Harriet MARTINEAU (1802-76)

Victorians would be amazed (some would be relieved) at the extent to which Miss Martineau’s reputation has receded. In her day she was one of the foremost woman thinkers, considered – then – an intellectual feminist, while today she is seen as little more than a frequently recurring footnote to other people’s biographies. Then she was shocking; now she can seem dull. She was born in Norwich, daughter to a man who made and sold army cloth, and whose business crumbled after the Napoleonic War. Never a well woman, her plight worsened when at the age of nineteen she became deaf. Thereafter she cut a striking figure with her ear-trumpet.
In that year (1823) her Devotional Exercises was published, a book which, together with an 1826 follow-up, espoused the Unitarianism of her youth (a faith she would later forsake). Her brother James, three years younger, advised her to ‘leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings,’ (or ‘give up darning and take to literature,’ in another version) and she began earning money from reviews. In 1832 she had an unlikely success with a series of 24 didactic stories, combined under the forbidding title Illustrations of Political Economy and issued as 25 ‘improving tracts’ in monthly parts (one was a summary) each comprising 125 small pages and selling at one and sixpence. Her grave pen produced Poor Law and Paupers Illustrated in 1833 and Illustrations of Taxation in 1834. By the time the Political Economy series ended (1834) she had become a literary celebrity and was able to travel to America in support of the abolitionists. From this hazardous trip came her commercially successful Society in America (1837) and Retrospective of Western Travel (1838). Her first novel, Deerbrook, appeared in 1839.
As her career progressed in the 1840s she lost her religious faith, and shared her new beliefs with readers in Laws of Man’s Social Nature in 1851. (A radical History of the Thirty Years’ Peace preceded it in 1849, and an admired Philosophy of Comte came in 1853 – all the profits of which she sent to Comte himself, to relieve his poverty.) Through all this time she remained unwell. By the mid-40s she had, to the bemusement of her friends, become a near convert to the healing powers of Mesmerism, and had retreated from noxious London to the healthier climes of Tynemouth and Ambleside. Her reputation was sufficient to draw many of the leading figures of the day (and some lesser ones) to her home at Knoll where, if they were lucky, they could shout to her down her ear-trumpet.
She continued to promote her own qualified version of feminism, her scientific and political theories, her opposition to slavery and her militant agnosticism. She refused a Civil List pension (three times!), fearing it would compromise her independence, and continued to earn her living through writing. Her Autobiographical Memoir was published in the year after her death, although most of it was written years earlier, around 1855 when she thought she was dying. It remains a useful commentary on the personalities of her day.


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