Martineau's Life and Background

Born into a middle-class manufacturer's family in Norwich at thebeginning of the nineteenth century, Harriet Martineau found inher personal and social circumstances factors that helped her--albeitsometimes because she reacted against them--to become an independentwoman and a thoughtful social critic. Norwich was a provincialcathedral city, but the Martineau family went to chapel as Unitarians.In region-, religion-, and class-conscious England, Martineaustarted as an outsider. Norwich was not London, the politicaland cultural center and the birthplace of new trends and ideas. Unitarians were not members of the Church of England, but Dissenters,as chapelgoers were called in England, which placed the Martineausoutside the religious Establishment as well. And Unitarians wereas a group left-wing politically and intellectually, as well asreligiously, which placed them outside popular conventions. Infact, being social and intellectual frontrunners was at that timealready the mark of Unitarians, although their views were oftenconsidered deviant by the mainstream.

Martineau's family was in many respects typically middle class,and she described these aspects matter-of-factly in her Autobiography. "My grandfather, who was one of the honorable series [ofsurgeons], died at the age of forty-two, of a fever caught amonghis poor patients. He left a large family, of whom my fatherwas the youngest. When established as a Norwich manufacturer,my father married Elizabeth Rankin, the eldest daughter of a sugarrefiner at Newcastle upon Tyne. My father and mother had eightchildren, of whom I was the sixth: and I was born on the 12thof June, 1802." [4] She experienced neither the privilegeof aristocracy nor the oppression of the working classes, buthad a consciousness of the meaning of both privilege and deprivationfrom her vantage point as a member of her particular family, andthen as an individual subject to the vicissitudes of earning herliving by selling her product. Although she was sometimes patronizingof the poor and solicitous of the wealthy, she was often ableto be clear-sighted about social realities through the lens ofher middle-class origins.

Along with her middle-class and outsider status, her psychologicalestrangement as a child gives another, at least equally important,clue to her adult perceptivity, which was both socially profoundand personally eccentric. In her memoir she describes withoutcomment her troubled childhood. As a child she was often terriblyunhappy, morose, and distressed, though she was very pious andreceived an uncommonly good education for a girl of her time. Offering no suggestion of its meaning, she recounts an anxietydream she had when she was four years old. Out for a walk withher nurse-maid and the other children, she was beckoned into apublic house by a stag with high antlers. Frightened, she returnedhome in the dusk to be welcomed into a sunlit kitchen where shewas lifted up into the sunlight by her mother and given sugarto eat. In waking life her mother was cold to her and she hadfrequent indigestion, so the dream readily admits to a post-Freudianinterpretation as a cry for attention and protection from thethreats and discomforts in her troubled small-child's universe.

One of the pleasures of her early memories was expounding herreligious views to "the baby," her favorite brotherJames, in his crib. Her anxiety and morbidity were at times acuteand her health delicate, and these difficulties were linked byher to her childhood religion which was, however, her chief pleasure. She wrote, "While I was afraid of everybody I saw, I wasnot in the least afraid of God. Being usually very unhappy, Iwas constantly longing, for heaven, and seriously, and very frequentlyplanning suicide in order to get there." [5]

A favorite childhood fantasy would take place in the Octagon Chapel,their Unitarian meeting place in Norwich, which had unusual windowsin the roof. Young Harriet would stare up at the high windowsand imagine angels coming to get her and taking her away in fullview of the congregation.

It was in the emotional context of infantile hunger for attention,anxiety, and morbid comfort in religion that Martineau was educatedalongside James. They first studied at home, learning readingand numbers, Latin and music. Her older brother Thomas was theirLatin teacher. Then in 1813, she and her sister Rachel were sentto a new Unitarian girls' school in Norwich headed by the ReverendIsaac Perry. During their two years there she added French toher studies. Upon the closing of the school, she again studieda classical course at home, although she and her sisters werealso taught domestic skills, particularly sewing. It was duringthe time that she was in Perry's school that she began to loseher hearing. The deafness worsened when she was sixteen, andshe became almost entirely deaf, though she used an ear trumpetand overcame the disabling effects of deafness as an adult.

In 1818 she was sent to Bristol to a school run by the wife ofher mother's brother. There she found in her Aunt Kentish a compassionatehuman influence and in the Reverend Lant Carpenter, the BristolUnitarian minister, a mentor she idolized. The fifteen monthsspent in Bristol provided both personal and intellectual releasefor her. She returned to Norwich suffering deafness, but somewhatliberated from mental and emotional stress.

Carpenter introduced her to the ideas of David Hartley and JosephPriestley, and their philosophy of necessity held her attentionfor some years to come. Only a step to the side of Calvinistpredestination, but couched in the language of philosophy, necessarianismwas a doctrine of causation that held that everything was a consequenceof what had preceded it, that there is no free human action, nofree will, but a necessary sequence of effects brought about unavoidablyby what had gone before them. [6] The other central philosophicalinfluence she felt was utilitarianism. First studying such radicalphilosophers as Jeremy Bentham and James Mill on her own, shewas later to meet Mill in London.

By the late 1820s, Martineau, herself in her twenties, was a seriousbut little-known writer, whose boundaries were the Unitarian religion,its propagation and interpretation. She was, however, a quickand searching student, if a solitary one, open to new ideas. Her brother James had by then been sent off for formal educationat the Unitarian college at York, later to become Manchester College,Oxford, which he was one day to head as principal, but Harrietremained at home, as women did.

Her older brother Thomas died; her father's business failed; andhe, too, died. His investments on behalf of his family failed,and Martineau was left to find ways to support herself. Earningsome money from her needlework, at which she was very skillfulall her life, and fifteen pounds a year from the Monthly Repository,for which she had written without pay until her time of financialneed, she decided that she must earn her livelihood from her writing.

Visiting James in his parish in Dublin she hit upon the idea ofa series of tales to illustrate the concepts of political economyin which she had newly become interested. She determined withJames's advice that she would publish a monthly series over twoyears. Discouraged by several publishers, she finally was helpedby W. J. Fox, her editor at the Monthly Repository, topersuade his brother, Charles Fox, to bring out the tales. Theterms were very unfavorable to her, and he made more money fromher work than she ever did, but the first number of the Illustrationsof Political Economy was an instant success, and her reputationwas made. She worked feverishly for two years to keep to hertight schedule. She moved to London, was celebrated in Londonsociety, and her thought, as well as her life, moved permanentlyinto another realm.

Whigs and Tories alike asked her to write on their causes. Althoughshe was not partisan, she found the Whigs' views more compatible. She formed friendships with such political and intellectual notablesas Richard Monckton Milnes, Charles Buller, and Thomas Malthus. Lord Brougham, the Scottish political leader, was quite takenwith her and enlisted her to write on behalf of poor law reform. She visited with Thomas and Jane Carlyle. She was approachedby Robert Owen to endorse his socialism, but she resisted. Shewas "in" as a literary figure in London.

After the strenuous labors of these two years, she was exhausted. On the suggestion of Lord Henley, [7] who told her that she wouldenjoy seeing the United States where justice and liberty flourished,she traveled in the United States from 1834 to 1836. Vowing thatshe had no intention of writing about her travels, she neverthelesskept a journal. Her lassitude was too great, she insisted, towrite profitably. However, on board ship, she wrote a chapterentitled "How to Observe Morals and Manners" for a workthat had been requested by a publisher.

Her American journey was quite splendid. She was entertainedby leading people of politics and letters and by fashionable societythroughout the country. She also talked to scores of common folkand had varied experiences from chopping wood on the frontier,to visiting prisons, to being a guest at the White House. Nearthe end of her stay she spoke up in a public meeting for the abolitionistsof William Lloyd Garrison's circle and lost much of her welcomein the United States, since the abolitionists were thought wildlyfanatical by many Americans at the time.

Upon her return she published Society in America, in whichshe measured American society against its own principle of democracy. She cringed over the publisher's title; "Theory and Practiceof Society in America" was what she wanted to call it. Itwas followed by the more anecdotal Retrospect of Western Travel,and only after that, the methodological book How to ObserveMorals and Manners.. During this period she also publishedin several periodicals, and her novel Deerbrook appeared.

In the spring of 1839, again overtired, she took a trip to theContinent, but while in Venice illness forced her to return home. For nearly five years she lay ill at Tynemouth under the careof her physician brother-in-law, Thomas Greenhow. Lord Melbourne,then prime minister, offered her a public pension, but she declinedon the grounds of not wanting to be in the pay of one party oranother in government, a personal action reflecting her deep-seatedeconomic philosophy combined with what we would now call a senseof professionalism as a journalist. Her friends raised moneyprivately to invest for her in long-term annuities. Though aninvalid, she published during the Tynemouth years a novel, TheHour and the Man, based on the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture,black political liberator of Haiti; a series of children's books;and a practical manual, Life in the Sick-Room. in 1844,she was introduced to mesmerism, an early and controversial formof hypnotism, was mesmerised, and soon got well. She believedshe was cured by mesmerism, and, insulting her physician, published"Letters on Mesmerism" in the Athenaeum. Itwas not until a coroner's post mortem examination showed thatshe had had an ovarian tumor that her doctor was vindicated; butin 1844 personal and professional hostility swirled, and somemembers of her family stopped talking to her for a while. Greenhowwrote an angry rebuttal in the press, and Martineau became knownto the general public as one of the people involved in the mesmerismdebate.

I think her dogmatic approval of mesmerism is one piece in thepuzzle of her emotional and rational contradictions. For so logicaland analytic a writer to participate in such a mysterious andcontroversial medical process might seem bewildering. However,I think it makes sense as a link between the religious faith shewas leaving behind and her need for something other than sheertheory and argument as a stabilizer for personal meaning in herlife. She never overcame her personal rigidity, which sometimesled to her ideas being unnecessarily cast in concrete. Otherwise,she might not have needed any authoritative system, or she mighthave found flexibility for change within her original philosophicaland religious framework. Her exhaustion and her volatile behaviorin the publication of the mesmerism letters suggest that emotionaldistress was at least a part of her illness. The comfort of mesmerismmay well have relieved her, since it gave her something new tobelieve in, something that purported to be "scientific,"yet came from a nonphysical power similar to the power she hadhoped for in her abandoned childhood God. But, also, if one iswilling to consider the evidence of Greenhow's interpretationof the post mortem in 1876, the tumor in her abdomen might havemoved in fortuitous concert with the mesmerist's acts.

One of her acquaintances among the advocates of mesmerism invitedher to the Lake District after she recovered, and she so enjoyedthe area that she decided to buy a small plot of land and builda house there. Her house, The Knoll, at Ambleside, was finishedin 1846. Loving her new home and relishing her renewed health,she went about her work with fresh vigor.

A trip and a new acquaintance during the first Ambleside yearsprovided another step in her changed intellectual direction. Mr. and Mrs. Richard V. Yates invited her to go with them to Egyptand Palestine; and on her return in 1847, she wrote EasternLife, Present and Past.. [8] The book focused on those landsas the cradle of four great religions. She presented a not entirelydeveloped thesis that those religions were founded by human beings,not divinely revealed, as their practitioners usually believed.

Her new acquaintance, Henry G. Atkinson, fueled with his skepticismher movement out of Christianity into atheism. She met Atkinsonin 1845 and became greatly attached to him. In 1851 they publishedtogether Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development,largely Atkinson's work, discrediting all theological explanationsof intellectual problems. James Martineau's antagonistic reviewof this book was the source of the permanent breach between them.

Meanwhile, her political journalism had gone on apace. She wroteForest and Game-Law Tales and was asked by Charles Knightin 1848 to finish a "History of the Thirty Years' Peace"that he had begun. Not having written history before and cautiousabout writing current history, she nevertheless wrote a work thathas received good marks from professional historians of severalgenerations.

Early in the 1850s Martineau took two steps that stretched herintellectually and established her in the final professional capacityof her career. She began writing as a kind of foreign correspondentand then political commentator for the Daily News, a remarkableand unusual position for a woman, which eventuated in her writingseveral editorials a week for over fifteen years. Simultaneously,as she was finishing the History of the Peace, she readand then translated and abridged Auguste Comte's PositivePhilosophy. Comte was to articulate for her the philosophicalposition she needed to unify her own thought, the social scientificmethod.

In the preface of her abridgment and translation of Comte's PositivePhilosophy, Harriet Martineau wrote:

Whatever else may be thought of the work, it will not be deniedthat it ascertains with singular sagacity and soundness the foundationsof human knowledge, . . . and that it establishes the true filiationof the sciences within the boundaries of its own principle. Somemay wish to interpolate this or that; some to amplify, . . . butany who question the general soundness of the exposition, . .. are of another school, and will simply neglect the book. Itis not for such that I have been working, but for students whoare not schoolmen; who need conviction, and must best know whentheir need is satisfied. When this exposition of Positive Philosophyunfolds itself in order before their eyes, they will, I am persuaded,find there at least a resting-place for their thought,--a rallying-pointof their scattered speculations,--and possibly an immoveable basisfor their intellectual and moral convictions. [9]

In the work that follows this introduction, Martineau turned sixvolumes of difficult and wordy French philosophy into two volumesof clear English for the general reader. [10] The passage quotedabove, written at the peak of her adult powers in 1852, echoes"the greatest good for the greatest number," "thefree marketplace of ideas," the importance of first principles,the need to appeal to the common person, the framework of morality,and the sure triumph of good, all of which were cornerstone doctrinesof Martineau's earlier intellectual circles, the utilitarian orradical philosophers, the political economists, the Unitarians,and the necessarians. Also, these beliefs are rooted here ina verbalization of faith that sprang from a once-religious soil. The new faith that Comte's philosophy gave her as she nearedfifty years of age was continuous in many ways with her old one. She found better expression for what she already believed inthe way Comte said it. Comte had developed a view of a hierarchyof fundamental intellectual postures: the theological, which wasfounded on revealed religion, superseded by the metaphysical,which was posited on speculative reasoning and which was to besuperseded by the positive sciences, founded on experiment andobservation. Further, in the hierarchy of sciences, sociologywould be the highest. Thus a science of society would be thezenith of sciences.

For Martineau, if not for modern readers, this resolved the contradictionbetween authority and investigation. She could retain an absoluteposture in method, and thus not have to abandon the traces ofher necessarianism and her need for commitment, and yet allowfor flexibility in the outcome, in results. She could then subscribeto a First Cause and rest easy that people misunderstood her viewpointwhen they called her an atheist. The First Cause would eventuallyyield knowledge of itself to the highest science, sociology. It could be safely predicted that a fully scientific explanationof human beings was possible. Knowing human societies in theirvariations is all one needs to know, all there is "above"the physical world. This belief was for Martineau progressive,enlightening, practical, and satisfying, and provided the equivalentof religious fulfillment, although she did not literally see itas a religion as Comte eventually did.

A few years after her move to Ambleside, Martineau again becameseriously ill. On going down to London to be examined for whatshe thought was heart disease, she again came to the conclusionthat she was fatally ill, even though her physicians seem to havetold her otherwise. In 1855, she put her life in order for herdeath, including writing her Autobiography. Though largelyconfined to her home after that, she had many more productiveyears of writing for the Daily News and staying in thethick of things political through the mail. She was to make someof her best contributions to women's causes during those lastinvalid years. She died in 1876, having been inactive for onlya very few years. [11]


4. Harriet Martineau, Autobiography. With Memorials byMaria Weston Chapman, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Co.),vol. 1, p. 6. All references to the Autobiography arefrom this edition.

5. Ibid., p. 14.

6. For a clear explanation of Martineau's necessarian views,see the excellent biography by Valerie Kossew Pichanick, HarrietMartineau: The Woman and Her Work, 1802-76 (Ann Arbor: Universityof Michigan Press, 1980)

7. A wealthy philanthropist, relative of Lord Brougham, withwhom Martineau apparently had only one meeting. According toher Autobiography (vol. 1, pp. 203-204), he was introducedto her by members of his family with the hope that she would bea good influence on him and help counteract his tendency to giveaway money foolishly. Mentally ill, he "disappeared fromsociety" before she returned from the United States and soondied, giving her no opportunity to report to him on the travelshe had suggested.

8. She refers to her hostess as "Mrs. Yates," or "Mrs.Richard V. Yates," but does not give her first name eitherin the account of the journey in her Autobiography (vol.1, pp. 53l -552) or in Eastern Life, Present and Past (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1848).

9. "Preface," The Positive Philosophy of AugusteComte, freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau(New York: D. Appleton and Co., 853), vol. 1, p. ix.

10. It is interesting to note that Seymour Martin Lipset saidhe was doing the same thing to Harriet Martineau's work when heabridged and brought out a paperback edition of Society inAmerica for American readers in 1962 (Garden City, N.Y.:Doubleday). My motivation in condensing Martineau's huge quantityof extravagant Victorian prose about women to achieve greatersharpness for 1980s readers was at least partially the same. (The Lipset edition has been reprinted by Peter Smith.)

11. The obituary she wrote for herself, which appeared in theDaily News, is the second selection in Section I.

From Gayle Graham Yates, (Ed.)., Harriet Martineau on Women.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985, pp. 7-16.

Forward to "Autobiographical Memoir"
Back to "Introduction"
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