Harriet Martineau Essay - Critical Essays

Martineau, Harriet


Harriet Martineau 1802-1876

English nonfiction writer, essayist, short story writer, novelist, autobiographer, historian, journalist, and travel writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Martineau from 1977 to 2001. For additional information on Martineau's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 26.

Martineau was a writer of exceptional breadth and vitality, earning her reputation by unflinchingly inserting herself into the great debates of the day, including women's rights and slavery. She moved from genre to genre and from subject to subject with ease, writing children's stories and political commentary, travelogues and short stories, historical studies and translations of philosophy. Martineau's career spanned fifty-five years and despite tremendous physical and cultural obstacles she established a prominent position in the intellectual life of Victorian culture.

Biographical Information

Martineau was the sixth of eight children, born June 12, 1802 to Thomas and Elizabeth Martineau. Her childhood was marked by chronic digestive and nervous system ailments, and she was born without a sense of smell or taste. A voracious reader, the young Martineau committed large portions of Paradise Lost to memory, reciting verses to help her fall asleep. Raised within the Unitarian church, Martineau strongly believed in the doctrine that every effect has a cause which neither divine nor human will can change. Belief in this doctrine proved to be a stabilizing force throughout her life. In addition, Martineau's first writings appeared in the Unitarian periodical Monthly Repository in 1822. However, Martineau's religious beliefs began to depart from Unitarianism in the 1830s, and she began to identify the worship of God with the service of humanity.

In the years 1832-34, Martineau published a collection of stories entitled Illustrations of Political Economy, intended to inform the general reader about economic matters through the use of fiction. The work was highly successful, and provided her with enough money to fund an extensive tour of the United States. Her experiences in America formed the basis of two books, Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). From 1839 to 1844, a uterine tumor left Martineau bedridden. In search of a cure for her condition, she allowed herself to be hypnotized, after which her pain vanished. In 1846, she traveled again, this time to the Middle East, where she studied ancient Egyptian religion and visited biblical sites. During the course of these studies, Martineau ceased to believe in Christian doctrines, including the afterlife. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, Martineau became a prolific contributor to the London Daily News and other liberal periodicals, writing several articles per week. Despite a recurrence of her illness in 1854, Martineau continued to write, and over the course of her career she wrote more than 1,600 articles for the Daily News. Her illness forced Martineau to retire in 1866, and she died from bronchitis in 1876.

Major Works

Martineau worked in many genres and discussed many social, religious and political issues during her prolific career. Several of her first articles argued that the apparent differences in intellect between men and women were the product of educational discrimination. Her focus on education continued in Household Education (1849), which was based on personal experience. In this work, Martineau condemned the Christian practice of teaching a child that his or her nature is inherently evil and emphasized parental love as vital to the development of an individual's self-esteem. Her American travel experiences provided the material for Society in America, in which Martineau expressed a generally favorable impression of democracy. However, she also commented on several shortcomings she found in democratic society, including the fact that the free enterprise system allowed the greed of a few people to trample the rights of the many. Martineau also noted that women seemed more restricted in their lives than what she had anticipated after reading the Declaration of Independence. Her long illness prompted the writing of Life in the Sick-Room, in which she counseled readers on how to live with illness as well as how to behave when visiting those who are sick. Martineau's trip to the Middle East yielded Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848) in which she explained the reasons for her religious conversion. Her Autobiography, written in 1854 and 1855, but published posthumously in 1877, raised a furor due to its atypically secular focus as well as the perceived lack of decorum with which she described the inadequacies of her family.

Critical Reception

While she was admired and respected by many during her lifetime—Auguste Comte reportedly stated that he preferred her translation of his Positive Philosophy to his text—Martineau was also vehemently criticized for her writing on behalf of social causes. While Martineau was largely ignored by critics after her death, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in her political, social, and economic writings. Many of Martineau's social and philosophical beliefs, in the view of Mitzi Myers, were shaped by the author's early home life. Myers claims that the “key details in Harriet's early domestic history were fear, emotional deprivation, remorse, and lack of self-respect.” Gillian Thomas has observed that in writing Illustrations of Political Economy, Martineau's aim was to “reach working-class readers” by rendering information on a complex subject in the style of a work of a fiction rather than that of an academic treatise. Valerie Sanders has expressed her agreement with this assessment, stating that “[Martineau's] Illustrations teem with teacher-figures, mostly clergymen and manufacturers, who try to enlighten the poorer members of their local community.” Many critics believe that Society in America is Martineau's most enduring work because of its astute observations on early American society and how that society was living up to the goals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. It has often been compared to Alexis de Tocqueville's classic work Democracy in America. According to Shelagh Hunter, Martineau's study “lacks both the detachment and the structural clarity of Democracy in America, but its thorough personal engagement is its peculiar strength.” As Deborah Logan has asserted, Martineau's chief desire as a writer was to “eradicate slavery in its various forms: racial slavery, seen in the abolition-themed writings; sexual slavery, illustrated by her focus on world-wide oppressions of women; and social slavery, demonstrated by her aim to educate the working classes about the forces creating and perpetuating their economic exploitation.”

Principal Works

“Female Writers on Practical Divinity” (essay) 1822; published in journal Monthly Repository

Devotional Exercises, Consisting of Reflections and Prayers, for the Use of Young Persons, to Which Is Added a Treatise on the Lord's Supper [published anonymously] (nonfiction) 1823; enlarged as Devotional Exercises, to Which Is Added a Guide to the Study of the Scriptures 1832; republished as Devotional Exercises: Consisting of Reflections and Prayers for the Use of Young Persons, to Which Is Added a Guide to the Study of the Scripture 1840

Principle and Practice; or, The Orphan Family [published anonymously] (novella) 1827

The Rioters; or, a Tale of Bad Times [published anonymously] (novella) 1827

The Turn-out; or, Patience the best policy [published anonymously] (novella) 1829

Five Years of Youth; or, Sense and Sentiment (novel) 1831

*Illustrations of Political Economy. 9 vols. (short stories) 1832-34

Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated. 4 vols. (short stories) 1833-34

Illustrations of Taxation. 5 vols. (short stories) 1834

Miscellanies. 2 vols. (essays, nonfiction, short stories) 1836

Society in America. 3 vols. (nonfiction) 1837

How to Observe: Morals and...

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Valerie Kossew Pichanick (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Pichanick, Valerie Kossew. “An Abominable Submission: Harriet Martineau's Views on the Role and Place of Woman.” Women's Studies 5, no. 1 (1977): 13-32.

[In the following essay, Pichanick examines Martineau's views on women's place in society and the home as well as her advice on how women should achieve equality in every area of life.]

I fully expect that both you and I shall feel as if I did not discharge a daughter's duty, but we shall both remind ourselves that I am now as much a citizen of the world as any professional son of yours could be.

With this admonition Harriet Martineau (1802-76)...

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Mitzi Myers (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Myers, Mitzi. “Unmothered Daughter and Radical Reformer: Harriet Martineau's Career.” In The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, pp. 70-80. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980.

[In the following essay, Myers examines the connection between Martineau's private life and her writings.]

“We have very little of correctly detailed domestic history, the most valuable of all as it would enable us to make comparisons. …”1

Francis Place's remark anticipates a key concern of the new social historians, a concern of particular relevance to women, so much of whose history has...

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Gillian Thomas (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Thomas, Gillian. “Martineau as a Fiction Writer.” In Harriet Martineau, pp. 87-116. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas analyzes Martineau's fiction.]


The utilitarian philosophy which offered the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” as the ultimate social goal attempted to provide a remedy for all social ills through the doctrine of “political economy.” Most notably, Adam Smith's Inquiry Concerning the Wealth of Nations (1776) provided an economic counterpart to the utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham by arguing for free trade and...

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Valerie Sanders (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Sanders, Valerie. “‘The Cotton-spinners' Romance of Real Life’: Harriet Martineau and the Poor Man's Tale.” In Reason Over Passion: Harriet Martineau and the Victorian Novel, pp. 30-57. Sussex, Eng.: The Harvester Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Williams comments on the economic themes in Martineau's work.]

Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy grew out of turbulent times:

The year 1831 opened gloomily. Those who believed that revolution was at hand, feared to wish one another a happy new year; and the anxiety about revolution was by no means confined to anti-reformers. Society was...

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Diana Postlethwaite (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Postlethwaite, Diana. “Mothering and Mesmerism in the Life of Harriet Martineau.” Signs 14, no. 3 (spring 1989): 583-609.

[In the following essay, Postlethwaite considers the impact Martineau's illness and her relationship with her mother had on her writing.]

On the surface, Harriet Martineau's life (1802-76) offers a radical challenge to the stereotype of the Victorian woman writer as a subjective, emotive novelist or poet, a Lady of Shalott weaving her web of words in isolation from the larger concerns of the masculine world. In a career that spanned fifty-five years, Martineau produced thirty-five books and scores of periodical essays. Well respected,...

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Trev Lynn Broughton (essay date autumn 1993)

SOURCE: Broughton, Trev Lynn. “Making the Most of Martyrdom: Harriet Martineau, Autobiography and Death.” Literature & History 2, no. 2 (autumn 1993): 24-45.

[In the following essay, Broughton examines what Martineau's Autobiography reveals about Victorian beliefs on death and the practice of autobiography.]

In her Autobiography, Harriet Martineau twice claims, using almost identical phraseology, that she ‘hoped for, and expected early death till it was too late to die early’.1 This has long struck me as a most elegant, economical way of expressing the autobiographical dilemma facing mid-Victorian, middle-class Englishwomen; indeed...

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Ann Hobart (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Hobart, Ann. “Harriet Martineau's Political Economy of Everyday Life.” Victorian Studies 37, no. 2 (winter 1994): 223-51.

[In the following essay, Hobart examines portions of Martineau's works that deal with economics and capitalism in England.]

In her celebrated Autobiography, Harriet Martineau traces the real beginning of her literary career to the collapse of her father's firm in 1829. Before that happy “calamity,” Martineau claims to have effaced the signs of her professional ambition in compliance with the conventional standards of domestic propriety on which her mother insisted: Jane Austen-like, she wrote only “before breakfast or in...

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Shelagh Hunter (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Hunter, Shelagh. “Social Criticism.” In Harriet Martineau: The Poetics of Moralism, pp. 148-94. Aldershot, Eng.: Scolar Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Hunter discusses Martineau's social criticism, including Society in America.]


Society in America is Harriet Martineau's most extensive and sustained social criticism. A three-volume survey of the politics, economy, civilization and religion of America, it is based on the observations of a visit lasting two years, from September 1834 to August 1836. They were crowded years. She went as far south as New Orleans, west to...

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Sarah Winter (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Winter, Sarah. “Mental Culture: Liberal Pedagogy and the Emergence of Ethnographic Knowledge.” Victorian Studies 41, no. 3 (spring 1998): 427-54.

[In the following essay, Winter examines to what extent some of Martineau's works can be considered ethnographic studies.]

No one seriously doubts that teaching is educational only in as far as, by its very nature, it has the capacity of exerting a moral influence on the way we are and the way we think; in other words, in as far as it effects a transformation in our ideas, our beliefs and our feelings.

—Emile Durkheim, The Evolution of Educational...

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Deborah Logan (essay date April 2001)

SOURCE: Logan, Deborah. “Harriet Martineau and the Martyr Age of the United States.” Symbiosis 5, no. 1 (April 2001): 33-49.

[In the following essay, Logan considers Martineau's tour of the United States and the inspiration it provided for a body of work about repression and slavery.]

The accident of my arriving in America in the dawning hour of the great conflict accounts for the strange story I have had to tell about myself.1

(AB 2:61)

She was born to be a destroyer of slavery, in whatever form, in whatever place, all over the world, wherever she saw or...

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Further Reading


Hunter, Shelagh. Harriet Martineau: The Poetics of Moralism. Aldershot, Eng.: Scolar Press, 1995, 267 p.

Surveys Martineau's life and career.

Pichanick, Valerie Kossew. Harriet Martineau: The Woman and Her Work, 1802-76. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980, 301 p.

Discusses Martineau's life and work.


Arbuckle, Elisabeth Sanders. “Introduction.” In Harriet Martineau in the London Daily News, edited by Elisabeth Sanders Arbuckle, pp. ix-xx. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Provides an overview...

(The entire section is 475 words.)