromise her political independence. Her letter on the subject was published, and some of her friends raised a small annuity for her soon after.

In 1844 Miss Martineau underwent a course of mesmerism, and in a few months was restored to health. She eventually published an account of her case, which had caused much discussion, in sixteen Letters on Mesmerism.

After her recovery she removed to Ambleside, where she built herself “The Knoll,” the house in which she spent a great portion of her remaining years.


Mature writings in philosophical and social theory

In 1845 she published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales. In 1846 she made a tour with some friends in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and on her return published Eastern LifePresent and Past (1848).

This work showed 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.

The ultimate goal Harriet believed in was philosophic atheism, but she didn’t expressly this belief openly. She published Household Education, expounding the theory 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 afterwards extended, by request, to their parents. 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 Charles Knight she wrote, in 1849, The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace18161846 — an excellent popular history written from the point of view of a “philosophical radical.”

In 1851 Harriet edited a volume of Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development. Its form is that of a correspondence between herself and H. G. Atkinson, and expanded the doctrine of philosophical atheism in which she had depicted the course of human belief in Eastern Life.

Atkinson was a zealous exponent of mesmerism. The prominence given to the topics of mesmerism and clairvoyance heightened the general disapproval of the book, which caused a lasting division between Harriet and some of her friends.

She published a condensed English version of the Philosophie Positive (1853). Her Letters from Ireland, written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852, appeared in serial form. She was a contributor to the Westminster Review for many years and was one of the band of supporters whose financial assistance prevented its extinction or forced sale.

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Harriet Martineau's autobiogrpahy

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Final years

In the early part of 1855, Harriet found herself suffering from heart disease. She now began to write her autobiography, but her life, which she supposed to be so near its close, lasted for another twenty years.

Harriet cultivated a tiny farm at Ambleside with success, and her poorer neighbors owed much to her. Her busy life demonstrated two leading characteristics — industry and sincerity. The verdict she recorded on herself in the autobiographical sketch left to be published by the Daily News has been endorsed by posterity. She wrote, speaking of herself in the third person:

“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.”

Harriet Martineau died at The Knoll on June 27, 1876 at the age of 74.

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Further reading 

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