Martineau, Harriet

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau (June 12, 1802-June 27, 1876), a pioneering British journalist and writer, grew up Unitarian and was for a time a Unitarian apologist. A free trade advocate, she provided influential support for economic reform in Britain. The observational methodology she developed traveling in America was a forerunner of modern sociology. In her writing on the theory of education she advocated the kind and affectionate treatment of children. She is best remembered for her contributions to the emerging woman’s movement and for the example she set as a woman powerful in spheres dominated by men.

Harriet was born into a Unitarian family in Norwich, England. Her father, Thomas Martineau, was a prosperous textile manufacturer. Her mother, Elizabeth, while caring for her eight children’s physical needs, was not demonstrative. Harriet, the sixth child, felt her mother’s coolness and negative comments greatly. Harriet lavished attention and affection on her two younger siblings, James and Ellen. James Martineau later became a noted Unitarian minister and theologian.

Later in life, in 1849, shortly after her mother died, Martineau came to terms with her own difficult childhood experience by writing a manual for the affectionate upbringing of children, Household Education. In this she rejected the idea of original sin as a “fatal notion.” “Teach a child that his nature is evil,” she wrote, “and you will make him evil.” Although her educational theory was indebted to the work of the philosophers Locke and Rousseau, she added to their ideas emphasis on the importance of parental love in the development of a child’s positive self-image.
Progressive deafness became evident in adolescence. In early adulthood she was persuaded to use an ear trumpet. Toward the end of her life she concluded that her deafness was “about the best thing that ever happened to me,” as it was both “the grandest impulse to self-mastery” and an opportunity to help others similarly afflicted

Harriet and her sisters were educated at home by older siblings and tutors; only the boys went to university. On a lengthy visit to relatives in Bristol when she was sixteen, Harriet fell under the spell of the Unitarian minister and educator, Lant Carpenter. She returned home more self-confident than when she had left, partly as a result of her new religious self-possession, but largely because her aunt had supplied some of the maternal affection withheld by her own mother.

From Carpenter and from her brother James (who also studied with Carpenter), Martineau imbibed the necessarian doctrine of Joseph Priestley. According to this doctrine, every effect has a cause rooted in the laws of the universe, which neither divine nor human will can change. She found this belief comforting and stabilizing, giving her “strength under sorrow, perplexity, sickness, and toil” for the rest of her life.

Martineau began writing for the Unitarian periodical, Monthly Repository, in 1822. In her second article, “Female Education,” following the path of Mary Wollstonecraft, with whom she may already have been familiar, Martineau argued that apparent differences in intellect between men and women were the product of educational discrimination. Martineau eventually became the most frequent contributor to the Monthly Repository, the volume of her contributions peaking 1829-32.

In 1830 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association held a contest for essays in three categories, proving Unitarian ideas superior to those of Catholics, Jews and Moslems. Martineau entered and won all three prizes. These were, however, her last writings explicitly supporting Unitarianism. Her religious ideas began to shift immediately afterwards. Although she retained a nominal Unitarian connection and attended chapel regularly, she later judged that by 1831 she “had already ceased to be an Unitarian in the technical sense.” Martineau soon began to identify the worship of God with the service of man. She took as her motto for life, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might.” (Ecclesiastes 14:10).

After the failure of the Martineau manufacturing business in 1829, Harriet had been forced to fall back upon needlework to make a living. The reception of the Unitarian prize essays encouraged her resolution to try supporting herself by writing.

In 1831 Martineau conceived the idea of writing a series of stories called Illustrations of Political Economy, based upon the utilitarian principles of Joseph Priestley and Jeremy Bentham—”the greatest happiness of the greatest number”—and the free trade economics of Adam Smith. She hoped to enable ordinary people to understand such things as tariffs, taxes and the national budget. She had to trek door-to-door to find a publisher, but when the series was published during 1832-33, the two dozen volumes sold in phenomenal numbers. This success gave her a national reputation, and enough money to allow her both to set up a household in London and to fund a two-year tour of the United States.

Because of her reputation as a Unitarian apologist, Martineau was welcomed by American Unitarians, including William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Charles and Eliza Follen. In 1835, while attending an anti-slavery meeting in Boston as an observer, Martineau was invited to make a statement in favor of abolition. Although she had been opposed to slavery prior to her visit to America, she hesitated to comply because, as she later wrote, “I foresaw that almost every house in Boston, except those of the abolitionists, would be shut against me; that my relation to the country would be completely changed, as I should suddenly be transformed from being a guest and an observer to being considered a missionary or a spy.”

But she felt she had to speak the truth. In her statement Martineau denounced slavery as “inconsistent with the law of God.” After the meeting, as she had predicted, her entry into American society was sharply circumscribed. The Follens, abolitionists themselves, accompanied her on her tour of the western states.

Martineau had approached her American trip in the manner of a sociologist. She was determined to evaluate and criticize what she saw, using only American terms of reference, and not British standards of behavior. She traveled widely, covering 10,000 miles, making the acquaintance of people of all classes. She based two books, Society in America, 1837, and Retrospect of Western Travel, 1838, upon these experiences.

Although she was generally impressed by American democracy, in Society in America Martineau expressed disappointment in the free enterprise system for the tendency to allow some, pursuing “a sordid love of gain,” to trample the rights of others. She thought that democracy could only be preserved, in the long run, by the abolition of private property. And she considered that, given America’s expressed values, the position of woman ought to have been far better than it actually was, that the condition of American women differed from that of slaves only in that they were treated with more indulgence. “Is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race? If so, what is the ground of the limitation?”

From 1839-44 the pain from an ovarian cyst kept her an invalid. She used opiates to deaden the pain, but nothing stopped her writing. During this period she wrote a novel, a series of children’s books, and a popular manual, Life in the Sick-Room, in which she drew upon her own current experience to counsel others both how to bear up under illness and how to behave when visiting the ill.

In the early 1840s mesmerism (or hypnotism, a non-standard medical practice based upon the theory of animal magnetism) was attracting considerable attention in Britain. As much out of scientific curiosity as desperation, Martineau allowed herself to be mesmerized. To her delight, she found that her pain vanished. She came out of seclusion and, typically, immediately advocated mesmerism for medical purposes.

Now happily free of pain, Martineau moved to Ambleside in the Lake District. There she built a house, The Knoll, near the Wordsworths and the Matthew Arnolds. It was her home for the rest of her life. In a letter to her sister Emily from Ambleside, Charlotte Bronte expressed admiration of Martineau, for “the manner in which she combines the highest mental culture with the nicest discharge of feminine duties.”

In 1846 Martineau embarked with friends on an eight-month tour of the Near East, where she studied ancient Egyptian religion and visited places mentioned in the Bible in Palestine. This trip convinced her that religion had not been revealed all at once but had evolved. She had already dropped most Christian doctrines but had clung to belief in an afterlife. Now she let that go as well. When she returned to England she rushed into print with Eastern Life Present and Past. As a travel book it was well received, though most readers considered her religious views atheistic. Brother James’s vitriolic review made permanent their separation which had been growing over the years; they never spoke to one another again. British Unitarians, on the whole, continued to claim her in spite of the embarrassment associated with the author of Eastern Life. Toward the end of her life Martineau wrote, “I hope and believe my old co-religionists understand and admit that I disdain their theology in toto, and that by no twisting of language or darkening of its meanings can I be made out to have any thing whatever in common with them about religious matters.”

Martineau’s illness returned in 1854, rendering her an invalid for the rest of her life. She was determined, nevertheless, to pursue a journalistic career which she had begun two years before when she had become a leader writer for the London Daily News. Over the next fourteen years she wrote more than 1600 items for the Daily News, “Doing pretty well for a dying person.” Martineau took a number of controversial stands in print. Notably, she opposed the notorious Contagious Diseases Act, which allowed the police to treat any woman unaccompanied by a man as a prostitute and which granted accused women no rights of defense or appeal. In spearheading the fight against this act, she provided early leadership in a campaign that brought a large number of women into the public discussion of politics, thereby helping to launch the modern British women’s movement. Her writings on slavery have been credited with swaying English public opinion in favor of the North in the American Civil war. A strong-minded and outspoken woman, she offended many people. Even so, her journalism made hers a well-respected name in her time.

Although she lived for another decade, the progress of her illness forced Martineau to retire from writing in 1866. Even in retirement she wrote letters for publication and lent her name to numerous causes. During her last years she continued to serve as her nation’s conscience and as an icon of Britain’s emerging feminist cause.


Correspondence of Harriet Martineau is housed in a number of locations, most notably Manchester College at Oxford (a Unitarian school), the British Museum, the University College Library in London, the University of Birmingham Library, and the Boston Public Library. Two published collections of her correspondence are Valerie Sanders, ed., Harriet Martineau-Selected Letters (1990) and Elisabeth Sanders Arbuckle, ed., Harriet Martineau’s Letters To Fanny Wedgwood (1983). Martineau wrote for many periodicals, including the Monthly Respository, Westminster Review, Edinburgh Review, the London Daily News, the People’s Journal, Household Words, the Leader, and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Articles from some of these magazines were published as anthologies in Martinea’s lifetime. Miscellanies (1836) consists of reprints of her Monthly Repository articles. Letters from Ireland (1852) and Biographical Sketches (1869) are collections of her work for the Daily News. Elisabeth Sanders Arbuckle, ed., In The London Daily News: Selected Contributions, 1852-1866 (1994) is a modern anthology of Martineau journalism. Francis E. Mineka, The Dissidence of Dissent: The Monthly Repository, 1806-1838 (1944), contains a catalogue of the Monthly Repository articles. The catalogue of Martineau’s Daily News articles, prepared by R. K. Webb, is in the Library of Congress, the Boston Public Library, and the British Museum Newspaper Library at Colindale. Joseph B. Rivlin prepared “Harriet Martineau: A Bibliography of Her Separately Printed Works” printed in two issues of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library (1946-47).

Martineau works not mentioned above include Five Years of Youth: or, Sense and Sentiment (1832), a novella; How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), her work of sociological methodology; Deerbrook (1839), a novel; The Hour and the Man (1841), a novel based upon Toussaint L’Ouverture, liberator of Haiti; Letters on Mesmerism (1845), a pamphlet reprinting her article in the Athenaeum; The History of England during the Thirty Year’s Peace, 1816-1846 (1849-50); Letters on the Laws of Man’sNature and Development (1851), with Henry Atkinson; and a translation of Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy (1853). Her prize essays, The essential faith of the universal church, The faith as unfolded by many prophets, and Providence as manifested through Israel were issued as pamphlets in 1831 and 1832. Society in America was issued on 1962 in a modern, abridged form, edited by Seymour Martin Lipset.

Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, edited by Maria Weston Chapman, was issued in three volumes in 1877. The last volume, Memorials, was written by Chapman. Modern biographies include R.K. Webb, Harriet Martineau, A Radical Victorian (1960); Valerie Kossew Pichanick, Harriet Martineau: The Woman and Her Work, 1802-1876 (1980); and Susan Hoecker-Drysdale, Harriet Martineau, First Woman Sociologist (1992). Martineau receives major treatment in Deirdre David, Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Browning and George Eliot (1987). Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (1997) tells of Martineau’s American connections, particularly to the Follens.

Article by Maryell Cleary and Peter Hughes
Posted October 10, 2000