Harriet Martineau

Martineau, Harriet. 1802–1876. Miscellaneous writer. Her illustrations of political economy are in the form of fiction. Deerbrook and The Hour and the Man are her most noted romances. Style strong, clear, and original.See Autobiography, 1876. Pub. Har. Ho. Mac. Por. Rob. Rou.

Harriet Martineau

One of the best books on Eastern life in English literature we owe to the pen of a remarkable woman, whose reputation, based as it is on many other works of singular ability, we may take to be of a permanent character—Miss Harriet Martineau. She was born in 1802. Her father was a manufacturer in Norwich, where his family, originally of French origin, had resided since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. To her uncle, a surgeon in Norwich, she was mainly indebted for her education. Her home-life was not a happy one, and unquestionably its austere influences did much to develop in her that colossal egotism and self-sufficiency which marred her character, and has left its injurious impress on her writings. She tells us that only twice in her childhood did she experience any manifestation of tenderness—once when she was suffering from ear-ache, and her parents were stirred into unwonted compassion, and once from a kind-hearted lady who witnessed her alarm at a magic-lantern exhibition.

Much more care was shown in educing her intellectual faculties than in cultivating her affections. She learned French and music thoroughly, and attained to such proficiency in the classics that she could not only write Latin but think in Latin. She took a great delight in reading, and, of course, read omnivorously, with a special preference for history, poetry, and politics. Her inquisitive and abnormally active mind early began its inquiries into the mysteries of religious faith, but as these were not conducted in a patient or reverent spirit, it is no wonder, perhaps, that they proved unsatisfactory. She got hold of the works of Dugald Stewart, Hartley, and Priestley; plunged boldly into the maze of metaphysics, and grappled unhesitatingly with the mysterious subjects of fore-knowledge and free-will. But in philosophy as in religion, her immense egotism led her astray. She accepted nothing for the existence of which she could not account by causes intelligible to her own mind. Naturally she became a Necessarian, and adopted strenuously the dogma of the invariable and inevitable action of fixed laws. We may be allowed, perhaps, to think of this singular woman as yearning and aspiring after a lofty ideal throughout a sensitive and timorous childhood; and in wayward musings and visionary reflections finding that consolation which should have been, but was not, provided by maternal love. As she grew older, and grew stronger both in mind and body, she grew bolder; aspiration gave way to self-satisfied conviction. Morbid self-reproach was replaced by an extravagant self-consciousness, and thenceforth she went on her solitary way, acting up always to a high standard of moral rectitude, but putting aside the faiths and hopes and judgments of the many as baubles beneath the notice of a mature and well-balanced intellect.

Her tastes for literary pursuits she has herself ascribed to the extreme delicacy of her health in childhood; to the infirmity of deafness, which, while not so complete as to debar her from all social intercourse, yet compelled her to seek occupations and pleasures not dependent upon others; and to the affection which subsisted between her and the brother nearest her own age, the Rev. James Martineau, so well known for his fine intellectual powers. The death of the father having involved the family in the discomfort of narrow circumstances, the pen she had hitherto wielded for amusement she took up with the view of gaining an independent livelihood; and she conceived the idea of employing fiction as a vehicle for the exposition and popularization of the principles of social and political economy. The idea was as new as it was happy; nor could it have been realized at a more opportune time than when the English public was beginning to awake from its long political lethargy, and to assert the rights of the nation against the dominant class interests. It was desirable that its new-born activity should be guided by an intelligent apprehension of the cardinal truths by which reform is differentiated from revolution; and to contribute to this result became Harriet Martineau's purpose. Accordingly, in 1826, she wrote, and after conquering the difficulty of finding a publisher, gave to the world her tale of "The Rioters," the first of a long series of illustrations of political economy, which had a very considerable influence, if not quite so great an influence, as she herself supposed. The series comprises eighteen tales, of which the best, perhaps, are "Ella of Gareloch," "Life in the Wilds," and "The Hamlets." Their true merit consists in their having quickened and strengthened the interest of the reading classes in economic questions. In their day they did an useful work, but they are already forgotten; and, as Sara Coleridge predicted, their political economy has proved too heavy a ballast for vessels that were expected to sail down the stream of time.

In 1834 Miss Martineau "qualified," so to speak, for a place among female travellers, by visiting the United States. She spent nearly two years in traversing the territories of the Great Western Republic, and was everywhere received with an enthusiastic welcome. Returning to England in 1836, she recorded her impressions of American society, and her views of American institutions in her "Society in America" and her "Retrospect of Western Travel." These are discriminative and thoughtful, while sufficiently cordial in their praise to satisfy even the most exacting American; and at the time of their appearance these books unquestionably did much to soothe the irritation which Mrs. Trollope's hard hitting had provoked. It is but just, however, to commend the honesty with which she avowed her anti-slavery opinions, which could not then be enunciated without exciting the anger even of the people of the North. It brought upon her no small amount of abuse and contumely, many of those who had previously received her with professed admiration joining in the clamour raised against her by the slave-holders and their partisans.

Her literary activity, meanwhile, knew no stint. In 1839 she published "Deerbrook," her best novel, which the critic will always value as a vigorous picture of some aspects of English life. The tone is high and sustained. As for the characters, they are not very strongly individualized; but, on the other hand, the descriptions are clear and forcible, while the interest of the plot is deep and wholesome. John Sterling's criticism of it says:—"It is really very striking, and parts of it are very true and very beautiful. It is not so true or so thoroughly clear and harmonious among delineations of English middle-class gentility as Miss Austen's books, especially as 'Pride and Prejudice,' which I think exquisite."

While travelling on the Continent, in the spring of 1838, Miss Martineau was seized with a very serious illness. By slow stages she returned to England, where she settled down near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to be under the care of her brother-in-law. She resided there for a period of nearly six years. Neither suffering of mind or body, however, was allowed to interfere with her literary work. She gave to the world in 1840 her second novel, "The Hour and the Man," founded on the romantic career of Toussaint L'Ouverture; and composed the admirable series of children's tales, known by the general title of "The Playfellow." These four volumes, "Settlers at Home," "The Picnic," "Feats on the Fiord," and "The Crofton Boys," show her at her very best. They are full of bold and picturesque descriptions, and the story is told with unflagging energy. Her peculiar position suggested a book that has won a well-deserved popularity—"Life in the Sick-room" (1844). Its delicate and judicious reflections, and its pleasing sketches, cannot be read without a touch of sympathy.

Restored to health in 1845, she removed to Ambleside, among the lakes and mountains, settling in the immediate neighbourhood of the poet Wordsworth. In the autumn she published her "Forest and Game Laws"; and in the following year she made a journey to the East, and ascended the river Nile, recording her experiences in the book which has led us to introduce her among our female travellers—"Eastern Life, Past and Present," a remarkable book, giving a fresh interest to the beaten track of Eastern travel and research, and breathing vitality into the dry bones of Champollini, Wilkinson, and Lane. Putting aside its crude notions of Egyptology, and its wild speculations on religious topics, we must be prepared to admire its fresh and finely-coloured word pictures, the glow and power of which are surprising. Miss Martineau went up the Nile to Philæ; she afterwards crossed the desert to the Red Sea, landed in Arabia, and ascended Mounts Sinai and Horeb; and, finally, explored a portion of the shores and islands of the Mediterranean. We must pause in our rapid narrative to give a specimen or two of the sketches she made on the way; they will show how a strong and vivid genius can deal with the incidents of travel, and what a record of it may become in the hands of a skilful and accomplished artist.

Let us take her description of the Sphinx—the Sphinx that for some thousands of years has held mute companionship with the Great Pyramids:—

"The full serene gaze of its round face, rendered ugly by the loss of the nose, which was a very handsome feature of the old Egyptian face—this full gaze, and the stony calm of its attitude almost turn one to stone. So life-like, so huge, so monstrous; it is really a fearful spectacle. I saw a man sitting in a fold of the neck—as a fly might settle on a horse's mane. In that crease he reposed, while far over his head extended the vast pent-house of the jaw; and above that, the dressed hair on either side the face—each bunch a mass of stone which might crush a dwelling-house. In its present state its proportions cannot be obtained; but Sir G. Wilkinson tells us, 'Pliny says it measured from the belly to the highest part of the head sixty-three feet; its length was one hundred and forty-three; and the circumference of its head round the forehead one hundred and two feet; all cut out in the natural rock, and worked smooth.' Fancy the long well-opened eyes, in such proportion as this—eyes which have gazed unwinking into vacancy, while mighty Pharaohs, and Hebrew law-givers, and Persian princes, and Greek philosophers, and Antony with Cleopatra by his side, and Christian anchorites, and Arab warriors, and European men of science, have been brought hither in succession by the unpausing ages to look up into those eyes—so full of meaning, though so fixed!"[39]

At Damascus she visited a Turkish harem, and her account of the visit the reader will find some interest in comparing with Madame Hommaire de Hell's narrative of a similar experience.

She and her companions saw the seven wives of three gentlemen, besides a crowd of attendants and visitors. Of the seven, two had been the wives of the head of the household, who was dead; three were the wives of his eldest son, aged twenty-two; and the remaining two were the wives of his second son, aged fifteen. The youngest son, aged thirteen, was not yet married; but he would be thinking about it soon. The pair of widows were elderly women, as merry as girls, and quite at their ease. Of the other five three were sisters—that is, we conclude, half-sisters; children of different mothers in the same harem. It is evident, at a glance, what a tragedy lies under this; what the horrors of jealousy must be among sisters thus connected for life; three of them between two husbands in the same house! And we were told that the jealousy had begun, young as they were, and the third having been married only a week. This young creature, aged twelve, was the bride of the husband of fifteen. She was the most conspicuous person in the place, not only for the splendour of her dress, but because she sat on the diwán, while the others sat or lounged on cushions on the raised floor. The moment Miss Martineau took her seat she was struck with compassion for this child, who looked so grave, sad, and timid, while the others romped and giggled, and indulged in laughter at their own silly jokes; she smiled not, but looked on listlessly. Miss Martineau was resolved to make her laugh before she went away, and at length she did somewhat relax—smiling, and in a moment growing grave; but after a while she really and truly laughed, and when the whole harem was shown to the visitors, she slipped her bare and dyed feet into her pattens, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and joined them in the courts, nestling to them, and apparently losing the sense of her new position for a time; but there was less of the gaiety of a child about her than in the elderly widows. Her dress was superb—a full skirt and bodice of geranium-coloured brocade, embossed with gold flowers and leaves; and her frill and ruffles were of geranium-coloured gauze. Her eyebrows were frightful—joined together and extended by black paint. A silk net, bedizened with jewels and natural flowers, covered her head, which thus resembled a bouquet sprinkled with diamonds. Her nails were dyed black, and her feet dyed black in chequers. Her complexion, called white, was of an unhealthy yellow; indeed, not a healthy complexion was to be seen among the whole company. How should it be otherwise among women secluded from exercise, and pampered with all the luxuries of Oriental life.

Besides the seven wives, a number of attendants came in to look at the European visitors, and serve the pipes and sherbet; also a few ladies from a neighbouring harem; and a party of Jewesses, with whom Miss Martineau and her friends had some previous acquaintance. Mrs. G., we are told, was compelled to withdraw her lace veil, and then to remove her bonnet; the street, she was informed, was the place where the veil should be worn, and not the interior of the house. Then her bonnet went round, and was tried on many heads; one merry girl wearing it long enough to surprise many new comers with the joke. Miss Martineau's gloves were stretched and pulled in a variety of ways, in their attempts to thrust their large, broad brown hands into them, one after another. But it was the ear-trumpet, rendered necessary by her deafness, which afforded the greatest entertainment. The eldest widow, who sat near her, asked for it and put it to her ear; whereupon Miss Martineau exclaimed, "Bo!" When she had done laughing, the lady of the harem placed it to her next neighbour's ear, and shouted "Bo!" and in this way it returned to its possessor. But in two minutes it was asked for again, and went round a second time; everybody laughing as loud as ever at each "Bo!" so that the joke was repeated a third time.

The next joke was connected with the Jewesses, four or five of whom sat in a row in the diwán. Almost everybody else was puffing away at a tchibouque or nargileh, and the place was one cloud of smoke. The poor Jewesses were obliged to decline joining us, for it happened to be Saturday, and they must not smoke on their Sabbath. They were naturally much pitied, and some of the young wives did what was possible for them. Drawing in a long breath of smoke, they puffed it forth in the faces of the Jewesses, who opened mouth and nostrils eagerly to receive it. Thus was the Sabbath observed, to shouts of laughter.

"A pretty little blue-eyed girl of seven was the only child," says Miss Martineau, "we saw. She nestled against her mother, and the mother clasped her closely, lest we should carry her off to London. She begged we would not wish to take her child to London, and said, 'she would not sell her for much money.' One of the wives was pointed out to us as particularly happy in the prospect of becoming a mother; and we were taken to see the room which she was to lie in, which was all in readiness, though the event was not looked for for more than half a year. She was in the gayest spirits, and sang and danced. While she was lounging on her cushions, I thought her the handsomest and most graceful, as well as the happiest, of the party; but when she rose to dance, the charm was destroyed for ever. The dancing is utterly disgusting. A pretty Jewess of twelve years old danced, much in the same way; but with downcast eyes and an air of modesty. While the dancing went on, and the smoking and drinking coffee and sherbet, and the singing, to the accompaniment of a tambourine, some hideous old hags came in successively, looked and laughed, and went away again. Some negresses made a good background to this thoroughly Eastern picture. All the while, romping, kissing, and screaming went on among the ladies, old and young. At first, I thought them a perfect rabble; but when I recovered myself a little, I saw that there was some sense in the faces of the elderly women. In the midst of all this fun, the interpreters assured us that 'there is much jealousy every day;' jealousy of the favoured wife; that is, in this case, of the one who was pointed out to us by her companions as so eminently happy, and with whom they were romping and kissing, as with the rest. Poor thing! even the happiness of these her best days is hollow, for she cannot have, at the same time, peace in the harem and her husband's love."[40]

With these specimens we must be content, though we are well aware, as Hierocles has taught us, that we cannot judge of a house from a single brick. They fairly illustrate, however, Miss Martineau's style and manner in her record of Eastern travel—a record which the narratives of later travellers may have rendered obsolete in some particulars, but have certainly not superseded.

Her brief career as a traveller terminated with her visit to the East; but a reference to the incidents of her later life may possibly be convenient for the reader. In 1849-1850 she published her "History of England during the Thirty Years' Peace," a thoroughly good bit of historical work, not less admirable for the general fairness of its tone than for the lucidity of its narrative. This was followed by her "Introduction to the History of the Peace, from 1800 to 1815." A careful English condensation of Comte's "Positive Philosophy" appeared in 1853. Meanwhile she was a constant contributor to Mr. Charles Dickens's "Household Words," and to the columns of the "Daily News." In the midst of all this activity she was suddenly struck down by disease of the heart, and her doctors announced that she might die at any moment. She resigned herself to her fate with her usual calm courage, and proceeded to draw up and print her autobiography. Strange to say, she lived for twenty years longer; the Damocles' sword suspended over her head forbore to fall, and as soon as her health was to some extent re-established she resumed her literary labours. Among her latest works, which present abundant evidence of the clearness and practical character of her intellect, we may mention a treatise on "The Factory Controversy," 1853; a "History of the American Compromise," 1856; a picturesquely-written historical sketch of "British Rule in India;" also, "England and her Soldiers;" "Health, Handicraft, and Husbandry;" and "Household Education."

As years passed by her infirmities increased, but she retained her force and freshness of intellect almost to the last. It was not until the beginning of 1876 that her mental condition underwent any serious change. Even then her strong will seemed to stay and strengthen her failing mind. She kept her household books and superintended the household economy to the very end, though suffering under a burden of pain which weaker natures would have found intolerable. Writing to a friend six weeks before her death, she exclaims:—"I am very ill.... the difficulty and distress to me are the state of the head. I will only add that the condition grows daily worse, so that I am scarcely able to converse or read, and the cramp in the hands makes writing difficult or impossible; so I must try to be content with the few lines I can send, till the few days become none. We believe that time to be near, and we shall not attempt to deceive you about it. My brain feels under the constant sense of being not myself, and the introduction of this new fear into my daily life makes each day sufficiently trying to justify the longing for death, which grows upon me more and more."

This longing was fulfilled on the 27th of June, 1876, when Harriet Martineau closed in peace her long and active life.


[39]Harriet Martineau: "Eastern Life," ii., 81, 82.

[40]Harriet Martineau; "Eastern Life," ii. 162-165.