Harriet Martineau | ambleside – views on religion, philosophical atheism, and darwin

Ambleside – views on religion, philosophical atheism, and Darwin

Harriet Martineau, 1861, by Camille Silvy

In 1845 she left Tynemouth for Ambleside in the Lake District, where she designed herself and oversaw the construction of the house called The Knoll, Ambleside, where she spent the greater part of her later life.[31] In 1845 she published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales. In 1846, she resided with her elderly mother, Elizabeth, in Birmingham for some time,[32] following which she then toured Egypt, Palestine and Syria with some friends. On her return she published Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848),[33] in which she reports a breakthrough realization standing on a prominence looking out across the Nile and desert to the tombs of the dead, where "the deceased crossed the living valley and river" to "the caves of the death region" where Osiris the supreme judge "is to give the sign of acceptance or condemnation" (Eastern Life, Present and Past, Complete in One Volume, Philadelphia, 1848, p. 48). Her summary: "the mortuary ideas of the primitive Egyptians, and through them, of the civilized world at large, have been originated by the everlasting conflict of the Nile and the Desert".

This epiphany changed the course of her life.[34] Eastern Life expressed her concept that, as humanity passed through one after another of the world's historic religions, the conception of the deity and of divine government became at each step more and more abstract and indefinite. She believed the ultimate goal to be philosophic atheism, but did not explicitly say so in the book. She described ancient tombs, "the black pall of oblivion" set against the paschal "puppet show" in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and noted that Christian beliefs in reward and punishment were based on and similar to heathen superstitions. Describing an ancient Egyptian tomb, she wrote, "How like ours were his life and death!... Compare him with a retired naval officer made country gentleman in our day, and in how much less do they differ than agree!" The book's "infidel tendency" was too much for the publisher John Murray, who rejected it. Martineau's biographer, Florence Fenwick Miller, wrote that "all her best moral and intellectual faculties were exerted, and their action becomes visible, at one page or another" of this work.[35]

Martineau wrote Household Education in 1848, lamenting the state of women's education. She believed women had a natural inclination to motherhood and believed domestic work went hand in hand with academia for a proper, well-rounded education. She stated, "I go further than most persons... in desiring thorough practice in domestic occupations, from an early age, for young girls".[2] She proposed that freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, are the most effectual instruments of education.

Her interest in schemes of instruction led her to start a series of lectures, addressed at first to the school children of Ambleside, but afterward extended to their parents at the request of the adults. The subjects were sanitary principles and practice, the histories of England and North America, and the scenes of her Eastern travels. At the request of the publisher Charles Knight, in 1849 she wrote The History of the Thirty Years' Peace, 1816–1846, an excellent popular history from the point of view of a "philosophical Radical". Martineau spanned a wide variety of subject matter in her writing and did so with more assertiveness than was expected of women at the time. She has been described as having an "essentially masculine nature".[2] It was commonly thought that a "progressive" woman, in being progressive, was improperly emulating the qualities of a man.

Martineau's work included a widely used guide book to the Lake District, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, published in 1855 and in its 4th edition by 1876.[36][37] This served as the definitive guidebook for the area for 25 years, effectively replacing the earlier guide by William Wordsworth, and continued in common usage until the publication of Baddeley's Thorough Guide to the English Lake District in 1880.

Martineau in her later years, painted by George Richmond

Martineau edited a volume of Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, published in March 1851. Its epistolary form is based on correspondence between her and the self-styled scientist Henry G. Atkinson. She expounded the doctrine of philosophical atheism, which she thought the tendency of human belief . She did not deny a first cause but declared it unknowable. She and Atkinson thought they affirmed man's moral obligation. Atkinson was a zealous exponent of mesmerism. The prominence given to the topics of mesmerism and clairvoyance heightened the general disapproval of the book. Literary London was outraged by its mesmeric evolutionary atheism, and the book caused a lasting division between Martineau, her beloved brother, James who had become a Unitarian cleric, and some of her friends.

From 1852 to 1866, she contributed regularly to the Daily News, writing sometimes six leaders a week. She wrote over 1600 articles for the paper in total.[5] It also published her Letters from Ireland, written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852.[38] For many years she was a contributor to the Westminster Review; in 1854 she was among financial supporters who prevented its closing down.

Martineau believed she was psychosomatic; this medical belief of the times related the uterus to emotions and hysteria. She had symptoms of hysteria in her loss of taste and smell. Her partial deafness throughout life may have contributed to her problems. Various people, including the maid, her brother,[28] and Spencer T. Hall (a notable mesmerist) performed mesmerism on her. Some historians attribute her apparent recovery from symptoms to a shift in the positioning of her tumor so that it no longer obstructed other organs. As the physical improvements were the first signs of healing she had in five years and happened at the same time of her first mesmeric treatment, Martineau confidentially credited mesmerism with her "cure".[2]

She continued her political activism during the late 1850s and 1860s. She supported the Married Women's Property Bill and in 1856 signed a petition for it organised by Barbara Bodichon. She also pushed for licensed prostitution and laws that addressed the customers rather than the women. She supported women's suffrage[33] and signed Bodichon's petition in its favour in 1866.

In the early part of 1855, Martineau was suffering from heart disease. She began to write her autobiography, as she expected her life to end. Completing the book rapidly in three months,[33] she postponed its publication until after her death, and lived another two decades. It was published posthumously in 1877.[2]

When Darwin's book The Origin of Species was published in 1859, his brother Erasmus sent a copy to his old flame Harriet Martineau. At age 58, she was still reviewing from her home in the Lake District. From her "snow landscape", Martineau sent her thanks, adding that she had previously praised

the quality & conduct of your brother's mind, but it is an unspeakable satisfaction to see here the full manifestation of its earnestness & simplicity, its sagacity, its industry, & the patient power by which it has collected such a mass of facts, to transmute them by such sagacious treatment into such portentous knowledge. I should much like to know how large a proportion of our scientific men believe he has found a sound road.

Martineau supported Darwin's theory because it was not based in theology. Martineau strove for secularism stating, "In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished."[16] She wrote to her fellow Malthusian (and atheist) George Holyoake enthusing, "What a book it is! – overthrowing (if true) revealed Religion on the one hand, & Natural (as far as Final Causes & Design are concerned) on the other. The range & mass of knowledge take away one's breath." To Fanny Wedgwood (the wife of Hensleigh Wedgwood) she wrote,

I rather regret that C.D. went out of his way two or three times to speak of "The Creator" in the popular sense of the First Cause.... His subject is the "Origin of Species" & not the origin of Organisation; & it seems a needless mischief to have opened the latter speculation at all – There now! I have delivered my mind.