Harriet Martineau

British Popularizer of Sociology, Politics, Philosophy

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Harriet Martineau Facts

Known for: writer in fields usually thought to be the realm of male writers: politics, economics, religion, philosophy; added a “woman’s perspective” as an essential element in those fields.  Called a “collosal intellect” by Charlotte Brontë, who also wrote of her, “some of the gentry dislike her, but the lower orders have great regard for her”

Occupation: writer; considered the first woman sociologist
Dates: June 12, 1802 – June 27, 1876

Harriet Martineau Biography:

Harriet Martineau grew up in Norwich, England, in a fairly well-off family. Her mother was distant and strict, and Harriet was educated mostly at home, often self-directed. She attended schools for about two years in total.  Her education included classics, languages and political economy, and she was considered something of a prodigy, though her mother required that she not be seen in public with a pen. She was also taught traditional female subjects including needlework.

Harriet was afflicted with ill health throughout her childhood.  She gradually lost her senses of smell and taste, and at age 12, began losing her hearing. Her family did not believe her complaints about her hearing until she was older; she had lost so much of her hearing by age 20 that she could hear from then on only by using an ear trumpet.

Martineau as Writer

In 1820, Harriet published her first article, “Female Writers of Practical Divinity,” in a Unitarian periodical, the Monthly Repository.

  In 1823 she published a book of devotional exercises, prayers and hymns for children, also under Unitarian auspices.

Her father died when Harriet was in her early 20s.  His business began failing about 1825 and was lost by 1829.  Harriet had to find a way to earn a living.  She produced some needlework for sale, and sold some stories.

  She obtained a stipend in 1827 from the Monthly Repository with the support of a new editor, the Rev. William J. Fox, who encouraged her to write about a broad range of topics.

In 1827, Harriet became engaged to a college friend of her brother, James, but the young man died, and Harriet chose to remain single thereafter.

Political Economy

From 1832 to 1834, she published a series of stories illustrating principles of political economy, intended to educate the average citizen. These were compiled and edited into a book, Illustrations of Political Economy, and became quite popular, making her something of a literary sensation.  She moved to London.

In 1833 to 1834 she published a series of stories on the poor laws, advocating for Whig reforms of those laws. She argued that many of the poor had learned to rely on charity rather than seeking work; Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which she criticized strongly, took a very different view of poverty.  These stories were published as Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated.

She followed that with a series in 1835 illustrating principles of taxation.

In other writing, she wrote as a Necessarianist, a variation on determinism -- especially within the Unitarian movement where the ideas were common.

  Her brother James Martineau was in these years becoming more popular as a minister and writer. They were initially quite close but, as he became a proponent of free will, they grew apart.

Martineau in America

In 1834 to 1836, Harriet Martineau took a 13-month trip to America for her health.  She traveled extensively, visiting many luminaries including former president James Madison. She published two books about her travels, Society in America in 1837 and A Retrospect of Western Travel in 1838.

During her time in the South she saw slavery first-hand, and in her book she included a critique of Southern slaveholders keeping slave women essentially as their harem, financially benefiting from selling the children, and keeping their white wives as ornaments given little opportunity to enhance their intellectual development.

  In the North, she made contact with key people in the rising Transcendentalist movement, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller (whom she introduced to each other), as well as in the abolitionist movement.

One chapter in her book was titled “The Political Non-Existence of Women,” where she compared American women to slaves.  She advocated strongly for equal educational opportunities for women.

Her two accounts were published between the publication of the two volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Martineau’s is not as hopeful a treatment of American democracy; Martineau saw America as failing to empower all of its citizens.

Return to England

After her return, she spent time in the company of Erasmus Darwin, brother of Charles Darwin. The Darwin family feared that this might be a courtship, but Erasmus Darwin assured them that it was an intellectual relationship and that he did not “look at her as a woman,” as Charles Darwin said in a letter.

Martineau continued to support herself as a journalist as well as publishing almost a book a year.  Her 1839 novel Deerbrook did not become as popular as her stories on political economy.  In 1841 – 1842 she published a collection of children’s stories, Playfellow.  The novel and children’s stories were both criticized as didactic.

She wrote a novel, published in three volumes, about Haiti’s Touissaint L’Ouverture, a slave who helped Haiti to independence in 1804.

In 1840 she was afflicted with complications from an ovarian cyst.  This led her to a long convalescence, first at her sister’s home in Newcastle, cared for by her mother, then in a boarding-house in Tynemouth; she was bedridden for about five years.  In 1844 she published two books, Life in the Sickroom and also Letters on Mesmerism.  She claimed the latter had cured her and returned her to health.  She also wrote about a hundred pages towards an autobiography that she was not to complete for some years.

Philosophical Evolution

She moved to the Lake District of England, where she had a new house built for her.

  She traveled to the Near East in 1846 and 1847, producing a book on what she’d learned in 1848: Eastern Life, Past and Present in three volumes. In this, she outlined a theory of historical evolution of religion to more and more abstract ideas of deity and the infinite, and she revealed her own atheism.  Her brother James and other siblings were troubled by her religious evolution.

In 1848 she advocated for women’s education in Household Education. She also began to lecture widely, especially on her travels to America and on the history of England and America. Her 1849 book, The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816-1846, summarized her views of recent British history.  She revised it in 1864.

In 1851 she published Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development, written with Henry George Atkinson.  Again, she came down on the side of atheism and mesmerism, both unpopular topics with much of the public.  James Martineau wrote a very negative review of the work; Harriet and James had been growing apart intellectually for some years but after this, the two never really reconciled.

Harriet Martineau became interested in the philosophy of Auguste Comte, especially in his “antitheological views.”  She published two volumes in 1853 about his ideas, popularizing them for a general audience.  Comte originated the term “sociology” and for her support of his work, she is sometimes known as a sociologist, and as the first woman sociologist.

From 1852 to 1866 she wrote editorials for the London Daily News, a radical paper. She also supported several women’s rights initiatives, including married women’s property rights, licensed prostitution and prosecution of customers rather than the women, and women’s suffrage.

During this period she also followed the work of American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.  She struck up a friendship with a Garrison supporter, Maria Weston Chapman; Chapman later wrote the first biography of Martineau.

Heart Disease

In 1855, Harriet Martineau’s health further declined. Afflicted now with heart disease – thought to be connected to the previous tumor’s complications – she thought she might die soon.  She returned to work on her autobiography, completing it in only a few months.  She decided to hold its publication until after her death, for reasons that would become apparent when it was published.  She ended up living for 21 more years, and publishing eight more books.

In 1857 she published a history of British rule in India, and that same year another on The “Manifest Destiny” of the American Union which was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. 

When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, she received a copy from his brother Erasmus.  She welcomed it as refuting both revealed and natural religion.

She published Health, Husbandry and Handicraft in 1861, republishing part of it as Our Farm of Two Acres in 1865, based on her life at her home in the Lake District.

In the 1860s, Martineau became involved with Florence Nightingale’s work to repeal laws that permitted forced physical examinations of women merely on the suspicion of prostitution, with no evidence required.

Death and Posthumous Autobiography

A bout of bronchitis in June 1876 ended Harriet Martineau’s life. She died at her home.  The Daily News published a notice of her death, written by her but in the third person, identifying her as a person who “could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent.”

In 1877, the autobiography she had finished in 1855 was published in London and Boston, including “memorials” by Maria Weston Chapman. The autobiography was highly critical of many of her contemporaries, though a good number of them had died between the composition of the book and its publications.  George Eliot described Martineau’s judgments of people in the book as “gratuitous rudeness.”  The book addressed her childhood, which she experienced as cold due to her mother’s distance.  It also addressed her relationship with her brother James Martineau and her own philosophical journey.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Elizabeth Rankin, daughter of a businessman
  • Father: Thomas Martineau, textile manufacturer, descended from Gaston Martineau, a Huguenot refugee to England
  • Siblings: seven; Harriet was the sixth of eight. Sisters included Elizabeth Martineau Lupton and Rachel. Her brother James (seventh of the eight) was a clergyman, professor and writer.

Education:

  • Mostly at home, about two years in schools total

Friends, Intellectual Colleagues and Acquaintances Included:

Family Connections: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (married to Prince William), is descended from Elizabeth Martineau, one of Harriet Martineau’s sisters.  Catherine’s great-great-grandfather was Francis Martineau Lupton IV, a textile manufacturer, reformer, and active Unitarian. His daughter Olive is the great-grandmother of Catherine; Olive’s sister, Anne, lived with a partner, Enid Moberly Bell, who was an educator.

Religion:  Childhood: Presbyterian then Unitarian.  Adulthood: Unitarian then agnostic/atheist.