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Harriet Martineau

Martineau, Harriet, 1802—1876

by Benjamin Colbert

Harriet Martineau was born in 1802 at Norwich, the daughter of Thomas Martineau (1764-1826), wine importer and manufacturer, and Elizabeth Martineau, née Rankin (1770/71-1848). She was educated in music, at which she excelled, as well as languages, the classics, and philosophy, and from the age of eleven learned Latin, French, and mathematics at a school run by the Reverend Isaac Perry. At 12, she began to lose her hearing, and though she was not completely deaf, her disability ended plans to train her as a governess.

In 1821, the Unitarian Monthly Repository accepted an article she had submitted. This suggested a new direction for her energies, and her first book, Devotional Exercises […] by a Lady was published in 1823. After the death of her father in 1826, her family’s finances narrowed enough for her to embrace writing openly as a profession and she continued to write for periodicals as well as publish tales and devotional works with the Unitarian Association, among other outlets. From 1829, she began to spend more time in London to be closer to the centre of the publishing industry, and in 1832 moved there.

In 1834 she launched by subscription her Illustrations of Political Economy, a series of tales designed to translate dry theory into everyday matter. The success of the venture established her as a popular author and whetted her appetite for travel, since much of her research involved reading contemporary travel accounts of France, Russia, and the West Indies. Buoyant from the proceeds from Illustrations and as a needed rest from her work, she accordingly travelled in North America from 1834 to 1836, and upon her return published her political and sociological observations in Society in America (1837), followed by the more personal travel narrative, Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). She also published a guide for would-be travellers and tourists on the ‘methods of safe generalization’ from observed phenomena, How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), that is as much philosophical treatise as instruction manual.

In the ensuing years Martineau published books and wrote extensively for journals, in a variety of genres and covering a wide range of topics. After her American travels, she supported and wrote on the abolitionist cause and women’s rights; when her continental travels in 1837 were interrupted by illness – she suffered a prolapsed uterus in Venice – she wrote upon herself as an invalid, Life in the Sick-Room (1844), and her ‘cure’ through mesmerism in Letters on Mesmerism (1845). Travel and travel writing continued to draw her. After settling in the Lake District in 1845, she set off on an extended trip to Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon from 1846 to 1847, publishing her account as Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). Back in her home, “The Knoll,” at Ambleside, she sent forth her Letters from Ireland (1852) recounting a 1200 mile tour around Ireland in autumn 1852. She also published local guide books: Guide to Windermere, with Tours to the Neighbouring Lakes (1854), Complete Guide to the English Lakes (1855), and Guide to Keswick and Its Environs (1857).

After developing a heart complaint in 1855 (and unbeknownst to her a uterine tumor), she composed her Autobiography (1877) for posthumous publication, but lived another 21 years as an invalid. She died of heart disease and the effects of the tumor in 1876 at her home in Ambleside.


Harper, Lila M. 'Harriet Martineau'. British Travel Writers, 1837-1875. Ed. Barbara Brothers and Julia Gergits. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 166. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1996. 246-58. Print.

Webb, R. K. 'Martineau, Harriet (1802–1876), writer and journalist'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 28 Sept. 2006. Oxford University Press. Web. 6 Dec. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18228


Title Published
Society in America 1837
Retrospect of Western Travel 1838

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