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.