Harriet Martineau Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”