Encounters With Harriet Martineau

By Stuart Hobday

A biography of Harriet Martineau, the first female journalist

Harriet Martineau lived an eventful life through tumultuous times. Born in Norwich at the beginning of the nineteenth century (1802) she died in the Lake District 74 years later having been a participant, observer and an influence within some of the greatest historic movements and events mankind has seen and certainly some that helped shape the modern world. Within what she called the most important history: the history of ideas, she has been a much underestimated figure. Intangible and hard to measure, it is ideas, ideology and philosophies which move institutions along and inspire people to make change. The restless pen of Harriet Martineau did as much as anyone during a critical time in the development of ideas that still inform ideological movements, leaders and governments across the world.

Martineau is a rare creature. As a shy, inward teenager she took to reading and developed her own lifelong philosophy based on the writings of amongst others, Francis Bacon, Joseph Priestley, Jane Marcet, Thomas Paine and Adam Smith. She developed a clear progressive belief that mankind was on an upward curve towards freedom, better living conditions, self awareness through education and progress through science. She had great faith in the capabilities of people if they could be encouraged, freed up and backed up but also in free, but fair, markets. In later life she was overtly scornful of religion, outspoken for women’s rights, unusual in advocating racial equality, she anticipates modern evolutionary philosophy, directly influences the development of social science, and to top it all becomes the precedent model of a modern campaigning journalist in the last 25 years of her life. In doing all this she also becomes an advocate of sustainable living, better health and hospitals as well as self determination of people around the world and human rights, advocating these ideas a long time before they became widely discussed.

These ideas have become the drivers of the modern world. Greater freedom, greater democracy, greater rights for all people, have become bedrocks. Progress through science has become a background noise to the world’s activities in both natural and social sciences. Racial equality and the rights of women are still controversial in some places but widely accepted by many as the right way forward. Religion is still powerful but increasingly challenged by secular thinking. The message of education, better health, better hospitals is one that is still spreading throughout the world but spreading it is. Martineau’s understanding of sustainable living and her connection with nature in the Lake District is such that we can still learn from her in the light of mankind’s impact on the planet’s natural resources and the limits of modern consumerism.

If you believe that these things would have happened anyway, then you would be agreeing with Harriet Martineau, that mankind has an inevitable trend towards progress, freedom, knowledge and self realisation. If, like me, you think that these notions need advocates and originators, then Martineau is squarely in the frame. Not uniquely, and she was the first to say she merely popularised the ideas of others, but actually she developed her own radical ideas, had determination to popularise them, moral courage to speak out in the face of ridicule, and had direct influence on other nineteenth century individuals who would go on to help forge these developments.

If she were here she would have to say that the twentieth century did not go the way she anticipated. The Marxist and fascist experiments of Stalin and Hitler were major side roads away from the road to freedom and she abhorred violence and despotism. Meanwhile, however, science and education have been growing. The social science she helped to found has been instrumental in shaping institutions providing democracy and human rights. Free markets have won the battle with socialistic systems, however Martineau would have baulked at the inequality and ostentatious wealth that free markets have wrought. It is striking however, how her work chimes with the modern world and this has led to a resurgence of interest in her life and work.

That resurgence has been driven from America. From American academics in the social sciences, recognising Martineau as a first wave feminist and founder of social science. This is strangely appropriate though shames British historians. Martineau had a great realisation about America, that it provided a great hope for a new world. She set off on an intrepid grand tour of the States in 1834, was fêted as a famed author wherever she went, met many of America’s notable people including President Andrew Jackson, made friends and contacts which lasted throughout her life and informed her writing. Her books and journalism were widely read in America throughout her life.


Harriet Martineau’s life can be divided into distinct phases. Her childhood was marred by illness and shyness, though there is some disagreement as to how happy or unhappy she was. In her early years she lost her sense of taste and smell and, as a teenager, began to go deaf, such that as an adult she became reliant, and well know for, a large ear trumpet that she would thrust towards her conversational partner.

It was in her 20’s that she began to write, so much so that she soon realised that she had found her calling. Having retreated into reading as a teenager, her informed opinions now found their voice. The 1830’s were key to Martineau’s life. She moved to London and her monthly issued economic parables quickly became widely read and she developed as a fêted figure in London, a centre point to a radical free thinking circle. Politicians lined up to persuade her to write something in favour of their preferred economic policies.

In 1834 she set off for the American trip which was to last nearly two years and she came back to London in 1836 and proceeded to produce radical outspoken analysis of America which was widely read and reviewed. Often called the ‘radical 30s’ it’s hard for us to relate to that time when literacy and education were not common, when voting was a small male elite, modern industrial technology was just starting and there was a profound disconnect between the ruled and the ruling. Martineau was one of the first to bridge that gap.

However the next phase of her life began in Venice in 1840 when she was taken ill and returned to be near her doctor brother-in-law in Tynemouth, near Newcastle. She spent nearly the next five years in her ‘sickroom’ although her pen was not dimmed, producing a biography of Haitian slave rebellion leader Toussaint L’Ouverture ‘The Hour and the Man’, several children’s stories and reflections on her illness in ‘Life in the Sickroom’.

She was adamant that she recovered after a course of ‘mesmerism’, the use of electrical magnetism on the body, a precursor of modern homeopathic approaches to medicine and which through her advocacy became something of a sensation in the mid 1840’s. Having recovered, she visited the Lake District and enjoyed it so much, resolved to move there. She bought a plot of land in Ambleside for which she designed, and had built, her own house, ‘The Knoll’ which she was to call home for the rest of her life.

Martineau revelled in the beautiful surrounds of Ambleside and found a new set of stimulating friends, including the Wordsworths and the Arnolds. She did not, however, fall into a relaxation or mellowing of her pen. Quite the opposite in fact. In the 1850’s Martineau wrote much that was overtly anti-religious and moved into some subtle and radical scientific philosophical areas. After eight months of travelling in the Eastern lands of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, she produced the three volume ‘Eastern Life’ which John Murray refused to publish for its ‘infidel tendencies’ in that she argued that the Eastern based religions would be superseded by science and predicted ongoing problems between the differing peoples of the middle east.

By now Martineau was in a regular correspondence with Henry Atkinson and she arranged for this correspondence to be published in 1851 under the title ‘Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development’. This volume contained writing that ridiculed religious ideas of man’s origin and firmly placed the human mind as well within ‘nature’. The book caused many friends and family to distance themselves. This was eight years before Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ caused theological tumult and many critics, including Harriet’s beloved brother James, wrote dismissive reviews.

Harriet was undimmed however and followed it up with a three volume history, outlining her progressive ideas and a popular translation of the Positive Philosophy of August Comte. His secular, progressive, scientific philosophy chimed with her own writings. This phase of her life culminated with another illness. Convinced she was about to die of an enlarged heart, in 1855 she penned her autobiography and her own obituary.

I would contend that one of the tragedies of her life was that the autobiography did not come out until after her death 21 years later. Had it come out in 1855, it would have caused a sensation. She still had a visible public profile and as a book it contains much to antagonise the religious minded establishment and this would have been several years in advance of the coming Darwinian controversies. It is written in an open, honest, modern prose which would have shocked the 1850’s public. The autobiography is a stream of consciousness that brings alive the Victorian era and has a tone of realistic prose which would become the norm in the twentieth century. As it was, her fame waned in the last fifteen years of her life, she was less active and visible and the autobiography did not appear to the public until after her death twenty one years later.

The 1855 illness was not to be her last and by now she was also writing regular leader articles for the national newspaper the Daily News, a liberal alternative to the establishment Times. She was to write over 1600 leaders for the Daily News and other pieces for journals on topics ranging from international affairs, the effects of industrialisation and home politics. She provided the authentic voice of abolitionist America, fed by her contacts and friends over there, in the lead up to the American Civil War which she proclaimed as America’s ‘manifest destiny’. This may seem irrelevant today when it is easy to forget slavery was at its peak in America in the 1850’s and had powerful friends in Britain underpinning, as it did, the cotton factories of the North and still much of the trade and wealth shared with America. This is conveniently forgotten in the British slavery narrative. Often glossed over is also how the slavery era of 1850s America and the subsequent American Civil War has shaped many of the deep divides still prevalent in the modern USA.

Martineau formed formidable partnerships with Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler, being the journalistic newspaper voice for their causes. With Nightingale on the need for better hospitals, hygiene and trained nurses, and with Butler in reforming the Contagious Diseases Act so as to be less harsh towards women in prostitution.

Martineau finally passed away in June 1876 at the Knoll. She was found to have had a large ovarian cyst which would explain a lot of her health problems in the second half of her life. The 1855 health crisis has largely been put down to menopausal effects. Forever an advocate of science, she offered to leave her brain to Atkinson and her ears to a hearing specialist. Both declined and she was buried in Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham in a family grave.

I would by no means claim Harriet Martineau to be either perfect or solely responsible for the progressive ideas advocated and their impact. She had a bad habit of burning her bridges and several times used her pen to give scathing reviews of the work of friends which led to subsequent falling out. She made eccentric demands of friends and could be very vain as regards herself. After the publication of the Atkinson letters, Robert Webb introduces the reaction by suggesting that she ‘achieved the martyrdom she so craved’ and she certainly had an aspect of being a martyr to her causes.

For much of her life she would have been a notable presence at gatherings, with her ear trumpet not getting in the way of constant conversation. In 1830s London she was a social catalyst for a new generation of freethinkers.

In later life she shocked the Ambleside locals with her hobnail boots and by smoking cigars. She lived and wrote very freely herself but could be very moralistic and preaching to others. A perceived weakness in her writing has been that she found it hard to relate to passion or overwhelming love. She remained single throughout her life and is assumed to have never been sexually active. She had a clinical, logical approach to life which could come across as moral superiority. Webb suggests that Martineau was probably gay (in the modern sense) and certainly she had close connections and profound relationships with several women. This will, however, remain speculation as it was almost certainly never physically acted upon if true. The morality she applied meant that her writings can be both acerbic and hypocritical in that she would never be told herself but could be judgemental of others.

However, I believe that within the history of ideas there are some hidden virtues within Martineau’s oeuvre. She wrote before the modern academic divides became manifest and so had no qualms switching from economics to politics to science to fiction to biography to history. There is freedom manifest in her whole body of work being so diverse. Moreover, everything she wrote had a reason behind it, a cause toward the betterment for some other person or persons, her writing was driven by causes. Dickens said of her that she was “grimly bent upon the enlightenment of mankind” and this she was. She would have been nonplussed by the modern academic scene with its niche study and endless pointless production of ‘papers’. Martineau would have been much more in tune with modern campaign journalists and popular authors who have something to say, in a way that will make a difference because people will read it, and she was one of the first of these.

This diversity and freedom in her writing hasn’t, however, helped the cause of her being remembered. She doesn’t fit easily into any category which is not helpful to libraries, bookshops or academics. She crops up in books about sociology, literature, travel, histories, journalism, evolution and many biographies but she herself has slipped through the cracks so far as to be poorly remembered. She ought to have become famous for her autobiography alone, such is the power of its modern direct free prose and the vehemence of its secularism. However, the delay in publication and the subsequent moralistic reviews showed it was both too late and too early for such a work. Similarly, she could have become famous for her journalism in the Daily News but it was all issued upon the public anonymously and the moment was lost.

Not only was there purpose to her writing, but she lived the ideas, her life was advocacy. These weren’t abstract ideas, they were part of her life. She experienced directly the collapse of her father’s textile business in Norwich and the devastating effect this had on his workers and his family. She walked the streets of London to observe poverty in the 1830’s. She went to Newgate Prison to work with Elizabeth Fry. Martineau went to America to see slavery in action for herself and felt the wrath of the mob when she spoke out against it. She was vilified in her writings simply for being a woman. The radical salons she hosted in London knew they were challenging the establishment status quo. In the Lake District she deliberately set up a sustainable home with her own food production. She founded a building society to provide homes for locals, she offered lectures to the rural poor. When the American Civil War started she sought to arrange re-training for Manchester cotton workers. She welcomed all visitors to The Knoll, including escaped slaves from America. She travelled to Ireland to see the effects of the potato famine and did a tour of the Holy Land to learn more about other religions and pass that on to the public. She was as far away from the aloof theoretical academic world of ideas that exists today as it’s possible to be. She was a catalyst for positive change in her writing and through the way she lived.

Her most modern value, much to be lauded in my view, and distinct from most Victorians, is that she regarded every single individual person to be of some value, as having some potential, a value to their family, workplace or community. She also had great compassion for those who had fallen by the wayside, in prison or destitute. Her answer to this was not socialism but freedom, support, good households, a positive producing life fulfilling potential, and enough income for everyone through fair, free markets and applying the division of labour.

Her progressive type of scientific thinking was shared by Victorians such as Carlyle, Herbert Spencer, T.H. Huxley and with the new evolutionary science of the 1860s and 70s would move towards a Social Darwinism that was picked up by imperialists so as to become became powerful in the scramble for Africa and subjugation of many peoples in the name of Empire. A continuation of this thought was the eugenics and racial ideology which caused so much 20th century trouble. Harriet Martineau would have abhorred this view of nature. To her it wasn’t about superiority, it was realising the potential of every person in the world and valuing the differences and cultures. She had much more faith in humanity than the Social Darwinists and one of her key insights was that people build their own societies from the bottom up, through receiving training and education and then contributing. That is why social matters, education and opportunity were as important to her as politics from on high. She was a fascinating, prescient, indomitable, great writer; a progressive, wide ranging, original thinker; who led an unprecedented, pioneering life that should be better remembered.

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