Harriet Martineau

12 June 1802 - 27 June 1876

Sometimes known as "the deaf girl of Norwich" Harriet Martineau wrote some twenty small volumes of "Tales of Political Economy," which were surprisingly popular considering that subject was known as "the Dismal Science". She also translated Comte's "Positive Philosophy", and did this so well that Comte had it retranslated from English into French, as being better than his own work. [G. J. Holyoake]

She earned enough to be entirely supported by her writings. She travelled to America in 1834 and published Society in America 1837 and How to Observe Morals and Manners 1838, which are now considered to have led to the founding of modern sociology. In 1839 after travel in Europe she was immobile and confined to a couch, diagnosed with a uterine tumour, but in 1844 she underwent a course of mesmerism which restored her health and in 1846 she toured middle east with friends. In 18545 she was told by her physicians that she had heart disease, which might end her life any day, but she lived another 20 years. [Wikipedia]

"The intrepid authoress happened to believe there was some truth in mesmerism." She wrote to G. J. Holyoake to give her the names of persons he thought might write her biography. But "At length she did it herself, in a way which showed no one else could have done it so well." [It appeared in three volumes 1877.] "The treatment Miss Martineau had received from eminent adversaries astonished a generation in which greater controversial fairness had come to prevail."

"Miss Martineau entered into a correspondence on "Man's Nature and Development," with Mr. Henry G. Atkinson, which, when published, was reviewed by her brother, Dr. James Martineau, in the Prospective Review (No. xxvi., Art. 4), for which he selected the offensive and ignorant title of "Mesmeric Atheism". It was misleading, because mesmerism has no theology. It was ignorant, because neither Mr. Atkinson nor Dr. Martineau's sister were Atheists. Their disavowal of Atheism was in the book before him. If the reader is curious to know what really were the opinions of these two distinguished offenders (H. Martineau and H. G. Atkinson), I recite them. In the book Dr. Martineau reviewed, Mr. Atkinson said: "I am far from being an Atheist. I do not say there is no God, but that it is extravagant and irreverent to imagine that cause a Person." Miss Martineau herself writes in the same series of letters: "There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties; which is not (to my feelings) so irreverent as to make me blush; so misleading as to make me mourn." The object of his letters to Miss Martineau was to ascertain if there could be found a real basis of a science of mind. The common idea in those days was that mind was a "vital spark" which shone at will originating without conditions acting of its own caprice and obeying no law. Only the theological spirit could see harm in this investigation." [G. J. Holyoake]

In a letter of 1 November 1855 to Lloyd Garrison defending a criticism of Holyoake she wrote: "The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism. On this ground, and because by the adoption of a new term a vast amount of impediment from prejudice is got rid of, the use of the name Secularism is found advantageous; but it in no way interferes with Mr. Holyoake's profession of his own unaltered views on the subject of a First Cause."


Sources and Links


Victorian Women Writers Project autobiography
Gerald Massey Org G. J. Holyoake's Bygones Chapters XIV and XV
Riva Berleant biography
Liberal International appreciation
Humanists Net Harriet Martineau and the Quiet Revolution
Wikipedia biography
Spartacus Schoolnet biography
Victorian Women Writers Letters Project biography
Women's Intellectual Contributions biography
Unitarian Universalists biography
Online Library of Liberty various works
Daily Telegraph Kate Middleton related to Harriet Martineau!