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What is to be done with Harriet Martineau?

“She says nothing that is not obvious,” claimed Alice Meynell of Harriet Martineau (1802-76), “and nothing that is not peevishly and intentionally misunderstood.” (Pall Mall Gazette, 11 October 1895). If this seemed the case in 1895, how does her reputation stand in the twenty-first century, given that so much of her writing and campaigning was tied to passing causes and controversies of the time? These included issues such as economic conditions of the 1830s, American slavery, British rule in India, the fire hazards of crinolines, and the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Victorians couldn’t make up their minds about Martineau. Alternately hailed as a celebrity and vilified as an unfeminine woman who had stepped out of her proper sphere, she lived in a state of perpetual argument and debate. Even the last twenty years of her life, spent peacefully in the Lake District, brought their own household dramas, including the tragic death (from typhoid) of her devoted niece and companion (“a glorious niece of mine,—my unsurpassable nurse”), Maria Martineau (1827-64). Fully expecting to die of the heart disease misdiagnosed in 1855, and a frequent victim of sinking fits and other physical ills, Harriet Martineau proved unexpectedly resilient, firing off trenchant ‘leaders’ for the London Daily News (until 1866) and articles on tough political issues for top periodicals such as the Edinburgh, Westminster and Quarterly Reviews. 

Martineau even wrote a lengthy autobiography (begun in 1855, two decades before her death) which ended with a panoramic survey of the human condition she thought she was leaving. A self-critical obituary was also provided, with the date of death left blank to be filled in when the time came, to “appear as soon as possible after I am gone.” Arguably, it was the longest farewell in nineteenth-century literary history.

Image Credit: ‘Harriet Martineau, by Richard Evans, exhibited 1834’, from the National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The question of what specifically she should be remembered for continues to exercise critics and historians. Martineau made herself an expert in one disciplinary field after another, beginning with economics. She first shot to fame with her twenty-five short tales, Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-4), which made her the darling of the London drawing-rooms, but also the butt of hostile critics who were appalled at the idea of a woman presuming to educate her readers in the niceties of economics, and even what was euphemistically called “the preventive check.”

Following a two-year tour of the United States she became an expert on the anti-slavery cause, and she subsequently educated herself on issues as varied as mesmerism, industrial processes, post-Crimean nursing reforms, the roles of servants, the health of governesses, the condition of Ireland, and travel and religion in the Middle East. At the same time she was experimenting with a range of literary genres, including children’s stories and domestic realism in fiction. Critics today claim her as “the first woman sociologist” an early proto-feminist, and a pathbreaking autobiographer, who, unlike many of her female contemporaries, presented her life as a series of intellectual advancements culminating in the abandonment of her Unitarian religion for a version of agnosticism.

It is perhaps as a journalist, however, that Martineau best deserves to be remembered. Her subjects may have been ephemeral and of the moment, but her ‘voice’ and what she stood for were distinctive. Her key phrase as a journalist is “What is to be done?” which reverberates as a rallying cry through many of her books and articles. She asked it of endowed schools in Ireland, and of unsold land in America; of the challenges of observing foreign customs, rehabilitating criminals, and even eating corn on the cob.

Typically her most trenchant pieces, written in a homely style, appeal to the responsible reader as someone who can assist in finding a solution. Her letters, in which she rehearsed many of her arguments, suggest that Martineau hugely enjoyed her work, and was amused by the eagerness of editors to solicit her contributions.  When, as a middle-aged woman, she told a friend “I have an all important review to write,” she said it with undiminished pride and excitement. The sheer exhilaration of always having something purposeful to say and do was perhaps the most optimistic message Martineau delivered about herself, about women, and about humankind in general. As the author of an early tale called French Wines and Politics (1833), she would certainly have had something to say about modern political events, especially the recent Brexit: most probably “What is to be done?”

Featured Image Credit: ‘Lake District Photo’ by Stanleytheman, CC by -SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

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