Harriet Martineau’s story offers the parable of a certain kind of literary endeavour that’s never far from the experience of quite a few writers in this list, ie contemporary success, and short-term celebrity, followed by a more prolonged oblivion, punctuated by moments of renewal and rediscovery.
Martineau came to prominence aged 21 with her first published work, Devotional Exercises (1823), partly inspired by her Unitarian upbringing. Thereafter, she would be an indefatigable writer for the rest of her life, making a career in which she supported herself through her pen, a considerable achievement for a woman in Victorian England. Martineau wrote numerous books and essays from a sociological, religious, reforming and even a feminist perspective. For some commentators, she is a pioneer sociologist both in her own right as the author of books such as Society in America (1837) and also as the translator of Auguste Comte. In the former, she articulated a passionate critique of women’s prospects in the new world: “The intellect of women is confined by an unjustifiable restriction of education… As women have none of the objects in life for which an enlarged education is considered requisite, the education is not given… The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive and subservient or well-educated, vigorous and free only upon sufferance.”
Martineau got taken up by Malthus, Carlyle, Dickens and JS Mill, among many. The young Princess Victoria was a fan. In her work, Martineau had a clearly stated method that was relatively new for its time: “When one studies a society, one must focus on all its aspects, including key political, religious and social institutions.” She believed that only through a complete analysis of society could she truly understand women’s status among men.
As part of the rising generation of “Victorians”, she became friends with Charles Darwin, whose brother, Erasmus, suffered unrequited love for her, and it’s the author of On the Origin of Species (No 60 in this series) who provides the best portrait of Martineau in her prime. After one meeting, he wrote: “She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects, considering the limited time. She is overwhelmed with her own projects, her own thoughts and own abilities.”
Later, he described her as “a wonderful woman”, although he was plainly intimidated by her formidable exterior.
Household Education, one of her most popular books, appeared in 1848, as a protest against the abysmal state of women’s education. In a ringing declaration, she writes: “Household education is a subject so important in its bearings on everyone’s happiness, and so inexhaustible in itself, that I do not see how any person whatever can undertake to lecture upon it authoritatively, as if it was a matter completely known and settled. It seems to me that all we can do is to reflect, and say what we think, and learn of one another.”
Her opinions, quite radical at the time, now seem antiquated. Martineau held that women had a natural inclination to motherhood and believed that domestic work went hand in hand with learning for a proper, well-rounded education.
She divided the child’s education into the influence of Nature, the influence of the parents and the influence of conscience, “the greatest and noblest” moral power of man. From here, she moved to the training of “the intellect”. Throughout her writing, there’s a quasi-ecstatic tone, striking a note of moral earnestness that characterises much Victorian prose. For example: “Intellectual and moral beauty are so blended, it would be impossible for the one to exist without the other. It is just so in the human character – the intellect of a human being cannot be of a high order if the moral nature is low; and the moral state cannot be a lofty one where the intellect is torpid.”
It is for such passages that Martineau’s work has dated so badly and fallen out of favour. And yet, in her time, she was doing what countless parenting and educational bestsellers have done since.
“I go further than most persons…” she wrote, “in desiring thorough practice in domestic occupations, from an early age, for young girls.” But she also proposed that freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, are the most effectual instruments of education. In some moods, Martineau can be almost fiery: “Every woman ought to have that justice done to her faculties that she may possess herself in all the strength and clearness of an exercised and enlightened mind and may have at command, for her subsistence, as much intellectual power and as many resources as education can furnish her with. Let us hear nothing of her being shut out, because she is a woman, from any study that she is capable of pursuing; and if one kind of cultivation is more carefully attended to than another, let it be the discipline and exercise of the reasoning faculties.”
Suffering persistent ill health, Martineau withdrew from the fray. When On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent a copy to his old flame. In late middle age, she was still reviewing books from her home in the Lake District. Martineau returned her thanks, praising “the quality and conduct of your brother’s mind. It is,” she went on, recognising in Darwin something of her own methodology, “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 transmute them by such sagacious treatment into such portentous knowledge. I should much like to know how large a proportion of our scientific men believe he has found a sound road.”
True to her free-thinking credo, Martineau supported Darwin precisely because his theory was not based in theology. For Martineau, the abolition of church and religion was her goal: “In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished.”
Martineau, a creature of her time, was in no doubt of her contribution to Victorian culture and society. Her own, posthumously published, appraisal of herself was made in a frank autobiographical sketch, published by the Daily News:
“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 popularise while she could neither discover nor invent.”
A signature sentence:
If thus, the loftiest and the lowliest, the purest and the most criminal, the wisest and the most ignorant, are comprehended under the process of household education, what a wide and serious subject it is that we have to consider.
Three to compare
Isabella Beeton: Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)
JS Mill: The Subjection of Women (1869)
Dr Benjamin Spock: The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)