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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)


Harriet Martineau, the notable political and feminist writer, was born in Norwich at the start of the nineteenth century. She is celebrated around the world, notably in America, as a pioneer of modern sociological ideas, an economist and one of the first female journalists. Yet her importance has often been overshadowed. Martineau Lane in Norwich is not named after Harriet but her uncle, Dr Philip Meadows Martineau, whose home was Bracondale Lodge on the outskirts of the city. However, many people might argue that her influence was equal to, if not greater than, that of any of her illustrious male relatives.

Early life

Harriet was born on 12th June 1802 at Gurney Court in Magdalen Street. Coincidentally this is the same birthplace as her more famous near contemporary, Elizabeth Fry. She was the sixth of eight children. Her family, of French Huguenot descent, were prominent in business and medicine, not only in Norwich but also in Birmingham. Her father, Thomas Martineau (1764-1826) was a wealthy manufacturer of textiles, particularly bombazine. From 1797 Thomas was also deacon at the Octagon Chapel in Colegate, where Harriet was baptised and where she worshipped as a child. Predominantly the Martineau family were Unitarians, free thinking dissenters, and one key element of their belief was the education of girls as well as boys. As a child Harriet loved to read and could quote Shakespeare and John Milton at length, but she was also actively encouraged to question what she had read. However, Harriet's writings indicate that her childhood was often unhappy; she felt ugly, repressed and troubled. She suffered from a milk intolerance, which was not understood in those days. In her teens she went deaf, thereafter needing to use a hearing trumpet, and she was plagued with health problems for much of her adult life.

Harriet the writer

At the age of 24 Harriet was briefly engaged to a young man, John Hugh Worthington, and experienced some conflict. She was expected to follow the social convention and marry, but she felt that marriage would restrict her life. She wanted to be independent and self-sufficient. She saw marriage as a kind of bondage for women. Her first published article, Female Writers on Practical Divinity, had been published in the Unitarian Monthly Repository in 1821, and her second article, published soon afterwards, was entitled On Female Education. On both occasions she used a male pseudonym. However, after the death of her father and a consequent reversal in the family fortunes, Harriet turned to writing more and more, but this time using her own name.

In order to facilitate this process, Harriet moved to London. Between 1832 and 1834 she wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, which ran into 25 volumes and helped to establish her reputation as a professional writer. It was immensely popular and she was feted not only by other writers such as Dickens but also by politicians, who sought her advice. In addition, from 1833 to 1834 she wrote the ten-volume Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated, and in 1834 published the five-volume Illustrations of Taxation. It must be remembered that there was no formal training in economics at this time, and even for a man these achievements would be considered remarkable. She made these complex ideas understandable to ordinary people. 

However her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship, was unimpressed by the accolades and remuneration that Harriet achieved. Harriet was regarded as somehow unfeminine, but she responded by insisting that she should be judged in the same way as a man.

Her feminist writings were prolific, scattered through hundreds of newspaper articles. Her most sustained work on this subject was entitled Society in America (1837), written following an extensive visit to that country. She stated that men controlled American as well as European society, and that this patriarchal system was designed, through marriage, to ensure that men's needs were placed above those of women. She postulated that women should be free to choose their own way, to express their intellectual abilities and to be self-supporting. She also advocated divorce and birth control. These ideas, which modern society takes for granted, would have been considered quite incendiary at the time, and Harriet met with some opposition to this particular publication. She was similarly liberal in her views on race, and campaigned against slavery.

Over the course of her lifetime Harriet wrote on a vast array of subjects. These included wages and strikes (The Turn Out, 1829), social interaction (How to Observe: Morals and Manners, 1828), illness (Life in the Sickroom, 1844) and travel (Eastern Life: Present and Past 1848). Indeed, she was a curious traveller and not only did she spend two years in America but she also went to Italy, Egypt and Ireland, among other places. She became sceptical about religion, expressing her views in Letters and Laws of Man's Nature and Development (1851) and became interested in mesmerism, which caused difficulties in her relationship with her brother James Martineau. She continued to promote women's rights and universal suffrage, writing for the Daily News in London and other periodicals. Though not known for fiction, she also wrote a novel, Deerbrook, which was published in 1839, and a collection of children's stories, The Playfellow, which followed in 1841.

Later life

In 1845, following the dispute with her brother, Harriet moved to the Lake District, where she built a farmhouse, The Knoll, and became friends with the Wordsworths. She wrote her own obituary in 1855, thinking she was close to death; however, she lived much longer and died of bronchitis at Ambleside on 27th June 1876. She was buried at the Martineau family grave in Birmingham.

Harriet Martineau was, in so many ways, a woman ahead of her time. Not only was she fearless in expressing her beliefs, but she lived her life as an independent woman in an age when this was generally regarded as anathema. Certain idiosyncrasies, such as her love of smoking cigars, should not detract from her achievements. She was a pioneer of modern sociology, a perceptive and courageous woman who could write on a wide range of topics, and yet to this day she is largely unknown, even in the city of her birth.

Sandra Fishwick 2014

Sources and further reading
• Dale Spender Women of Ideas 1982
• Joan and Kenneth Macksey The Guinness Guide to Feminine Achievements 1975