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Harriet Martineau

(June 12, 1802 - June 27, 1876)

The remarkable Harriet Martineau is famous as a defiantly independent Victorian woman who earned her living as a prolific and influential journalist and writer. In achieving this she had to overcome the misogyny of Victorian society and her own physical problems. Harriet was deaf from the age of 12 and suffered from ill health all her life.

Harriet was one of eight children born to Elizabeth and Thomas Martineau, a textile manufacturer in Norwich. The Martineaus were Unitarians who held progressive ideas on the education of girls. However, while the boys were trained for careers the girls were expected to stay at home. Harriet’s anger at this unfairness produced an anonymous article to a Unitarian journal which was well received and her career as a professional writer was born.


Many articles followed and in 1832 she became famous as the author of ‘Illustrations of Political Economy’ - 25 short stories in episodes showing how economic and social conditions impacted on the lives of ordinary people. They became very popular, selling 10,000 copies monthly at their peak, outselling Dickens, and Harriet became financially secure. As a result, she was lionized by the London intellectual elite meeting Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and many others. She became a close friend of Erasmus Darwin, the brother of Charles.

From 1834-1836 she travelled to the USA to research how the young democratic Republic was developing socially and culturally. The result was a savage attack on slavery, Harriet remaining  a passionate supporter of the anti-slavery cause all her life. The social position of women also shocked her and in her book ‘Society in America’ claimed that women were ‘given indulgence rather than justice’ in a chapter called ‘The Political Non-existence of Women’.

On return to England more publications followed including novels and a series of children’s stories. In 1839, while in Europe, she became seriously ill from an ovarian cyst and spent the next 5 years in a Tynemouth bedroom expecting to die. In 1845 she claimed to have been cured by Mesmerism and resumed normal life. However, during her incapacitation she continued to write, including ‘Life in the Sickroom’- a proclamation of independence on how to exert control in the sickroom which outraged the medical profession who advocated ‘unconditional submission’.

In 1846, Martineau travelled to the Middle East and while in Egypt developed a theory of ‘Philosophical Atheism’ which suggested that religion became more spiritual as mankind progressed. This caused a rift with her beloved brother James, a Unitarian minister.

Harriet continued her prolific output and wrote on a vast range of subjects including c.2000 articles for the Daily News from 1852-1866. She is thought to be the first female sociologist. Her work ‘How to Observe Morals + Manners’ is arguably the first systematic methodological treatise in sociology. Harriet translated the works of Auguste Compte and introduced sociology to the British public. Articles on social class, suicide, religions, delinquency, suffrage and women’s issues (including control of their own bodies) prostitution, philosophy, Darwinism and much more predated the works of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Her autobiography, written in 3 months when she feared imminent death from heart disease in 1855, is vivid and outspoken and is considered one of the best autobiographies by a woman in the 19th Century.

Harriet died in Ambleside in 1876 and was buried in Key Hill with her mother, brother Robert and other members of the influential Birmingham Martineau family.

She was a unique figure in Victorian culture and a key contributor to its intellectual and social debates.

The JQRT would like to thank the Martineau Society for

permission to use material from their website.

Please visit for more on Harriet -

for as Charles Darwin described her-

‘She is a wonderful woman’

See also-Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In Our Time’ archive on Radio 4.