The story of Harriet Martineau

by Daisy Holder

It was the spring of 1855, and Harriet was blazing her way through writing her autobiography. She was dying of heart failure (probably. Maybe.) and didn’t have long left. She had been “sickly” and “delicate” for most of her life, a trait which Harriet’s mother put down to a poor-quality wet nurse in the months after she was born in 1802. Harriet wasn’t so sure, and put a lot of her symptoms down to milk “radically disagreeing with her”.

Her family were progressive for the time and Harriet and her three sisters received an education just like her four brothers, although the girls weren’t trained for careers. Her frustration grew as the expectation of women remained that they would sit in the house, sewing and always prepared to receive visitors. 

In a further annoyance, her formal education was being affected by her worsening deafness. She wrote that “it does not seem to be ever considered by parents and teachers how much more is learned by oral intercourse than in any other way”.

She travelled around Great Britain quite a bit, being sent away “for her health” throughout her childhood, but amazingly the near constant travelling and homesickness didn’t help and her illness held firm.

She was, however, always well enough to read, learn and write. By 1821 she was writing anonymous articles for the Unitarian magazine, the Monthly Repository. One article in particular, ‘On Female Education’, won the favour of her eldest brother, who she looked up to from a very young age. Once he found out it had been written by her, he said that she should devote herself to writing, and to “leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings”. 

After her father died, Harriet had to go out into the big wide world and earn a living for herself. In her situation many middle-class young ladies would become governesses, but the hearing trumpet she had to carry around made that unrealistic, so writing it was.

Throughout this time, she continued to write for the Monthly Repository, but also published two books about religion before moving onto what she is best known for: illustrative stories about political economy and social reform. What we would now know as sociology, which was being made understandable for the ordinary person for the first time.

Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans circa 1834

These were phenomenally popular, even grabbing the attention of the then young Princess Victoria, who was reported to have run to her mother one evening “running and skipping” to make her order a copy of Illustrations of Taxation

Thanks to the popularity of these articles, she was now financially secure and able to travel as much as she wanted. She visited America for two years and then Europe, where she was when she became seriously ill for the first time.

Thanks to the opinions of a number of doctors and surgeons, she was diagnosed with ovarian cysts and a prolapsed uterus and was told her condition was likely terminal. After five years bedbound in Tynemouth, and on the suggestion of a friend, she tried mesmerism.

Thanks to the mesmerism, she believed, she was cured and moved to the Lake District, building her own house and starting immediate work on numerous new books and articles. She got 10 years of good health after this, travelling, writing thousands of articles and publishing new books, as well as joining with the suffrage movement to campaign to give women the vote. But it wasn’t to last. 

By 1855 she had fallen ill again, and was so certain that she was dying that she wrote her entire autobiography in three months, staying up all night to write while sick, in pain and exhausted. Although that may not have been necessary, as she would however live another 21 years, writing and campaigning the entire time, but never updating her autobiography. That was left to a friend. 

After she actually died in 1876, aged 74, it turned out that the ovarian cysts hadn’t actually been cured by mesmerism, but had been slowly growing the entire time.

Alongside her reputation as the first female sociologist, her philosophy around her chronic illness and deafness was very progressive for the time. More than 100 years before we began to see the social model of disability spreading amongst activists in the UK, Harriet Martineau was describing it in her autobiography:

“We sufferers meet with abundance of compassion for our privations: but the privation is a very inferior evil to the fatigue imposed by the obstruction.”

Recommended Reading:

Harriet Martinau’s Autobiography vol 1

The Women Who Built Bristol

Illustrations of Political Economy vol 1

About the Author:

Daisy Holder is a disability history researcher and writer living in Bristol. She also runs the Covid Disability Archive.

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