Harriet Martineau (1802-1877) has been described as Britain’s first female journalist, the first professional ‘woman of letters’, and the founder of the modern discipline we call sociology. She is a complex and curious figure. While she helped to make male intellectuals like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus household names, she herself is not well known today. Sometimes she seems like a radical; elsewhere her ideas sound orthodox and conservative to the modern ear. Martineau suffered from ill-health, deafness and lacked a sense of smell. In 1839 her condition deteriorated as a result of an ovarian cyst. With the onset of invalidism, she took up lodgings in Mrs Halliday’s house in Tynemouth from 1840 to 1845 so that she could be near her Newcastle doctor (with whom she had resided for a short time in Eldon Square).
Martineau was a prolific writer: her novels, shorter fiction, newspaper columns, pamphlets, reviews, travel writings and sociological studies covered issues as varied as economics, history, women’s rights, politics, theology, empire, slavery, America, the Middle East, household management, human nature, disability, marriage, privacy and occupational health. In her case, disability became ability, as her condition provided her with a unique capacity to observe the world around her. Indeed her extensive travels in America led her to publish a book in 1838 on how one should observe societies and other cultures.
Martineau, the daughter of a Norwich manufacturing family, sprung to national prominence in the early 1830s when she brought the doctrines and ideas of capitalist, market economy to the working classes through a series of fictional tales titled Illustrations of Political Economy. With these tales – they were hugely popular and widely read – Martineau cast herself as a national instructor or educator, one who sought to promote class harmony by diffusing principles of cooperation and good domestic economy. Read today, these stories appear to be justifying the kind of harsh nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism that outraged Dickens. Her criticisms of trade unions, radical leaders and shop-floor protests are inconsistent with contemporary notions of radicalism, and her vision of a world in which capital and labour lived in harmony seems hopelessly naive. But the tales also laud individual agency and attacked all sorts of prejudices, entrenched interests and exploitative relationships. Her view of a new Britain, inhabited by a responsible middle class and a respectable, educated, and self-improving working class, informed the national history that she published in 1849, The History of the Thirty Year’s Peace.
But Martineau was radical. She was raised among Unitarians, and it was this rational, middle-class, religion – one scholar calls it ‘counter-cultural’ – that shaped her views on the role environment played in determining an individual’s character. Her assault on vested interests and privileges, and her commitment to education, reform, social progress and women’s rights, flowed from this radical philosophy. She became one of Britain’s most prominent anti-slavery campaigners. While her views on empire, race and labour relations appear unattractive and outdated today, Martineau nevertheless stands as a positive image of an authoritative, self-supporting, professional, woman writer, striving to integrate the new economics into an optimistic and just vision of human potential.
While in Tynemouth Martineau was confined to her room and couch, but she received a stream of visitors, and she continued to write. Much of what she wrote was not immediately political: she authored children’s tales, a novel about the Haitian Revolution, and an important work on the meaning of suffering, Life in the Sickroom. But she was also concerned with labour issues and social conditions, and during her Tynemouth period she corresponded and wrote on child labour, factory hours, sanitation, town planning and class cooperation. She also made a radical statement when she refused the offer of a civil list pension on the grounds that the money came from a unjust system of taxation. During her Tynemouth residence Martineau claimed to have been cured of her illness by mesmerism.
R. K. Webb, Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian (London: Heinemann, 1960), is useful but is dated (particularly the opening chapter). The recent collection edited by Ella Dzelzainis and Cora Kaplan, Harriet Martineau: Authorship, Society and Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), is a good place to start.