Harriet Martineau was born on June 12th 1802 in Norwich, England, the sixth of eight children to a manufacturer and his wife. Her younger years as a member of Victorian society was one filled with great trials — significantly, an early loss of of hearing and sense of smell and taste, as well as a mother that would refuse to be the nurturing figure Martineau longed for. Growing up, she claims to have suffered from having “no self-respect, and an unbounded need of approbation and affection” (Martineau), with all her anxieties growing more painful as her hearing loss became more significant as she approached her teens. Her hearing loss would eventually be complete by the time of her early twenties, compounding in her a sense of isolation (Webb). Reading and writing would serve as a form of escape for the nerve-wracked young woman, a private endeavour through which she would hone both her intellect and her ability with pen and paper.
Leaving behind a miserable childhood, Martineau would come to embrace her passion full-time after the failure of her father’s business in 1829 forced her to go out and earn for the family (Webb). She wrote for numerous publishers, eventually gaining enough popularity to support herself through her writing — a feat of no small effort for a woman writer in the Victorian era (Webb). Through her adult years, Martineau travelled and wrote, producing engaging works that combined elements of observance, self-reflection, philosophy, politics, economy, gender: How to Observe Morals and Manners, Society in America, Retrospect of Western Travel and A Complete Guide to the English Lakes are but a small offering from Martineau’s library. As a testament to her strength in spirit and as a writer, she produced works even following her collapse in 1840 as a result of a uterine tumour; in fact, such works were actually inclusive of her experiences, asserting, as in Life in the Sick-Room, the capacity for Martineau to turn tragedy into something unique and empowering. Illness, disability and gender, significant themes of her early life that would leave memories like both trophies and scars, would come to inform her works in various ways (Deegan 50-53). Her inclusive nature, through which she would encourage in the detached, rational argument favoured by her, called for the equal treatment of women in the classroom and a home, and stressed the overlooked role of the disabled as natural observers capable of great depth of perception (Fratz 104-105). Her topics of text and essay were a fascinating display of the wide range her mind was capable of; she rarely if ever compromised her intellect by conforming to the standards of what was expected of female Victorian-era writers.
In her later years, Martineau left behind the bustling streets of London for the Lake District, making a home for herself — which she referred to as The Knoll — in Ambleside (Webb). It was her final home. By her death in June 1876, she had published thirty-five books and myriad essays on topics ranging from political economy to sexual identity, along with more than few pamphlets and translations. To this day, her legacy — as an intellectual, as a feminist, as a sociologist and as a brilliant writer — continues to attract the attention of citizen and scholar alike.
To view a digital copy of Harriet Martineau’s autobiography, click here.
- Deegan, Mary Jo. “Making Lemonade: Harriet Martineau on Being Deaf.” Harriet Martineau: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives. Eds. Hill, Michael R and Hoecker-Drysdale, Susan. Routledge: Psychology Press, 2002: 41-58. Print.
- Fratz, Deborah Mae. “Post of Observation: Harriet Martineau’s Disabled Subject as Sociological Observer.” Disabled Subjects: Disability, Gender and Ethical Agency in Victorian Realism. Ann Arbor, 2008. ProQuest. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
- Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877. Victorian Women Writers Project. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
- Webb, R.K. “Harriet Martineau.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.