WOMEN FOR WOMEN: 19th Century Women in Bloomsbury

We continue to uncover trailblazing 19th century women whose voices should be heard and shared. We recognise the barriers women faced, celebrate their achievements and hold them up as inspiration to others, particularly in these challenging times.

We are very grateful for the wonderful tributes that we are collecting. Keep checking the website to see who has been added: Introduction and Women – Pascal Theatre Company (pascal-theatre.com)

Here we share Ellie Smolenaars’ blog celebrating Harriet Martineau.

Credit: Harriet Martineau. Wood engraving. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was a 19th century British writer, journalist, sociologist and political commentator. Her series of British Illustrations of Political Economy achieved bestseller status, she published a methodology for sociological research in How to Observe Morals and Manners, and wrote many books, comments, essay, letters and stories. Read about her in this short sociologically inspired biography and discover her works for yourselves. Because, what is important in Martineau’s work: she trusts her readers.

Harriet Martineau: The heart-works of a polymath social writer by Ellie Smolenaars

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was a 19th century British writer, journalist, sociologist and political commentator. Her series of British Illustrations of Political Economy achieved bestseller status, she published a methodology for sociological research in How to Observe Morals and Manners, and wrote many books, comments, essay, letters and stories. Read about her in this short sociologically inspired biography and discover her works for yourselves. Because, what is important in Martineau’s work: she trusts her readers.

About this biographical article* – Harriet Martineau lived in colonial times, framed by the rise of science and public reading culture in the 19th century. Her access to positions and her combinations of role options and texts fit to that era, while this article is written in the 21st century. As a social science author, I opted to report on her life course through four of her positions and associated roles, with: Harriet Martineau being a Unitarian; a writer in a man’s world; a social researcher and a polymath. Hope you enjoy this short and necessarily incomplete biography and trust the many researchers** who together have studied her fascinating person and work.

ONE Harriet Martineau is a Unitarian – education and religion

Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich on 12 June 1802, the sixth child and third daughter of Elizabeth Rankin and Thomas Martineau; two other children followed. The Martineau family had French roots, descended from Gaston Martineau, a Huguenot from Bergerac who emigrated to Norwich via Dieppe and London. Gaston was involved in the religious community around the Octagon Chapel in Norwich and adopted Unitarian theology.

Harriet’s family were well-off, had domestic servants and were of the upper middle class. Her mother, Elizabeth Rankin, was the daughter of a sugar manufacturer and merchant, and came from a Newcastle family of Unitarians. Her father Thomas Martineau was a merchant who traded and distributed yarn to weavers and found markets for finished products, with an office in London. Harriet’s paternal family included doctors and surgeons. This would later prove to be relevant for Martineau’s sociological work.

The Martineau family practised Unitarianism, and this had a major influence on her upbringing and her view of people and society. It would also prove important to her success as a writer. What is Unitarianism? Unitarianism is a school of belief within Christianity whose main characteristic is the application of reason to the interpretation of the Christian faith. Foremost among these are civil and religious liberty. Unitarians and other believers who support the ideas of the Enlightenment are called ‘rational dissenters’. They support the ideas of the French Revolution, democratisation with liberty, equality and fraternity.

Unitarians were enthusiastic about the role of science and the Martineau family was no exception. Harriet was taught Latin, writing and arithmetic, French and reading at home by her mother and older siblings. Her maternal aunt invited her, with her nieces to boarding school in Bristol for over a year in 1818-19, when she was 15 and 16. She read everything she could get her hands on.

TWO Harriet Martineau is an Authoress – profession

Harriet is close to her younger brother James. He went to college, while the unmarried sisters are expected to continue their studies at home. James advises Harriet to keep her spirits up by trying ‘authorship’, and Harriet writes to the editor of the Monthly Repository. Her first publication, Female Writers on Practical Divinity, appears in the October 1822 issue. Brother Tom read the article and advised Harriet to pursue authorship and leave the domestic sewing to others. ‘That evening made me an Authoress,’ Martineau wrote. In her autobiography, she also mentions her mother’s constant support, ‘sustained by her trustful, generous, self-denying sympathy and maternal appreciation’. This was followed by her first book, Devotional Exercises.

Next to her writer’s talent and her supportive family, two other circumstances are important to her career. Her hearing impairment makes writing her preferred medium. And her financial situation changed. As industrialisation progressed, the textile trade and industry moved to Manchester. The impact on the family was severe, with unexpected consequences. In her autobiography, Martineau wrote that the loss of money was a misfortune, but one she enjoyed because it gave her room for action. By 1829, Harriet and her two unmarried sisters who lived at home, could feel a whole new freedom. The freedom to work in their own ways.

Between 1827 and 1834, in seven years, Martineau wrote almost 40 essays and reviews, 15 poems, 7 parables, 5 tales, letters and 50 critical notices. In 1830, 70 of her pieces appeared in the Monthly Repository. Her breakthrough came with the series British Illustrations of Political Economy. The proposal to use a mixture of fiction and fact to explain political-economic issues to a wider readership was rejected by several publishers. Until one publisher, Charles Fox, agreed to publish the series when Martineau herself brought in paying subscribers. Harriet successfully crowdfunded the series, and initially it was Unitarians who generously became subscribers.

The series Illustrations of Political Economy is structured around the themes of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. The stories are informative, integrate economic knowledge and often have a good moral ending, as in Life in the Wilds, where hierarchy breaks down when people have to work together in a situation of hardship. In Demarara, a brother and sister return to their father’s sugar and coffee plantation in British Guiana and debate the idea of property and enslaved people. The story is popular with American abolitionists, the advocates of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Martineau wrote that ‘”the heart work” of a play about enslaved persons worried her: “the horrors of iniquities of the system so weigh me down with woe that my pen is paralyzed.’

In the meantime she moved from Norwich to London, at a suggestion of her publisher, because London was “essential to a literary career”. Harriet became part of London’s literary circles, travelled in a horse-drawn carriage, often with Erasmus Darwin, and met and corresponded with later famous writers and scholars, including the Brontes, Wedgwoods, Brownings, Darwins, Dickens and Gaskell. Martineau also wrote for the SDUK, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, based in Bloomsbury. Eventually she earned a lot of money from writing, 10,000 British pounds, enough to live on for 25 years, she later wrote in her autobiography. Thus she also supported her family, her mother and gave her brother James, now living in Dublin, a guarantee when his house could not be rented because of the ongoing cholera epidemic.

THREE Harriet Martineau is a social researcher – science and communication

In the nineteenth century, people yearned for intelligible knowledge about the rapid changes in the industrial marketplace. As a sociologist and journalist, I was struck by her epistemological narrative in How to observe Morals and Manners (1838): how do we gather and acquire knowledge about different people, cultures and places? How do we share that knowledge? Who participates? Martineau presents a framework for observation, organised into ‘requisites’, skills for social research. And as I have read and reread these Requisites, they seem to have the power to think about social research in a fresh, open way.

How to Observe was written as a loose chapter in 1834 by the then 32-year-old Martineau on the ship United States, sailing from Liverpool to New York. Martineau wrote with great ambition, describing all kinds of human behaviour and societies. If you wrote like that in the 21st century, you would immediately be criticised for going far beyond your specialism. Reading this work in its full breadth, however, one senses a pioneering intensity: something new and exciting is happening, a social science is in the process of discovering social facts. While Auguste Comte, influenced by Newton, called his science ‘social physics’ and later ‘sociology’, Martineau opted for ‘the science of morals and manners’. At the time, this combination of words was used in literature.

By Morals and Manners she meant all kinds of human expressions (from things to organisational forms to verbal expressions). She chooses six themes for research: religion; prevailing moral views; everyday life (the domestic state), which includes money, occupation, marriage, children and health; the idea of freedom; progress; and discourse. Martineau opposes the idea that the human mind can describe human societies either by itself or by a dogma – in her time, mainly religion.

Just as geology has become a field of scientific research, or physics has its own reality to be studied, Morals and Manners a separate field of scientific research yet to be established. By Morals, Martineau means ‘the inner workings of the human heart’, which she says cannot be directly observed. Manners, on the other hand, are observable and are the empirical traces of activities that can be studied, especially in matter, in things. She cites cemeteries and memorials as examples. Morals and Manners can both be subjects of discourse, where discourse can be understood as people’s comments on the study of things.

The task Martineau set herself is the search for truth, empirically, as Francis Bacon put it. Knowledge is empirical knowledge. Martineau does not, therefore, formulate a substantive theory, nor does she intend to. In the search for social facts, her aim in this work is to identify the researcher’s starting points, method and point of view. In How to Observe Morals and Manners, she develops a system that goes beyond the initial surprise.

You can read the list of 15 requisites, or skills, below, and marvel at the useful obviousness (the researcher’s diary), advice-like tips (don’t get discouraged) and explicit pragmatism (choose a method that promises useful results). I have deliberately kept some of the more nineteenth-century-sounding translations in order to maintain a sense of time. I have also replaced ‘he’ and ‘we’ with ‘you’. What is important is that Martineau communicates to readers: If you learn to observe better, you will see more, you will be able to participate in science. The researcher is not superior to the researched, but is a person, a subject, and by no means perfect. It was only later, in the late nineteenth century and the early and mid-twentieth century, that this view was taken up in the sociology of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, the Chicago School and the Frankfurt School.

Harriet Martineau’s List of 15 Requisites for Social Science Travellers**

Philosophical Requisites: the Traveller (=researcher) needs:

1. a certainty of what he/she wants to know (analytical power and concentrative thought, focus)

2. principles to serve as a rallying point and test of his/her observations

3. a method that promises any useful results

4. a definite notion on the origin of human feelings of right and wrong (a moral conviction)

5. a sense of the relation between virtues and vices and general influences (knowledge of general trends and how they work out).

Moral Requisites: the Traveller (=researcher) needs:

6. sympathy to find his/her way to hearts and minds

7. to not allow him/herself to be perplexed or disgusted by seeing the great ends of human association

8. to think about the dangers of attracting spirits like his/her own. And be warned that the traveller should not find everything amazing or terrific, mysterious picturesque or classical

9. to be aware that we suddenly make ourselves a great deal better than we have been, for such an object as observing morals and manners

10. no feelings of discouragement, as long as s/he desires to be useful rather than shining.

Mechanical Requisites: the Traveller (=researcher) needs:

11. a means of transport where one meets people and has the advantage of being able to approach people and places gradually

12. to distinguish between language in literature and daily language

13. to keep a diary/journal

14. to be aware that a set of queries is better than an individual report

  1. to stand on the highest pinnacle to obtain an accurate general view in contemplating a society as well as a city.

Edited and condensed from: How to Observe Morals and Manners by Harriet Martineau 1838:2-70.

FOUR Harriet Martineau is a polymath – uomo universalis

Martineau’s publications are an invitation to do research and I became curious as to whether Martineau uses the methodology herself. This is still under investigation, but for the moment it seems that she is not applying her proposed skills in a direct way but constantly learning new things. Martineau is a polymath, an intellectual, someone who has researched and learnt a lot, a homo universalis, someone who is interested in many different subjects. This includes her translation of Auguste Comte’s Cours de Philosophie Positive.

The story of how she came into contact with Comte is interesting. Comte later became to be regarded as one of the founding fathers of sociology. Her uncle, the surgeon Philip Meadows Martineau, was involved in amputating the leg of one Edward Lombe as a child. Lombe therefore trusted the Martineaus and, being a follower of Comte, approached Harriet Martineau in 1851 for a paid translation. She produced a condensed, more readable version and took great pleasure in translating the whole of Comte’s Cours, from astronomy to physics and chemistry, to mathematics, biology and sociology. Comte’s central idea fitted in with her belief that the theological phase in the development of society was over and that a modern, positive phase based on scientific knowledge was coming. Religion was a social phenomenon and science was the future. Eventually, in turn, Comte would have her translation re-translated and recommended it to his students.

Later in life Martineau abandoned her Unitarian faith and this led to a break with her family. She lived in the quiet countryside at Ambleside in the Lake District and had her own house built there, entertained friends, corresponded, did journalists’s work, wrote about the lakes. Martineau’s work remained as polymathic as the reactions to it. Not even mentioned yet are her important essays on illness, Life in the Sick-Room, and her correspondence with Florence Nightingale. The writers Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot were fans of her novel Deerbrook, there are her children’s books, a series of good deeds, commentaries and positions: she supported the anti-slavery movement, the abolitionists in the United States, wrote The Hour and the Man, a historical novel about Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the successful slave revolt in Haiti at the end of the 18th century. She tries to take responsibility for an orphaned child of enslaved people; advocates equal treatment of women’s labour and recognition of women’s contribution to the economy; advocates improving the position of children from poorer families in education and more democratic, non-gentrified housing; and writes many short journalistic commentaries. Her article on ‘lionising’, about the literary salons of the time, to me reads as an analysis of today’s media culture, and I could go on and on.

As a sociologist, Harriet Martineau is regularly rediscovered, but there is no school of thought or systematic citation of Martineauan thought in time. The creation of classics happens through the concentration of power, through frequent references, through criticism, through networking. In the twentieth century, this process suffers from a kind of lack of memory. Martineau is quoted, but with relatively little substance, with exceptions. The same happens to many female, male, diverse and to non-European authors. Authors are forgotten for a while but can be rediscovered.

Is it like a game, with several lives for each author? I think this is the crux of the matter: because of Martineau’s polymathy, but also because of her multidimensionality or multidisciplinarity, she and certain authors have been caught between the wheels of the institutionalised specialisations of the 20th century and the parallel forgetting. Will Martineau’s works fit better into the 21st century? The cards can be reshuffled.In principle, digitisation makes diversity more accessible and requotable to readers who are looking for different voices. Readers and writers can make a difference, making more works and perspectives available to all.

Ellie Smolenaars / Social Research & Journalism is an experienced and independent writer with a demonstrated history of working in Social Research and Social Science Journalism.

She has published books on sociologists, social policy, social history and sociology of the life course/retirement (PhD). Her work as a science journalist has been published in Dutch (and German) media. She is currently working on the history and future of social research and theories.

More information can be found at Social Research & Journalism and on this timeline 

You can find me here at the socials:

Twitter: @EllieSmolenaars

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*To translate my writings, in the end phase I cooperate with the AI DeepL Translation and help to train it, in the case of Harriet Martineau by changing ‘him’ and ‘he’ into ‘her’ and ‘she’.

**Important: This version does not include endnotes or exact references. It is important to emphasise that research on Harriet Martineau’s life and work has been the work of many different scholars. It is a truly collective work and ongoing process.

Read more about and from Harriet Martineau:

The Martineau Society Website on Harriet and James Martineau

Many of Harriet Martineau’s publications can be found freely accessible through The Gutenberg Project, Internet Archives and online libraries.

Some interesting sources by Harriet Martineau:

Martineau, Harriet (1832-34) Illustrations of Political Economy. 9 Vols. London: Charles Fox.

Martineau, Harriet (1837) Society in America. In three volumes. New York. Saunders and Otley.

Martineau, Harriet (1838) How to Observe Morals and Manners. With a new introduction, appendices, and index by Michael R. Hill. New Brunswick and Oxford: Transaction Publishers.

Martineau, Harriet (1877) Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography. with Memorials by Maria Westin Chapman 3 Vols. London: Elder.

Some interesting sources about Harriet Martineau:

Arbuckle, Elisabeth (2019 – 2023) Harriet Martineau: a new Biography. Chapters being published by Valerie Sanders and Gaby Weiner at:http://martineausociety.co.uk/a-nineteenth-century-womans-engaging-with-her-times-harriet-martineau-1802-1876/.

Hill, Michael R. en Susan Hoecker-Drysdale (red.) (2002) Harriet Martineau. Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives. London: Routledge.

Hobday, Stuart (2017) Encounters with Harriet Martineau – A Victorian living ahead of her time. London: Unbound.

Logan, Deborah A. (2010) Harriet Martineau, Victorian Imperialism and the Civilizing Mission. Farnham: Ashgate.

Sanders, Valerie and Gaby Weiner (red.) (2017) Harriet Martineau and the Birth of Disciplines. London: Routledge.

On Unitarian women incl. Harriet. Martineau

Peart, Ann (ed.) (2019) Unitarian Women – A legacy of Dissent. Lindsey Press.

On Women in Sociology incl. Harriet Martineau

Lengermann, Patricia Madoo, Jill Niebrugge-Brantley (1997) The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930. ‎New York: McGraw-Hill.