Essay/
Biography and memoir

Old Vennel off High Street (1868), Glasgow, Scotland, photographed by Thomas Annan from The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. Courtesy the Getty Museum, LA

Mistress of all trades

A campaigning journalist and an early feminist, Harriet Martineau humanised economic theory through Dickensian storytelling

Valerie R Sanders

Old Vennel off High Street (1868), Glasgow, Scotland, photographed by Thomas Annan from The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. Courtesy the Getty Museum, LA

Valerie R Sanders

is a professor of English at the University of Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Her recent books include Harriet Martineau and the Birth of Disciplines (2017), co-edited with Gaby Weiner; The Tragi-Comedy of Victorian Fatherhood (2009), Records of Girlhood (2013), and a forthcoming monograph on Margaret Oliphant for Edward Everett Root’s Key Popular Women Writers series (2020).

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In 1855, Harriet Martineau, aged 52, prepared to die of a heart condition diagnosed by her London physician. She hastily finished her autobiography and wrote her own obituary for The Daily News, the newspaper she had served since 1852, leaving a space for someone to enter the date of death when it finally occurred. That date turned out to be 21 years later, in 1876. Over time, her fame declined. ‘I had no idea she was still alive even, much less contributing to The Daily News,’ admitted her near-contemporary, the actress Fanny Kemble, in 1874. Martineau herself added not another word to her Autobiography (1877).

In her heyday, however, when she first shot to fame in 1832, it seemed that everyone knew who Martineau was, and talked about her as an unlikely new celebrity: ‘the little deaf woman at Norwich’, as Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham nicknamed her. How then, do we explain her extraordinary success, followed by decades of oblivion, and now, strangely enough, a new kind of popularity, especially with feminist critics and historians?

Born in 1802 into an earnest, middle-class Unitarian family in Norwich, Harriet was the sixth child of a bombazine manufacturer, Thomas Martineau, and his Newcastle wife, Elizabeth Rankin. Her adored younger brother, James Martineau (1805-1900), became a prominent Unitarian minister and philosopher, and her older sister Rachel (1800-78) headmistress of a Liverpool girls’ school attended by Elizabeth Gaskell’s second daughter, Meta. After her father’s death in 1826, followed by the collapse of the family business in 1829, Martineau had to find a way of supporting herself. Too deaf to work as a governess, yet passionate about educating the public, she pitched herself into serious-minded journalism. 


Harriet Martineau c1834, by Richard Evans. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London

Martineau began quietly enough, by submitting articles on religious themes to the Unitarian Monthly Repository from 1822. But soon she developed the confidence to tackle the distinctly ‘masculine’ field of political economy. Aware that the textbooks on the subject were intimidating for nonspecialists, she wanted to explain to the public how and why economic laws worked as they did via a series of short tales, each set in a different kind of community. Derived principally from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy (1821), and the theories of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, Martineau’s 25-volume series Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-4) was also inspired by Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Political Economy (1816), which showed her how to connect economic theory with the realities of people’s lives. As she read Marcet’s book, Martineau recalls in her Autobiography, ‘groups of personages rose up from the pages, and a procession of action glided through its arguments, as afterwards from the pages of Adam Smith, and all the other Economists’. 

It remains difficult for modern readers to understand why her Illustrations were such a roaring success with the public. Even the teenage Princess Victoria loved them, though Martineau worried that she might be skipping the summaries of principles at the end of each tale. Conditions at the time were febrile. Not only was there a dearth of significant imaginative literature in the early 1830s, but the country was also in a state of high anxiety, blamed on social unrest, the 1832 Reform Bill, industrialisation, extreme poverty in expanding cities such as Manchester, and finally a cholera epidemic. When Martineau was tramping around London, personally lobbying publishers to consider her work, she was repeatedly fobbed off, as she records in her Autobiography, with cries of ‘the Reform Bill and the Cholera’, as well as ‘the disturbed state of the public mind, which afforded no encouragement to put out new books’. As it happened, her Illustrations addressed many of the same social concerns, including industrial strikes, wages, poverty and the Poor Laws, that supposedly made the country too preoccupied for fiction. When the publisher Charles Fox grudgingly accepted her proposal, he suddenly found himself with a bestseller on his hands. Each volume in the series is thought to have sold about 10,000 copies.

This was by no means the end of it: Martineau was famous for one thing after another. If in 1832 it was for popularising the fundamental theories of political economy, by 1838 it was for outing herself as an abolitionist in the American antislavery campaign, and publicly adopting a protofeminist stance against the inequalities of the United States constitution. By 1845, however, it was for promoting the cause of mesmerism, and in 1851, in collaboration with the freethinker and phrenologist Henry George Atkinson, for dismissing Christian theology in favour of an agnosticism based on a more scientific understanding of the human mind and body.

The final years of her active life were spent touring the Middle East, Ireland and Birmingham’s industrial centres, and writing regularly, not just for The Daily News, but also for many of the mainstream heavyweight Victorian periodicals, including The Edinburgh Review and The Westminster Review, as well as Charles Dickens’s Household Words. Somehow she also found time to write The History of England During the 30 Years’ Peace: 1816-1846 (1849-50), and make regular contributions to another periodical, Once a Week. In her 60s, Martineau campaigned with Florence Nightingale for nursing reform, and with Josephine Butler for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. By then, she was living a sound ecological life in the Lake District, organising a local building society, and educating her working-class neighbours on what she politely called ‘sanitary matters’. By the time she died in 1876, there were few fields, other than the purely scientific, that she had not mastered and made her own.

The danger with this apparently scattergun approach to publication is that it makes Martineau look shallow: as if she had no plan, and were merely responding to the moment. Now that each of her ‘moments’ has passed, we might well wonder why we should still read her. All the more so as in her self-written obituary she plays down her own capacity for original thought: ‘In short, she could popularise, while she could neither discover nor invent.’ But does the rewording and disseminating of complex ideas necessarily make Martineau little more than the mouthpiece of greater thinkers than herself? Or does the very act of popularising require special skills, such as the pithy directness so distinctive of her style, and an intuitive, practical understanding of how her readers might access important ideas?

The question of Martineau’s originality remains key to any analysis of her lasting reputation and relevance to today’s debates on the causes she espoused across the middle years of the 19th century. There is a case for saying that, while she started out as a populariser, her two years in the US (1834-6) forced her to formulate her own opinions, not just on the slavery issue, but on women’s equality; a similar process occurred when she visited the Middle East (1846-7) and was appalled by the harems. If anything, Martineau was quickly condemned by her first reviewers for being too outspoken on ‘unfeminine’ subjects, such as the ‘preventive check’ (an early form of contraception), and independently testing the morality and validity of institutions by measuring their practice against their professed principles.

She humanised economic theory by creating characters and scenarios her readers could relate to

On the other hand, while interdisciplinarity is encouraged in today’s academic landscape, Martineau’s ability to flit from political economy to the history of India and to Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy, interrupted by brief forays into realist fiction – Deerbrook (1839) – and children’s literature – The Playfellow (1841) – could condemn her as a self-appointed amateur expert on just about everything. After all, despite her above-average schooling for a middle-class provincial girl born at the start of the 19th century, Martineau was never formally trained in any discipline, and, as a woman, was barred from attending university. At the same time, we have to remember that the disciplines were less rigorously demarcated than they are today, and it was not unusual even for men to pass seamlessly from one to another. One only has to think of polymaths such as Charles Kingsley, Sir Francis Galton or William Morris, or to see the range of subjects covered by contributors to the serious periodicals, to acknowledge that the disciplines, in Martineau’s time, were less compartmentalised than they became subsequently.

Here perhaps lies the clue to Martineau’s success. Although the lampoonists and satirists of the 1830s portrayed her as an angular bluestocking, devoid of feeling, what she actually did was humanise economic theory by creating characters and scenarios her readers could relate to. One such character is William Allen of A Manchester Strike (1832), a thoughtful factory worker with a lame eight-year-old daughter and a tearful wife, whom we first see being bullied by the neighbourhood ‘scold’. Within a few pages, Martineau has established a set of personal circumstances, much as Gaskell would do more than a decade later in Mary Barton (1848), followed by a narrative of interlocking cause and effect leading to Allen’s finishing up as a street sweeper.

Martineau’s social and geographical range in these tales was much wider than Gaskell’s, her characters including the aristocracy, an actress, trades unionists, Irish ‘Whiteboys’, workhouse inmates, clergymen, children, even a mob storming the Bastille in a tale called French Wines and Politics (1833). Each Illustration ends with a ‘Summary of Principles’ – in the case of A Manchester Strike, on wages, population and ‘Combinations of labourers against capitalists’ – to ensure that readers who had lost themselves in the story remembered the takeaway message.

Although Martineau became an overnight celebrity with her Illustrations, she left no permanent mark on economic theory, nor did she make any kind of lasting difference to its application. Perhaps this is inevitable for someone who never pretended to be an original economic theorist. As the Victorian literature scholar Deborah Logan argues in a Broadview Press edition of four selected Illustrations (2004), Martineau instead made an impact as a ‘cultural force whose influence extended far beyond the Reform Bill era’.

Martineau had broken the mould by making complex ideas accessible to a wider readership via entertaining stories that connected grand theories with personal circumstances. While her delight in creating characters and human narratives gradually waned in favour of more direct campaigning for her favourite causes, she never lost her preference for example over theory, or (until her health gave out in 1855) for visiting places in person, so that she could see things for herself. What makes her career so remarkable was the number of times she made a fresh start on a new topic by mastering it for herself, from whatever information she could find to hand, and constantly updating her expertise so that her interventions might offer some practical support. Inevitably, some of these fields dated faster than others, but after a century of critical neglect, Martineau is now being widely reclaimed as a forthright thinker with a distinctive voice.

Men’s health interested her no less than women’s, down to the details of a police officer’s meat-heavy diet

Best remembered today as a journalist, educationalist and early feminist sociologist, Martineau was also the author of an amazingly outspoken Autobiography. So far as journalism is concerned, she started young, published in all the leading periodicals, and could write about anything and everything, from China (past and present) to the fire hazards of crinolines. In 1852, The Quarterly Review joked:

When she speaks of Continental politics, her proper post seems the Foreign Office; but when she touches on religious matters, and disposes of Presbyterian schism and Tractarian mummery, we are at a loss to say whether she should have been Moderator of the General Assembly or Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the early 1850s, Martineau provided Dickens with a survey of manufacturing industries for Household Words, followed in the 1860s by a whole series for Once a Week on what we would now call ‘health and safety’ in numerous professions, from maid-of-all-work to the steel grinder. Men’s health interested her no less than women’s, down to the details of a metropolitan police officer’s meat-heavy diet, or the advisability of ‘strenuous and varied bodily exercise’ (including the gym) for students, and those of other sedentary professions.

What is most extraordinary about Martineau is the speed and energy with which she informed herself on wildly different topics. Even when she ceased travelling and was confined to her home in Ambleside in the Lake District for the last 20 years of her life, she stopped writing only at the very end, maintaining throughout her career a plain and cogent style. It was this style, so very different from the more elaborate rhetoric of contemporaries such as George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Carlyle (all of whom she knew and met), that made Martineau such a powerful spokesperson for any cause she chose to support.

While she was an instinctive sociologist, in that she retained a lifelong interest in people and social structures, Martineau first laid down her methodology in How to Observe: Morals and Manners (1838), a guide for travellers such as herself to other countries and cultures. It was not for her just a matter of wandering randomly, open to impression: the traveller, she insisted, ‘must have made up his mind as to what it is that he wants to know’. The traveller must also be disciplined and principled, and must judge what he finds according to its potential to provide happiness.

Although the traveller is invariably a ‘he’ in keeping with the pronoun usage of her time, Martineau is nevertheless acutely aware of the condition of women in each place she visits. ‘The traveller everywhere finds woman treated as the inferior party’, she declares in a chapter on the ‘Domestic State’ and, even in advanced democracies such as France, England and the US, they are only semieducated and debarred from many forms of employment.

As an early feminist, writing about women at a time before the term was first used in its modern sense in the 1890s, Martineau was both outspoken and cautious. In this respect, she is similar to many of her contemporaries: anxious to dissociate herself (as she does openly in her Autobiography) from the notorious example of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was driven by personal circumstances to demand new freedoms for women. Martineau instead emphasised the need for dispassionate, objective grounds for claiming women’s rights. Given her own immaculate personal life, she was more interested in employment opportunities than in sexual freedoms, though she did support divorce reform.

In How to Observe, Martineau noted that, while in the US women could earn money only by the traditional routes of teaching, sewing, factory work or other semidomestic occupations, France was the world leader in enabling women to be anything from shopkeepers to ‘professional accountants’, even editors of newspapers. Much as she admired some US attitudes to women, she thought their treatment was comparable with that of slaves. One section of Society in America (1837) is even headed ‘Political Non-Existence of Women’, in that women (like slaves) have to obey laws to which they have never consented, let alone helped to formulate. She also blamed the ‘chivalry’ of US middle-class husbands who were determined to protect their wives from having to work. In the following decade, when she visited harems in Cairo and Damascus, she was dismayed, not just by the evidence of polygamy, but also by the women’s enforced idleness and brainwashed complicity in a custom she believed could never be eradicated from their country. She called them ‘the most injured human beings I have ever seen’.

Her idea of a women’s revolution was of a quiet and determined persistence

Her most important statement on employment for women, however, came in ‘Female Industry’ (1859), an extensive overview for The Edinburgh Review. In her characteristically incisive voice, Martineau opened her article by reminding readers that, although ‘we go on talking as if it were true that every woman is, or ought to be, supported by father, brother, or husband’, ‘a very large proportion of the women of England earn their own bread’. Nonetheless, too few of the professions were open to them, and even where women did work (for example, as domestic servants) they rarely earned enough money to save for a comfortable retirement. While safeguarding her identity with a male persona, despite the anonymity of the article (‘every man of us … Our wives’), Martineau’s solution was forthright and practical. The answer was to end male monopolies, and open up all trades and professions, from watch-making to medicine, to suitably qualified women.

Advancing years made Martineau bolder. In 1863, she used her platform at The Daily News to support the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which authorised the enforced medical examination in garrison towns of any woman suspected of carrying a sexually transmitted infection. On the burgeoning campaigns for the vote, she was more reticent, but signed John Stuart Mill’s petition of 1866. ‘Nobody can be further than I am from being satisfied with the condition of my own sex, under the law and custom of my own country,’ she conceded in her Autobiography, but she believed the way forward was for women to ‘obtain whatever they show themselves fit for’. In due course, she argued, when the time was right, women would find their way into political life, much as they had done in other fields. In other words, her idea of a women’s revolution was of a quiet and determined persistence in claiming their place wherever they were capable of doing so. While this might be true of some professions, such as science (she had a huge respect for Mary Somerville, the Scottish mathematician and astronomer), she obviously underestimates the need for legislation to admit women into universities, Parliament, learned societies and many other public spaces from which they were barred in her lifetime.

The one thing that links all her multifarious interests is her fascination with how societies work, and how they construct their communities, starting with the smallest unit, the family. The first sections of her Autobiography show how angry she was about the way she was brought up, especially the lack of open, demonstrative affection between the parents and children. Many of these episodes still rankled years later when she used her own experiences in Household Education (1849), arguing that all members of a family should go through a shared learning process together, supported by mutual love and respect. Making allowances for its more obvious datedness in terms of details (there is still mention of womanly ‘duty’ and naturally domestic tastes, alongside a real fervour for women’s education), much of what Martineau says accords with modern attitudes to bringing out the best in children and identifying their individual emotional needs. In Robert McCrum’s selection of the ‘100 best nonfiction books of all time’ for The Guardian in 2017, Martineau’s Household Education was in 67th place, with Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (2014) in first. Martineau would have been gratified to have beaten Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which came 76th.

Martineau’s ‘voice’ as an author is perhaps what makes her most distinctive, and is why we can still hear her more than 200 years after her birth. Direct, forceful, opinionated, it is often the voice of tough-minded common sense, with a homely quality appealing to shared experience. This voice is most accessible in her Autobiography, which acts as an intimate guide to her intellectual and emotional development over half a century. Whether recalling her irrational childish terror of the refracted rainbow light from glass lustres, or the sound of householders beating their feather-beds with a stick, Martineau’s raw nerves record every sensation. At the same time, she develops a narrative of assured, life-affirming confidence. There is a modern sound to her relief at achieving financial and personal independence, which she celebrates in her Autobiography: ‘Any one to whom that happens by 30 years of age may be satisfied; and I was so.’ Few of today’s millennials would disagree.

Valerie R Sanders

is a professor of English at the University of Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Her recent books include Harriet Martineau and the Birth of Disciplines (2017), co-edited with Gaby Weiner; The Tragi-Comedy of Victorian Fatherhood (2009), Records of Girlhood (2013), and a forthcoming monograph on Margaret Oliphant for Edward Everett Root’s Key Popular Women Writers series (2020).

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