Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans (1834 or before)
Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans
(1834 or before)
Born(1802-06-12)12 June 1802
Norwich, Norfolk, England
Died27 June 1876(1876-06-27) (aged 74)
Ambleside, Westmorland, England
Notable worksIllustrations of Political Economy (1834)
Society in America (1837)
Deerbrook (1839)
The Hour and the Man (1839)

Harriet Martineau (/; 12 June 1802 – 27 June 1876) was a British social theorist and Whig writer, often cited as the first female sociologist.[1]

Martineau wrote many books and a multitude of essays from a sociological, holistic, religious, domestic, and perhaps most controversially, feminine perspective. She also translated various works by Auguste Comte, and [2] she earned enough to support herself entirely by her writing, a rare feat for a woman in the Victorian era.

The young Princess Victoria enjoyed reading Martineau's publications. She invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838 — an event which Martineau described in great and amusing detail to her many readers. [3][4]

Martineau said of her own approach to writing: "when one studies a society, one must focus on all its aspects, including key political, religious, and social institutions". She believed a thorough societal analysis was necessary to understand women's status under men.The novelist Margaret Oliphant said "as a born lecturer and politician [Martineau] was less distinctively affected by her sex than perhaps any other, male or female, of her generation".[2]

Early life

The house in which Harriet Martineau was born

The sixth of eight children, Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich, England, where her father Thomas was a textile manufacturer. A highly respected Unitarian, he was deacon of the Octagon Chapel, Norwich from 1797.[5] Harriet's mother was the daughter of a sugar refiner and grocer.

The Martineau family was of French Huguenot ancestry and professed Unitarian views. Her uncles included the surgeon Philip Meadows Martineau (1752–1829), whom she had enjoyed visiting at his nearby estate, Bracondale Lodge,[6] and businessman and benefactor Peter Finch Martineau.[7] Martineau was closest to her brother James, who became a philosopher and clergyman in the tradition of the English Dissenters. According to the writer Diana Postlethwaite, Harriet's relationship with her mother was strained and lacking affection, which contributed to views expressed in her later writing.[2] Martineau claimed her mother abandoned her to a wet nurse.

Her ideas on domesticity and the "natural faculty for housewifery", as described in her book Household Education (1848),[2] stemmed from her lack of nurture growing up. Although their relationship was better in adulthood, Harriet saw her mother as the antithesis of the warm and nurturing qualities which she knew to be necessary for girls at an early age. Her mother urged all her children to be well read, but at the same time opposed female pedantics "with a sharp eye for feminine propriety and good manners. Her daughters could never be seen in public with a pen in their hand". Despite this conservative approach to raising girls, Martineau was not the only academically successful daughter in the family; her sister Rachel ran her own Unitarian Academy with artist Hilary Bonham Carter as one of her students.[8][9] Martineau's mother strictly enforced proper feminine behaviour, pushing her daughter to "hold a sewing needle" as well as the (hidden) pen.[2]

Martineau began losing her senses of taste and smell at a young age, becoming increasingly deaf and having to use an ear trumpet. It was the beginning of many health problems in her life. In 1821 she began to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical, and in 1823 she published Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.

In 1829, the family's textile business failed.[10] Martineau, then 27 years old, stepped out of the traditional roles of feminine propriety to earn a living for her family. Along with her needlework, she began selling her articles to the Monthly Repository, earning accolades, including three essay prizes from the Unitarian Association. Her regular work with the Repository helped establish her as a reliable and popular freelance writer.

In Martineau's Autobiography, she reflects on her success as a writer and her father's business failure, which she describes as "one of the best things that ever happened to us". She described how she could then "truly live instead of vegetate".[11] Her reflection emphasizes her experience with financial responsibility in her life while she writes "[her] fusion of literary and economic narratives".[12]

Her first commissioned book, Illustrations of Political Economy,[13] was a fictional tutorial intended to help the general public understand the ideas of Adam Smith. Illustrations was published in February 1832 in an edition of just 1500 copies, since the publisher assumed it would not sell well. Yet it very quickly became highly successful, and would steadily out-sell the work of Charles Dickens. Illustrations was her first work to receive widespread acclaim, and its success served to spread the free-market ideas of Adam Smith and others throughout the British Empire. Martineau then agreed to compose a series of similar monthly stories over a period of two years, the work being hastened by having her brother James also work on the series with her.[2]

The subsequent works offered fictional tutorials on a range of political economists such as James Mill, Bentham and Ricardo, the latter especially forming her view of rent law. Martineau relied on Malthus to form her view of the tendency of human population to exceed its means of subsistence. However, in stories such as "Weal and Woe in Garvelock", she promoted the idea of population control through what Malthus referred to as "voluntary checks" such as voluntary chastity and delayed marriages.