Harriet Martineau

From New World Encyclopedia

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau (June 12, 1802 - June 27, 1876) was an esteemed writer, publisher, and traveled philosopher. A woman of progressive education, Martineau was a prolific writer, both of fiction and non-fiction. Her essays and novels were fictionalized accounts of life as she experienced it, and included several works for children. Her non-fiction writings popularized economic theories, particularly those of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, discussed religious beliefs, particularly in the Middle East which she toured extensively, and philosophical atheism. She is particularly well known for her translation and compilation of the work of Auguste Comte and is acknowledged for her early contributions to the present state of sociological study. In her writings, she also promoted mesmerism, which had restored her own health.

She described herself as neither discoverer nor inventor, yet her intellectual sharpness allowed her to see and describe clearly what she experienced in the world and what others were describing in their writings. In this way she contributed to the advancement of our knowledge about human society.


Martineau was born on June 12, 1802, in Norwich, England, to a family of Huguenot extraction that professed Unitarian views. The atmosphere of her home was industrious, intellectual, and austere.

Martineau was very clever, but battled a lifetime of physical ailments leaving her without a sense of taste or smell. In her youth she also grew deaf, having to rely on an ear trumpet. At the age of 15, Harriet’s declining health led to a prolonged visit with her father's sister who kept a school in Bristol. Here, in the companionship of amiable and talented people, her life would become much happier.

She soon fell under the influence of a Unitarian minister, Lant Carpenter, from whose instructions she claimed to derive "an abominable spiritual rigidity and a truly respectable force of conscience strangely mingled together." After two years in Bristol, she returned to Norwich. In 1821 Martineau began to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical, and in 1823, at the age of 21, she published her first work, entitled Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns. Her deafness was finally confirmed when she was twenty.

In 1826 Martineau’s father died; his death preceded that of his eldest son and was soon followed by the death of the man to whom Martineau was engaged. This situation left a bare maintenance to Martineau’s mother and sisters, and soon thereafter the family would lose all of its financial means. Martineau, precluded by deafness from teaching, began reviewing articles for the Monthly Repository while also contributing short stories, which were subsequently published in the collection Traditions of Palestine.

Charles Darwin

In October of 1836, Charles Darwin visited with his brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin, and found him spending his days with the eloquent Martineau. The Darwins shared her Unitarian background and Whig politics, though their father Robert remained concerned that as a potential daughter-in-law, Martineau’s politics were too extreme.

Charles remarked that Martineau “was very agreeable, and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects." In his private papers, Darwin also commented, "I was astonished to find how ugly she is" and added "she is overwhelmed with her own projects, her own thoughts and abilities," though brother "Erasmus palliated all this, by maintaining one ought not to look at her as a woman." For her part, Martineau described Charles as "simple, childlike" and "painstaking." After a later meeting during which Darwin began to struggle with his own writing, he expressed sincere astonishment at the ease with which Martineau wrote such fluent prose, and remarked that she "never has occasion to correct a single word she writes."

When Darwin's The Origin of Species was published in 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent a copy to Martineau. At the age of 58, she was continuing to review literature from her home in the Lake District and sent her thanks to Erasmus, adding that she had previously praised "the quality & conduct of [Charles’] mind" but that it was "an unspeakable satisfaction to see here the full manifestation of its earnestness and simplicity, its sagacity, its industry, and the patient power by which it has collected such a mass of facts". To her fellow Malthusian, George Holyoake, she wrote, "What a book it is! …The range and mass of knowledge take away one's breath."


In 1844 Martineau underwent a course of mesmerism, and found herself restored to health within a few months. She eventually published an account of her case, causing much discussion, in 16 Letters on Mesmerism. The publication of her account lead to considerable disagreement with her surgeon brother-in-law and in 1845 she left Tynemouth for Ambleside, a town in the Lake District, where she built herself "The Knoll." This house would become the home in which the greater part of her later life was spent.

In early 1855 Martineau found herself suffering from heart disease and soon thereafter began to construct her autobiography. Her life, which she feared to be so near its close, continued for nearly twenty more years.


In 1830 Martineau was awarded three essay prizes from the Unitarian Association, and supplemented her growing income by needlework. In 1831 she sought a publisher for a collection of economic works entitled Illustrations of Political Economy. The sale of her first series was immediate and enormous. Demand increased with each publication to follow, and secured Martineau’s literary success from that point forward.

In 1832 Martineau moved to London where she numbered among her acquaintances Harriet Taylor, Henry Hart Milman, Thomas Malthus, Monckton Milnes, Sydney Smith, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, and later Thomas Carlyle. Florence Nightingale and Charlotte Brontë later became her friends.

In London, Martineau continued with her series on political economy and began a supplemental collection titled Illustrations of Taxation, a series supporting the British Whig Party’s Poor Law reforms. The practically effective collection, written in a direct, lucid manner without any appearance of effort displayed the characteristics of Martineau’s controversial style. Tory paternalists reacted by calling her a Malthusian "who deprecates charity and provision for the poor." British radicals were equally opposed.

In 1834, with the series complete, Martineau traveled to the United States. There, her open adhesion to the Abolitionist party, then small and very unpopular, gave great offense, which was later deepened by the 1837 publication of Theory and Practice of Society in America and the Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). Her later article, "The Martyr Age of the United States," published in the Westminster Review, introduced English readers to the struggles of American Abolitionists.

In 1839 Martineau published a three-volume novel titled Deerbrook, the story of middle class country life surrounding a surgeon hero. During this same period Martineau published a number of handbooks, forming a Guide to Service. The veracity of her later Maid of All Work led to a widespread belief, which she regarded with some complacency, that she had once been a maid of all work herself.

During a visit to Continental Europe in 1839, Martineau's health began to break down. Fearing the worst, she retired to solitary lodgings in Tynemouth near her sister and brother-in-law, a celebrated Newcastle surgeon. During this time, Martineau published The Hour and the Man, Life in the Sickroom, and the Playfellow, while also embarking on a series of tales for children including Settlers at Home, The Peasant and the Prince, and Feats on the Fiord. During her illness, Martineau declined for a second time a pension on the civil list, fearing it would compromise her political independence.

In 1845 Martineau published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales. After touring regions of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, Martineau published Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). This travelogue depicted a progressively abstract and indefinite conception of a deity and of a divine government throughout the Eastern World, and professed an ultimate belief of philosophic atheism. The piece argued that Christian beliefs in reward and punishment were based on Pagan superstitions. Describing an ancient tomb of an unknown Egyptian, Martineau wrote, "How like ours were his life and death!.. Compare him with a retired naval officer made country gentleman in our day, and in how much less do they differ than agree!" The book's "infidel tendency" was too much for publisher John Murray, who rejected it.

Following her Eastern travels, Martineau published a Household Education which expounded the theory that freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, were the most effective instruments of education. Her interest in schemes of instruction inspired her to launch a series of lectures, addressed at first to the school children of Ambleside, but later extended per request to the town elders. Lecture subjects included sanitary principles and practice, the histories of England and North America, and reflections of her Eastern travel.

Between 1852 and 1866, she contributed regularly to England’s Daily News and submitted her Letters from Ireland, a short series written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852. For many years, Martineau worked as a contributor to the Westminster Review, and was one of few supporters whose pecuniary assistance in 1854 prevented the establishment’s extinction or forced sale.

Atkinson and Philosophical Atheism

In March of 1851, Martineau edited a volume titled Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, in the form of a correspondence between herself and the self-styled scientist Henry G. Atkinson. The volume expounded the doctrine of philosophical atheism, which Martineau had depicted in her Eastern Life. Atkinson, like Martineau, was a zealous exponent of mesmerism. The publication’s emphasis on mesmerism and clairvoyance heightened the general disapprobation of the book, which outraged literary London and caused a lasting division between Martineau and some of her former colleagues.

Auguste Comte and Sociology

In 1853 Martineau undertook the translation of the French philosopher Auguste Comte's six-volume Cours de Philosophie Positive, a publication laying the foundations for what would become the field of sociology. In two volumes, Martineau published The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte: freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau, a remarkable and difficult achievement. Soon after, Comte himself recommended these volumes to his students instead of his own.

To date, many writers regard Martineau herself as the first female sociologist. Citing her introduction of Comte to the English-speaking world, and the elements of sociological perspective that may be found in her original writing, sociologists worldwide often argue for her recognition as a kindred spirit, if not a significant contributor, to the sociological field.


Martineau is regularly depicted as a leading feminist of her era, and a majority of her work included aspects of feminist ideology. Her position on the role of women in society with regard to education and politics have often led twentieth century feminists to cite Martineau’s work in their arguments. Aside from promotions of her own agenda, Martineau also used her position to advance the work of female counterparts, and included in her Illustrations of Political Economy a great amount of information extracted from colleague Jane Marcet.

In her publication Society in America, Martineau objected to the country's denial of political participation by American women in a chapter titled “The Political Non-Existence of Women.” Later, Martineau promoted equal education for women, supporting establishment of The Ladies College in Bedford Square and of England’s first professional nursing organization at London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital. Martineau was also the first woman to advocate for the payment of equal wages for both women and men, designing her argument around the belief that equivalent labor deserved equivalent pay. In 1857 Martineau showed public support for the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, an act working to ease domestic brutality against poor married women.

Major works

  • Martineau, Harriet. 1823. Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1832-34. Illustrations of Political Economy.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1833-34. Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1834. Illustrations of Taxation.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1837. Theory and Practice of Society in America.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1838. Retrospect of Western Travel.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1839. Deerbrook.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1841. The Hour and the Man.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1845. Forest and Game Law Tales.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1848. Eastern Life, Present and Past.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1849. The History of the Thirty Years' Peace A.D. 1816-1846.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1851. Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1853. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comet:Freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau.
  • Martineau, Harriet. 1877. Autobiography, with Memorials.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Feats on the Fiord.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Household Education.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Letters on Mesmerism.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Life in the Sickroom.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Maid of All Work.
  • Martineau, Harriet. The Peasant and the Prince.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Playfellow.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Settlers at Home.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Traditions of Palestine.


A prolific writer who was able to grasp clearly the ideas others had tried to formulate, Martineau's publications popularized complex theoretical ideas from economics and sociology. She is recognized as an early pioneer of academic sociology for her work introducing the ideas of Auguste Comte to the world.

Aside from her literary success, Martineau cultivated and maintained a tiny farm at Ambleside, and helped to sustain many of her poorer neighbors. Her busy life bore the consistent impress of two leading characteristics: industry and sincerity.

On June 27, 1867, Martineau died at her home, "The Knoll." Her obituary, published by the Daily News, was selected from her own autobiographical sketches, which were later edited and published by Maria Weston Chapman:

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 dear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Miller, Fenwick. 1884. Harriet Martineau. Eminent Women Series.
  • Riedesel, Paul L. 1981. “Who Was Harriet Martineau?” Journal of the History of Sociology.
  • University of Birmingham's Special Collections: Harriet Martineau.
  • Yates, Gayle Graham (ed.). 1985. Harriet Martineau on Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


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