In This Article Harriet Martineau

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Collected Works
  • Collected Letters
  • Editions
  • Anthologies
  • General Surveys and Collections
  • Deerbrook
  • The Hour and the Man
  • Children’s Stories
  • Autobiography
  • Travel Writing
  • Sociology
  • Unitarianism, Mesmerism, and Comtean Positivism
  • History, Nation, and Empire
  • Race and Slavery
  • Journalism
  • Feminism and the Woman Question
  • Gender and Authorship
  • Disability and Illness
  • Industrial Culture

Victorian Literature Harriet Martineau
by
Ella Dzelzainis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0039

Introduction

In a career spanning over half a century, Harriet Martineau (b. 1802–d. 1876), the eminent woman of letters, assumed an astonishing number of literary guises. Writing in a breathtaking range of genres, she became a novelist, translator, reviewer, journalist, children’s author, personal correspondent, political campaigner, travel writer, pamphleteer, memoirist, and historian. The serial work that catapulted her into celebrity, Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834), is estimated to have sold ten thousand copies a month at its height—far outstripping the sales of such literary giants as Charles Dickens. But the innovative combination of literature and economics that made these tales so successful also offers the clue to her fall into relative obscurity until the recent upsurge in interest in her life and work. The rigid divisions within the modern academy have led to difficulty in classifying and evaluating her contribution to 19th-century letters and thought. Seeking a role as national instructor and keen to disseminate her radical-liberal and progressive ideas to as wide an audience as possible, she has been all too easily dismissed for being a popularizer rather than a specialist. However, events such as the turn to interdisciplinary work, her recognition as a foundational figure in sociology, the renewed interest in 19th-century liberal economics and politics, feminism, and discussions of race and empire have conspired to put her increasingly at center stage as a key Victorian thinker. Moreover, she wrote one of the most significant autobiographies of the 19th century, and her representation of her life as a progress from the “metaphysics” of Unitarianism to the serene heights of Comtean positivism and from childhood misery toward life as a fulfilled spinster—despite being deaf from the age of twelve and suffering for years from an ovarian tumor—confirms her as a rich subject for scholars across subjects and disciplines in the 21st century.

Biography

Webb 1960 is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the social, political, and religious ideologies at play in Martineau’s work, representing an important early contribution to the critical evaluation of her work that has taken place since then. It is usefully supplemented by Logan 2002, which looks at Martineau specifically through the prism of gender. Pichanick 1980 is a solid general introduction to Martineau’s life and the range of her writing, but deeper analyses of individual works have become available in critical material that has appeared since it was published.

  • Logan, Deborah A. The Hour and the Woman: Harriet Martineau’s “Somewhat Remarkable” Life. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.

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    Comprehensive literary biography that emphasizes the protean quality of Martineau’s writing and thought, her importance as a figure in Victorian literature and culture, and the extent of her influence on other women writers.

  • Pichanick, Valerie Kossew. Harriet Martineau: The Woman and Her Work, 1802–76. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980.

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    A much-cited biography that also offers some analysis of the works. The narrative has a progressive arc, tracing Martineau’s literary career and intellectual development as a series of steps toward “realization of the self, emancipation of the spirit, and the establishment of identity.”

  • Webb, R. K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. London: Heinemann, 1960.

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    Extensive intellectual biography that emphasizes the ideological context of Martineau’s writing and thought. Takes a critical approach, introducing Martineau as “the perfect example of the limited intellect secure enough in its convictions to challenge its betters,” but recognizes her achievements. Scrupulously detailed, it remains the definitive biography.

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