Who was Harriet Martineau?

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) has been described as Britain’s first female journalist, the first professional ‘woman of letters’, and the founder of the modern discipline we call sociology. She is a complex and curious figure. While she helped to make male intellectuals like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus household names, she herself is not well known today. Sometimes she seems like a radical; elsewhere her ideas sound orthodox and conservative to the modern ear.

What is not in doubt is her prolific written output: her novels, shorter fiction, newspaper columns, pamphlets, reviews, travel writings and sociological studies covered issues as varied as economics, history, women’s rights, politics, theology, empire, slavery, America, the Middle East, household management, human nature, disability, marriage, privacy and occupational health. She suffered ill health, profound deafness and lacked the sense of smell (it was this ill-health which resulted in her convalescing in Tynemouth for the first half of the 1840s). But in her case, disability became ability, as her condition provided her with a unique capacity to observe the world around her. Indeed her extensive travels in America led her to publish a book in 1838 on how one should observe societies and other cultures.

Martineau, the daughter of a Norwich manufacturing family, sprung to national prominence in the early 1830s when she brought the doctrines and ideas of capitalist, market economy to the working classes through a series of fictional tales titled Illustrations of Political Economy. With these tales – they were hugely popular and widely read – Martineau cast herself as a national instructor or educator, one who sought to promote class harmony by diffusing principles of cooperation and good domestic economy. Read today, these stories appear to be justifying the kind of harsh nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism that outraged Dickens. Her criticisms of trade unions, radical leaders and shop-floor protests are inconsistent with contemporary notions of radicalism, and her vision of a world in which capital and labour lived in harmony seems hopelessly naive. But the tales also laud individual agency and attacked all sorts of prejudices, entrenched interests and exploitative relationships. Her view of a new Britain, inhabited by a responsible middle class and a respectable, educated, and self-improving working class, informed the national history that she published in 1849, The History of the Thirty Years Peace.

But Martineau was radical. She was raised among Unitarians, and it was this rational, middle-class, religion – one scholar calls it ‘counter-cultural’ – that shaped her views on the role environment played in determining an individual’s character. Her assault on vested interests and privileges, and her commitment to education, reform, social progress and women’s rights, flowed from this radical philosophy. She became one of Britain’s most prominent anti-slavery campaigners. While her views on empire, race and labour relations appear unattractive and outdated today, Martineau nevertheless stands as a positive image of an authoritative, self-supporting, professional, woman writer, striving to integrate the new economics into an optimistic and just vision of human potential. An autobiography was published posthumously in 1877.

Dr Joseph Hardwick
Lecturer in History at Northumbria University

Dr Joseph Hardwick, who is also the organiser of the Mapping Radical Tyneside website, will give a post-show talk Harriet Martineau In and Beyond Tynemouth after the 7.30pm performance of Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing on Tuesday 22 November.  The talk will explore Martineau’s significance for Victorian radicalism and the emergence of the professional woman writer and connects her domestic life in Tynemouth with the powerful voice that she developed on issues as wide ranging as slavery, empire, politics, economics and the rights of women.  Find out more and book.

Following on from the critically acclaimed 2010 production of A Northern Odyssey (★★★★★ The Guardian), Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing is the second in Shelagh Stephenson’s trilogy of plays at Live Theatre exploring the contemporary relevance of Tyneside’s political and cultural heritage. Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing is at Live Theatre from Thursday 10 November to Saturday 3 December 2016. For more information and tickets which cost between £12-£26, concs from £10 ring Live Theatre’s box office on (0191) 232 1232 or see www.live.org.uk.