Birthplace: Norwich, England
Location of death: The Knoll, Ambleside, England
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Maid of All Work
An English writer, Harriet Martineau was born at Norwich, where her father was a manufacturer, on the 12th of June 1802. The family was of Huguenot extraction and professed Unitarian views. The atmosphere of her home was industrious, intellectual and austere; she herself was clever, but weakly and unhappy; she had no sense of taste or smell, and moreover early grew deaf. At the age of fifteen the state of her health and nerves led to a prolonged visit to her father's sister, Mrs. Kentish, who kept a school at Bristol. Here, in the companionship of amiable and talented people, her life became happier. Here, also, she fell under the influence of the Unitarian minister, Dr. Lant Carpenter, from whose instructions, she says, she derived "an abominable spiritual rigidity and a truly respectable force of conscience strangely mingled together." From 1819 to 1830 she again resided chiefly at Norwich. About her twentieth year her deafness became confirmed. In 1821 she began to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical, and in 1823 she published Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.
In 1826 her father died, leaving a bare maintenance to his wife and daughters. His death had been preceded by that of his eldest son, and was shortly followed by that of a man to whom Harriet was engaged. Mrs. Martineau and her daughters soon after lost all their means by the failure of the house where their money was placed. Harriet had to earn her living, and, being precluded by deafness from teaching, took up authorship in earnest. Besides reviewing for the Repository she wrote stories (afterwards collected as Traditions of Palestine), gained in one year (1830) three essay-prizes of the Unitarian Association, and eked out her income by needlework. In 1831 she was seeking a publisher for a series of tales designed as Illustrations of Political Economy. After many failures she accepted disadvantageous terms from Charles Fox, to whom she was introduced by his brother, the editor of the Repository. The sale of the first of the series was immediate and enormous, the demand increased with each new number, and from that time her literary success was secured. In 1832 she moved to London, where she numbered among her acquaintance Henry Hallam, Milman, Thomas Malthus, Monckton, Milnes, Sydney Smith, Bulwer, and later Thomas Carlyle. Until 1834 she continued to be occupied with her political economy series and with a supplemental series of Illustrations of Taxation. Four stories dealing with the poor-law came out about the same time. These tales, direct, lucid, written without any appearance of effort, and yet practically effective, display the characteristics of their author's style. In 1834, when the series was complete, Miss Martineau paid a long visit to America. Here her open adhesion to the Abolitionist party, then small and very unpopular, gave great offense, which was deepened by the publication, soon after her return, of Society in America (1837) and a Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). An article in the Westminster Review, "The Martyr Age of the United States", introduced English readers to the struggles of the Abolitionists. The American books were followed by a novel, Deerbrook (1839) -- a story of middle-class country life. To the same period belong a few little handbooks, forming parts of a Guide to Service. The veracity of her Maid of All Work led to a widespread belief, which she regarded with some complacency, that she had once been a maid of all work herself.
In 1839, during a visit to the Continent, Miss Martineau's health broke down. She retired to solitary lodgings in Tynemouth, and remained an invalid till 1844. Besides a novel, The Hour and the Man (1840), Life in the Sickroom (1844), and the Playfellow (1841), she published a series of tales for children containing some of her most popular work: Settlers at Home, The Peasant and the Prince, Feats on the Fiord, etc. During this illness she for a second time declined a pension on the civil list, fearing to compromise her political independence. Her letter on the subject was published, and some of her friends raised a small annuity for her soon after.
In 1844 Miss Martineau underwent a course of mesmerism, and in a few months was restored to health. She eventually published an account of her case, which had caused much discussion, in sixteen Letters on Mesmerism. On her recovery she removed to Ambleside, where she built herself "The Knoll", the house in which the greater part of her after life was spent. In 1845 she published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales. In 1846 she made a tour with some friends in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and on her return published Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). This work showed that as humanity passed through one after another of the world's historic religions, the conception of the Deity and of Divine government became at each step more and more abstract and indefinite. The ultimate goal Miss Martineau believed to be philosophic atheism, but this belief she did not expressly declare. She published about this time Household Education, expounding the theory that freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, are the most effectual instruments of education. Her interest in schemes of instruction led her to start a series of lectures, addressed at first to the school children of Ambleside, but afterwards extended, at their own desire, to their elders. The subjects were sanitary principles and practice, the histories of England and North America, and the scenes of her Eastern travels. At the request of Charles Knight she wrote, in 1849, The History of the Thirty Years' Peace, 1816-1846 -- an excellent popular history written from the point of view of a "philosophical Radical", completed in twelve months.
In 1851 Miss Martineau edited a volume of Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development. Its form is that of a correspondence between herself and H. G. Atkinson, and it expounds that doctrine of philosophical atheism to which Miss Martineau in Eastern Life had depicted the course of human belief as tending. The existence of a first cause is not denied, but is declared unknowable, and the authors, while regarded by others as denying it, certainly considered themselves to be affirming the doctrine of man's moral obligation. Atkinson was a zealous exponent of mesmerism, and the prominence given to the topics of mesmerism and clairvoyance heightened the general disapprobation of the book, which caused a lasting division between Miss Martineau and some of her friends.
She published a condensed English version of the Phiosophie Positive (1853). To the Daily News she contributed regularly from 1852 to 1866. Her Letters from Ireland, written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852, appeared in that paper. She was for many years a contributor to the Westminster Review, and was one of the little band of supporters whose pecuniary assistance in 1854 prevented its extinction or forced sale. In the early part of 1855 Miss Martineau found herself suffering from heart disease. She now began to write her autobiography, but her life, which she supposed to be so near its close, was prolonged for twenty years. She died at "The Knoll" on the 27th of June 1876.
She cultivated a tiny farm at Ambleside with success, and her poorer neighbors owed much to her. Her busy life bears the consistent impress of two leading characteristics -- industry and sincerity. The verdict which she records on herself in the autobiographical sketch left to be published by the Daily News has been endorsed by posterity. She says -- "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 dear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent." Her judgment on large questions was clear and sound, and was always the judgment of a mind naturally progressive and Protestant.
Father: (d. 1826)
Risk Factors: Deafness
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