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Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1893

Harriet Martineau as a young womanHarriet Martineau, miscellaneous writer, born at Norwich 12 June 1802, was the third daughter and sixth of eight children of Thomas Martineau, manufacturer of camlet and bombazine, by Elizabeth (Rankin), daughter of a sugar-refiner at Newcastle-on-Tyne. James Martineau (1805-1900) was her younger brother. The Martineau family traced its descent to a Huguenot, David Martineau, who, after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, had settled as a surgeon at Norwich. A succession of Martineaus followed the same profession at Norwich, the last of whom, Philip Meadows (d. 1828), was a brother of Thomas Martineau. The family was unitarian and belonged to the little literary coterie of which William Taylor was the head. Mrs. Barbauld and her niece, Miss Aikin, were occasional visitors.

Birthplace of MartineauBirthplace of Harriet Martineau

The elder Martineaus, feeling that their fortune was precarious in the war time, pinched themselves to provide all their children with an education which would enable them to earn a living. Harriet was a sickly child, and suffered for many years from indigestion and nervous weakness. The well-meant but rigid discipline of her parents, and the thoughtless roughness of the elder children, injured her temper and made her gloomy, jealous, and morbid. She was, however, persevering, and at an early age began compiling little note-books of an edifying tendency. At seven years old she happened to open ‘Paradise Lost,’ and she soon knew it almost by heart. She was educated at home, learning Latin from her eldest brother, Thomas, and music from John Christmas Beckwith the Norwich organist. In 1813 she was sent with her sister Rachel to a school in the town kept by the Rev. Isaac Perry, where she learnt French. Besides Latin and French she was practised in English composition. When Perry left Norwich in 1815 she left school, but continued her classical studies at home. While at Perry's her deafness began to show itself, and before she was sixteen it had become very distressing. It was afterwards (in 1820) suddenly increased ‘by what might be called an accident’. She never possessed the senses of taste or smell, except that once in her life she tasted a leg of mutton and ‘thought it delicious’.

The morbid state of her nerves and temper induced her parents to send her for a change of scene and climate to Bristol, where the wife of her mother's brother kept a school. Here for the first time she found in her aunt a ‘human being of whom she was not afraid’. After fifteen months' stay, she returned home in April 1819, morally improved by affectionate treatment, but with health rather worse. She had been overworked and medically mismanaged. She had become an almost fanatical disciple of Lant Carpenter, the unitarian minister at Bristol. She now read the Bible systematically, was attracted to philosophical books by Carpenter's influence, and was especially impressed by Hartley, whose ‘Treatise on Man’ became to her ‘perhaps the most important book in the world, except the Bible’. She also read Priestley, and became, like Hartley and Priestley, a believer in the doctrine of ‘philosophical necessity,’ which greatly modified her religious beliefs. In 1821, at the suggestion of her brother James, at this period her ‘idolised companion,’ she sent an article (on ‘Female Writers on Practical Divinity’) to the unitarian organ, the ‘Monthly Repository.’ It was warmly praised by her brother Thomas, who upon her confessing to the authorship advised her to give up darning stockings and take to literature. She at once began to write upon ‘Devotional Exercises,’ and made an attempt at a theological novel.

In 1823 her brother Thomas was taken ill and died in June 1824 at Madeira. Her father's health broke down, partly from the shock of losing his son. He became embarrassed during the financial crisis of 1825-6 and died in June 1826, leaving a very small provision for his family. Harriet soon afterwards was ‘virtually engaged’ to a poor fellow-student of her brother James, named Worthington. His family objected, misled by false reports of her being engaged to another; and after many difficulties had been surmounted he became insane and died some months later. She seems to have come to the conclusion in later life that her escape from the risks of marriage was on the whole fortunate. During 1827, however, her health suffered. She wrote some melancholy poems, and sent some ‘dull and doleful prose writings’ to an old Calvinistic publisher named Houlston of Wellington, Shropshire. He accepted ‘two little eightpenny stories,’ sent her £5, her first literary earnings, and asked for more copy. She sent him several short tales, one of which, called ‘The Rioters,’ dealt with the wages question; it was republished without her consent by Houlston's successors, after some machine-breaking, about 1842.

A long illness followed, which was successfully treated at Newcastle by her brother-in-law, husband of her eldest sister, Elizabeth. While there she began a literary connection with William Johnson Fox, the new editor of the ‘Monthly Repository,’ and wrote a life of Howard for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Her father's widowed sister, Mrs. Lee, came to live with her mother at the same time. In 1829 the failure of the house in which the fortunes of the family had been invested brought them all into difficulties, and she was left penniless. The ‘Life of Howard’ had somehow vanished in the archives of the society, and no payment was received. She was forced to gain a living partly by needlework, and for two years lived on £50 a year. Fox gave her £15 a year, all the money at his disposal, for writing reviews in the ‘Repository.’ In it she also wrote the first number of the ‘Traditions of Palestine,’ the success of which encouraged the publication of the volume so called in the following spring. Fox remained one of her most valued friends to the end of his life. Her mother, for domestic reasons, refused to permit her to accept a small post involving literary drudgery in London. The Central Unitarian Association offered prizes at this time for three essays, intended to convert the catholics, the Jews, and the Mahommedans. Miss Martineau wrote for them all. The prize for the first was awarded to her in September 1830, and the other two prizes in the following May. The essays probably converted nobody, but brought in forty-five guineas. The prize-money enabled her to visit her brother James at Dublin in 1831, and while there she thought out a plan for a series of stories in illustration of political economy. She had touched similar subjects in her stories for Houlston in 1827, and had learnt shortly afterwards something about the science from the ‘Conversations’ of Mrs. Jane Marcet. The idea of the stories had then first occurred to her and been approved by her brother. She now determined to devote herself to the work entirely, and accepted small loans from two rich friends to set her free for the time.

She wrote to publishers from Dublin without success, and in December 1831 went to London to carry on negotiations. After many repulses she finally agreed with a young publisher, Charles Fox, brother of W. J. Fox, to bring out her stories. He was to have half profits, and there was to be a subscription for five hundred copies before the publication began. The subscription only reached three hundred, but the series was begun in February 1832, and at once made a remarkable success. Her publisher wrote to her on 10 February saying that the first edition of fifteen hundred copies was nearly exhausted, and proposing to print five thousand more. She soon became one of the ‘lions’ of the day.

Her labours were severe. She had resolved, by the advice of her brother in Dublin, to bring out a story every month. Twenty-five numbers were thus produced, the last in February 1834. Besides this she wrote four ‘poor-law tales’ for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge at Brougham's suggestion, and added in 1834 five supplementary tales called ‘Illustrations of Taxation.’ She had taken lodgings in Conduit Street, but her mother, after some months, took a house in Fludyer Street, Westminster, where they lived, together with her aunt, till she left London. She dined out every day except Sunday, and made acquaintance with all the literary celebrities. Hallam advised her; Sydney Smith joked with her; Milman, Malthus (with whom she stayed at Haileybury), Rogers, Monckton Milnes, Bulwer, and many others became friends. She knew Carlyle some time later, and suggested and managed his first course of lectures in 1837. She gave her impressions of ‘literary lionism’ in an article in the ‘Westminster Review’ for April 1839, which shows that social flattery did not turn her head. Cabinet ministers asked her opinion of their methods; the retired governor of Ceylon (Sir Alexander Johnstone) crammed her for a tale to illustrate the monopoly of the East India Company; Brougham took her up warmly, and as chancellor supplied her with private papers in order that she might write effectively on behalf of the projected poor-law reforms; Owen tried unsuccessfully to get her to defend his socialism, and an agent of the American colonisation scheme endeavoured to imbue her with his theories about slavery. Croker attempted to ‘destroy her’ by an article in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for her support of Malthus, and Empson praised her in the ‘Edinburgh.’ She says that her sale was increased by the suggestions of her wickedness in the ‘Quarterly,’ which is conceivable, and that it ‘diminished markedly and immediately’ after the praises of the ‘Edinburgh,’ because whig praises were disliked by the people. As, however, both articles appeared in the numbers for April 1833, the statements are not easily reconcilable. Empson says that she was writing too fast, and the stories therefore declined in interest. Some deduction must be made from her estimate of her own importance, and certainly from her imputations upon hostile editors. The ‘tales’ are now an unreadable mixture of fiction, founded on rapid cramming, with raw masses of the dismal science. They certainly show the true journalist's talent of turning hasty acquisitions to account. But they are chiefly remarkable as illustrations of the contemporary state of mind, when the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge testified to a sudden desire for popularising knowledge, and when the political economists of the school of Malthus, Ricardo, and James Mill were beginning to have an influence upon legislation. A revelation of their doctrine in the shape of fiction instead of dry treatises just met the popular mood. The ‘stern Benthamites,’ she says, thanked her as a faithful expositor of their doctrines.

The success of the tales was of course profitable to her publisher, who sold about ten thousand copies and made a profit of £2,000. A misunderstanding arose as to the terms of the original agreement. Fox held that he had a right to publish the whole series at half profits, while she held that he had only a right to twenty-four numbers. The final numbers were therefore published separately as ‘Illustrations of Taxation.’ Her complaints of injustice, however, appear to be unintentionally unfair to Fox, whose view of the case was supported by his brother, W. J. Fox. The dispute, however, did not interrupt the friendship between W. J. Fox and Miss Martineau. She sensibly refused to live more expensively, and finally invested £1,000 in the purchase of a deferred annuity, which gave her £100 a year, to begin in 1850.

Her health suffered from her labours, and she resolved upon a holiday. At the suggestion of Lord Harley she went to America, sailing on 4 August 1834, and reaching New York after a voyage of forty-two days. She had already written against slavery and did not attempt to conceal her opinions in the States. At that period the antipathy to the abolitionists had reached its highest point, and they were constantly exposed to lynch-law. Miss Martineau made a tour in the south in her first winter, and was everywhere hospitably received. On going to Boston, however, in 1835, she found that meetings of abolitionists were exposed to serious danger. She attended them in spite of remonstrances, and made friends with the leaders, and especially with Mrs. Chapman, although she had previously regarded them as fanatics. She was afterwards treated with coldness by the respectable, and in later journeys received threats of personal injury. She was forced to abandon a journey down the Ohio, and threatened again during a tour to the northern lakes. She naturally came home a determined abolitionist.

She reached Liverpool on 26 August 1836, and at once received liberal offers from publishers for a book upon her travels. She accepted an offer of £900 from Messrs. Saunders & Otley for a first edition of her ‘Society in America,’ and they afterwards gave her £600 for a lighter book of personal experience called ‘A Retrospect of Western Travel.’ The second was more successful than the first, which was intended to be a philosophical discussion by a radical politician of the political and social state of the United States. She wrote for various periodicals and was offered the editorship of a projected ‘Economic Magazine.’ She declined on the advice of her brother James, and resolved to write a novel. This was finally published as ‘Deerbrook’ by Moxon in the spring of 1839, after being declined by Murray, and succeeded fairly. She always held it to be her best work. She also formed a connection with Charles Knight, to whom she suggested the publication of his ‘Weekly Volumes.’ She published her contributions to the ‘Guides to Service,’ suggested by the poor-law commissioners. She was again overworked, and in the spring of 1839 made a tour abroad. At Venice she became seriously ill and had to be brought home by the quickest route and taken to Newcastle to be under the care of her brother-in-law. After staying six months with him, she moved into lodgings at Tynemouth. She was able to write ‘The Hour and the Man,’ of which Toussaint L'Ouverture was the hero, in 1840; and afterwards wrote the series of children's stories called ‘The Playfellow,’ which are among her most popular works. In 1843 she wrote ‘Life in the Sick Room,’ which has been highly valued, although she came to ‘despise’ much of it as scarcely sincere at a later period, when her religious views had developed. She now became incapable of any exertion.

At the time of her voyage to America Lord Grey had proposed to give her a pension of £300 a year. The five months' premiership of Peel suspended the affair, and she meanwhile made up her mind and intimated that she should decline an offer which she could only accept at some risk to her independence. In 1841 Lord Melbourne offered, through Charles Buller, a pension of £150 — all in his power at the time. She again declined, on the same principle as she afterwards declined a similar offer in 1873 from Mr. Gladstone. Her friends raised a testimonial in 1843, £1,400 of which was invested for her benefit in the long annuities.

Miss Martineau's illness had been pronounced incurable. She had been advised by some friends, including Bulwer and the Basil Montagus, to try mesmerism. Spencer Timothy Hall happened to be lecturing upon mesmerism at Newcastle in 1844, and was called in to attend her. She was afterwards regularly mesmerised. She rapidly recovered, and gave an account of her case in ‘Letters on Mesmerism,’ first published in the ‘Athenæum.’ Unbelievers were irritated, her eldest sister (who died soon afterwards) and her mother were alienated for the time, and charges of imposture and credulity freely made upon persons concerned. Miss Martineau naturally became a firm believer, and occasionally mesmerised patients herself.

Her experience in mesmerism had brought her the acquaintance of a gentleman interested in the question who was living on Windermere, and in January 1845 she visited him in order to confirm her recovery. Tynemouth had become disagreeable, owing to the quarrels over mesmerism; her mother was settled with other children at Liverpool, and she took lodgings at Waterhead to look about her and form plans for her life. She finally bought a plot of ground at Clappersgate, Westmoreland, and built a house, called ‘The Knoll,’ during the winter of 1845-6. In the autumn of 1845 she wrote her ‘Forest and Game-Law Tales,’ upon evidence supplied by John Bright, which were for the time a failure, partly owing to the excitement about the repeal of the corn laws. After settling in her new house she made many excursions in the Lake district in 1846, and in August was invited by her friends, Mr. and Mrs. R. V. Yates, to accompany them and Mr. J. C. Ewart on a visit to Egypt and Palestine. She returned in July 1847 and began her book upon Eastern life. She had by this time repudiated all theology. In May 1845 she had first seen Henry G. Atkinson, a friend of the Basil Montagus, who had previously through them given her advice upon mesmerism. She consulted him as to the fulness with which she should avow her opinions in the book upon the East, where she proposed to consider the origin of the chief religions. The book was published in 1848, with sufficient success to enable her to acquire full property in her house.

In 1848 she was induced by Charles Knight to undertake a ‘History of the Peace,’ which he had begun but thrown aside. Her mother died in August 1848, at the age of seventy-five, after an illness which caused her daughter much anxiety. She began her history, however, in August, after previous preparation, finished the first volume by 1 February 1849, and wrote the second in another six months, after a holiday, finishing it in November 1849. It is a remarkable performance, especially considering the time occupied, and written with real power. It generally represents the views of the ‘philosophical radicals.’ During 1850 she wrote an introductory volume, besides miscellaneous work, including some articles for ‘Household Words.’ She received £1,000 for the history and £200 for the introductory chapter.

Martineau as an older lady In January 1851 she published the ‘Letters on the Laws of Man's Social Nature and Development.’ They were chiefly written by Atkinson, and were published at her request. Their anti-theological views naturally gave much offence. They were severely reviewed in the ‘Prospective Review’ by her brother James, who expressed his pain at finding Miss Martineau as the disciple of an avowed atheist. An alienation which followed was, partly at least, due to other causes. Comte's philosophy was beginning to attract notice at this time, and Miss Martineau, after reading the notices of Lewes and Littré, planned a translation as soon as the history and the Atkinson letters were fairly off her hands. She was interrupted for a time by writing the fragment of a novel, which Miss Brontë, recently known to her, undertook to get published anonymously. It showed favour to the Roman Catholics, which caused its rejection by a publisher, and she ultimately burnt it. She afterwards gave up writing for ‘Household Words’ on the ground that it was unfair to Catholicism. Comte probably influenced her in this direction. In 1851 a Norfolk country gentleman named Lombe sent her £500 upon hearing from Mr. Chapman that she contemplated a translation of the ‘Philosophie Positive.’ She decided to accept £200 as a remuneration for the labour, and to devote the rest to the expenses of publication. The profits were divided between herself, Mr. Chapman, and Comte. She began her work, which is an able condensation of Comte's six volumes into two, in June 1852, and finished it in October 1853. The book was published in the beginning of November. Comte was highly gratified, and placed it, instead of his own, among the books to be read by his disciples. In 1871 one of them, M. Avezac-Lavigne, began a translation of it into French.

Before beginning her translation she had been asked to contribute to the ‘Daily News,’ the editor, Frederick Knight Hunt, having been attracted by her ‘History of the Peace.’ She wrote three articles a week during her occupation with Comte, and afterwards for a time as many as six. She continued to contribute, under two succeeding editors, until 1866, writing on the whole over sixteen hundred articles. A list of the articles in 1861 is given by Mrs. Fenwick Miller. Besides this she wrote some articles for the ‘Edinburgh Review’ after 1859. Her energy was not entirely absorbed by this work; but in 1854 she showed symptoms of disease of the heart, which was pronounced to be fatal in January 1855. In expectation of a speedy death, she wrote her autobiography in 1855. Her life, however, was prolonged, though her strength gradually declined. She took a keen interest in the American war, and afterwards in the agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts. The loss of her niece, Maria Martineau, daughter of her brother Robert, in 1864 was a great trouble; but she preserved her mental powers to the last, and died at The Knoll 27 June 1876. She was buried beside her mother in the old cemetery at Birmingham.

Besides her varied and industrious literary labours Miss Martineau had been active in her social relations. She was on friendly terms in her first years at the Lakes with the Wordsworths, and the poet had pronounced her purchase of the land there to be ‘the wisest step of her life, for the value of the property would be doubled in ten years’. He also prudently advised her to entertain her friends to tea, but if they wanted more to say that they must pay for their board. He was, however, substantially kindly and generous. Some of the respectable neighbours were frightened by her opinions; but she had abundance of friends and guests. She gave careful lectures to the workmen during the winter, was very charitable out of a modest income, and started a building society and other benevolent schemes. She started a farm on her little property with the help of a labourer imported from Norfolk, and described his success in a pamphlet. An excellent description of her in her later years is given by Mr. Payn in his ‘Literary Recollections,’ who speaks warmly of her kindly, ‘motherly’ ways, her strong good sense, and her idolatry of Atkinson.

Miss Martineau says of herself, in a short biography written for the ‘Daily News’, that her power was due to ‘earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range.’ She had ‘small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore no approach to genius,’ but could see clearly and express herself clearly. She ‘could popularise, though she could neither discover nor invent.’ Her life, she adds, was useful so far as she could do this ‘diligently and honestly.’ There can be no doubt of her honesty, and her diligence is sufficiently proved by the great quantity of work which she executed in spite of many years of prostrating illness. Her estimate of herself was, if anything, on the side of modesty, but seems to be substantially correct. Some of her stories perhaps show an approach to genius; but neither her history nor her philosophical writings have the thoroughness of research or the originality of conception which could entitle them to such a name. As an interpreter of a rather rigid and prosaic school of thought, and a compiler of clear compendiums of knowledge, she certainly deserves a high place, and her independence and solidity of character give a value to her more personal utterances.

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