1902 Encyclopedia > Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau
English woman of letters

HARRIET MARTINEAU (1802-1876), English woman of letters, was born at Norwich, where her father was a manufacturer. The family was of Huguenot extraction, but had adopted Unitarian views. Her education, which in-cluded Latin and French, as well as domestic accomplish-ments, was received partly at home, and partly under a Mr Perry, to whose lessons in logical English composition she ascribed something of her later clearness of thought and statement. The atmosphere of her home was indus-trious, intellectual, and austere ; she herself was clever, weakly, and unhappy, and was, moreover, already growing deaf. At the age of fifteen the state of her health and temper led to a prolonged visit to her father's sister, Mrs Kentish, who kept a school at Bristol. Here, in the companionship of amiable and talented people, her life became happier. Here, also, she fell under the influence of the Unitarian minister, Dr Carpenter, from whose in-structions, she says, she derived " an abominable spiritual rigidity and a truly respectable force of conscience strangely mingled together." From 1819 to 1830 she again resided chiefly at Norwich. The first part of this period was mainly spent in quiet and almost secret study and in needlework. About her twentieth year her deafness became confirmed, and she habitually from that time used an ear trumpet. In 1821 she began to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical, and was assured by her brother that authorship was her proper career. A little later she published Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers, and Hymns.

In 1826 her father died, leaving a bare maintenance to his wife and daughters. His death had been preceded by that of his eldest son, and was shortly followed by that of the young man to whom Harriet was engaged. Mrs Martineau and her daughters soon after lost all their means by the failure of the house where their money was placed. Harriet had to earn her living, and, being precluded by her deafness from teaching, took up author-ship in earnest and toiled with incredible industry. She reviewed for the Repository at the rate of £15 a year, wrote stories (afterwards collected as Traditions of Pales-tine), gained in one year (1830) three essay-prizes of the Unitarian Association, and eked out her income by needlework. In 1831 she was seeking a publisher for a series of tales designed as Illustrations of Political Economy. After many failures she accepted very disadvan-tageous terms, and the first number appeared amidst gloomy prognostications from the publisher. The sale, however, was immediate and enormous, the demand increased witli each new number, and from that time her literary success was secured. In 1832 she moved to London; she at once became the fashion, and her acquaintance was eagerly sought. Till 1834 she continued to be occupied with her political ecouomy series and with a supplemental series of Illustrations of Taxation. Four stories dealing with the poor-law came out about the same time. These tales, direct, lucid, written without any appearance of effort, and yet practically effective, display the characteristic qualities of their author's style. In 1834, when the whole series was complete, Miss Martineau paid a long visit to America. Here her open adhesion to the Abolitionist party, then small and very unpopular, gave great offence, which was deepened by the publication, soon after her return, of Society in America and a Retrospect of Western Travel. An article in the Westminister Review, " The Martyr Age of the United States," introduced English readers almost for the first time to the struggles of the Abolitionists. In these American writings Miss Martineau shows less than her usual calmness and judicial common sense, but it will scarcely be denied that there was some ground for her vehemence. The American books were followed by a novel, Deerbrook,-—a story of middle class country life, lacking the delicate humour of Miss Austen or the touch of farce that enliveus Miss Edgeworth's tales, but delightfully clear in style, wholesome in spirit, and well sustained in point of interest. To the same period belong two or three little haudbooks, forming parts of a Guide to Service. The veracity of her Maid of all Work led to a widespread belief, which she regarded with some com-placency, that she had once been a maid of all work herself.

In 1839, during a visit to the Continent, Miss Martineau's health, which had long been bad, broke down entirely. She retired to solitary lodgings in Tynemouth, and remained a prisoner to her couch till 1844. She was still busy, and, besides a novel (The Hour and the Man), published, some tales for children, and Life in the Sick-room. These volumes contain some of her best work, and possess a charm of tender feeling to balance the somewhat cold rationality that predominates in most of Miss Martineau's writing. During this illness she for a second time declined a pension on the civil list, fearing to compromise her political independence. Her letter on the subject was published, and some of her friends raised a small annuity for her soon after.

In 1844 Miss Martineau underwent a course of mesmerism, and in a few months was restored to health. Her recovery excited much discussion and controversy. She herself felt no doubt either of its reality or of its being due to mesmerism, and not unnaturally resented the incredulity of others. She eventually published an account of her case in sixteen Letters on Mesmerism, a proceeding which caused great offence to some members of her family. On finding herself set free from the bondage of ill-health, she removed to Ambleside, where she built herself the house in which the greater part of her after life was spent. In 1845 she published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales, in which the method of her political economy series was again applied. In 1846 she made an Eastern tour with some friends. She was abroad for eight months, visiting Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, and on her return published Eastern Life. The tendency of this work is to display humanity passing through one after another of the world's historic religions, the conception of the Deity and of Divine government becoming at each step more and more abstract and indefinite. The ultimate goal Miss Martineau believed to be a philosophic atheism, but this belief she did not expressly declare in Eastern Life, considering it to be outside the province of that book. She published about this time Household Education, expounding the modern theory, in which freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, are regarded as the most effectual instruments of education. Her practical interest in all schemes of instruction led her to start a series of lectures, addressed at first to the school children of Ambleside, but afterwards extended, at their own desire, to their elders. The subjects of these lectures were sanitary principles and practice, the histories of England and North America, and the scenes of her Eastern travels. At the request of Mr Charles Knight she wrote for him, in 1849, The History of tlie Thirty Tears' Peace,—a characteristic instance of Miss Martineau's remarkable powers of labour. " From the first opening of the books to study for the history to the depositing of the MS. of the first volume at press was," she says, " exactly six months. The second volume took six months to do."

In 1851 Miss Martineau edited a volume of Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development. Its form is that of a correspondence between herself and Mr H. G. Atkinson (in which the latter has much the larger share), and it expounds that doctrine of philosophical atheism to which Miss Martineau had, in Eastern Life, depicted the course of human belief as tending. The existence of a first cause is not denied, but is declared unknowable, and the authors, while regarded by others as denying it, certainly considered themselves to be affirming the doctrine of man's moral obligation. Mr Atkinson was a zealous exponent of mesmerism, and the prominence given to the topics of mesmerism and clairvoyance no doubt tended to heighten the disapprobation with which the book was received. The reviewers were almost unanimous in condemnation, and the publication caused a lasting division between Miss Martineau and some of her friends.

The new philosophical bent of her studies directed Miss Martineau's attention to the works of Comte, and she undertook a condensed English version of the Philosophic Positive. It appeared in 1853, and to most readers is more useful and intelligible than the original. She had begun in the previous year to write articles, chiefly biographical, for the Daily News. Among these were the Letters from Ireland, written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852. She also wrote a considerable number of essays upon different manufactures for House-hold Words, and another series for the same periodical upon the treatment of blindness, deafness, idiotcy, <fec, besides a Guide to Windermere, followed afterwards by a Complete Guide to the Lakes. She had been for many years a con-tributor to the Westminister Review, and was one of the little band of supporters whose pecuniary assistance, in 1854, prevented its extinction or forced sale. In the early part of 1855 Miss Martineau found herself suffering from heart disease. Having always felt it one of her duties to write her autobiography, and believing the time before her to be but brief, she now at once set about this task, and on its completion caused the book to be printed that it might be ready for speedy publication at her death. But her life, which she supposed to be so near its close, was prolonged for other twenty years, her death not taking place until 1876.

These years were by no means idle. She continued to contribute to the Daily News, for which she wrote in all more than 1600 articles, and to the Westminster Review, as well as to other papers, and her biographical sketches were collected and reprinted from the Daily News in a volume which has justly become one of the best-known of her works. In point of style it is probably the most excellent of them all. The form and method leave nothing to be desired, and the perception of character is shrewd, sincere, and, roughly speaking, reliable. But in reading the book we feel that the biographies, divided by the editor into groups of royal, political, &c, fall far more naturally into two larger classes,—the biographies of persons whom Miss Martineau liked, and the biographies of persons whom she disliked. All are doubtless in a sense true, as all photographs are true, but the difference between a nattering and an unflattering photograph is considerable.

She also produced two books on the government of India, and was continually occupied in promoting schemes of reform and benevolence. Her poorer neighbours owed much to her kindly and enlightened efforts, and her servants found in her a friend as well as a mistress. Her long and busy life bears the consistent impress of two leading characteristics,—industry and sincerity. Her work was invariably sound, and its motive invariably respectable. The verdict which she records on herself in the autobiographical sketch left to be published by the Daily News is probably very near to that which will be recorded by future judgment. She says,—" Her original power was nothing more than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range. "With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore nothing approaching to genius, she could see clearly what she did see, and give a clear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent." Her judgment on large questions was clear and sound, and was always the judgment of a mind naturally progressive and Protestant. Mentally she was a true daughter of her Huguenot ancestors. But it is impossible to read her autobiography without suspecting that she was subject to considerable prejudices, especially in her judg- ment of persons, and that her temper, particularly in earlier life, was unamiable, hard, and unforgiving. She seems, indeed, to have possessed the sort of disposition which shows to much greater advantage in its relation to juniors, inferiors, and dependants than in its relations to elders and superiors, and which therefore appears more amiable in the closing than in the opening j'ears of life. Her autobiography reveals also a weakness which was perhaps unavoid- able. The publication of her political economy tales brought her into great and sudden notice ; many persons of high position, official and otherwise, desired to enlist her advocacy on the part of their particular projects. She found her help much courted, and much help eagerly proffered to her. Her deafness, which suffered her to hear only what was directly addressed to herself, assisted to make her a central figure, and to induce the belief that hers was one of the most potent if not actually the most potent voice in English politics. Her deafness was in another direction probably advantageous. It led her to find solitude easier than most com- panionship, and saved her from many distractions of attention. It may indeed fairly be surmised that but for her deafness she could never have found time to achieve the amazing quantity of work that she did, while the courageous, cheerful, and unobtrusive spirit in which she bore her infirmity remains an example and an encouragement to all her fellow-sufferers. (C. BL.)

The above article was written by: Miss Clementina Black, author of Orlando.

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