As part of a new series of blogs on Victorian members of The London Library, Helen O’Neill looks at Harriet Martineau (12 June 1802 – 27 June 1876), a prolific author of her day and one of the founder members of The London Library as it opened 175 years ago.
The Victorians are big business. They left a cultural legacy which is remarkably buoyant today. In London the homes and museums of Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, Frederic Leighton, Thomas Carlyle, the Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne and Florence Nightingale are all popular with visitors. The Royal Albert Hall, the V&A, the Science and Natural History Museums, Highgate Cemetery in all its Gothic splendour, and the atmospheric grilled stacks of The London Library are all cultural survivors of the Victorian age. From the bling of the Albert Memorial to the eerie quiet of the Old Operating Theatre in Southwark, the Victorians are ever-present in our cultural landscape.
The Victorian age and its literary fiction, much written by Victorian members of the Library, have been re-booted and re-imagined in every generation and for every medium from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt’s 21st century Sherlock. From Sky’s Penny Dreadful to the latest BBC boxset offering The Living and The Dead (via Ripper Street and Dickensian) we are awash with all things Victorian. Jeremy Paxman looked at the Victorians through their art; Ian Hislop looked at Victorian do-gooders and what they could teach us; Suzannah Lipscomb has shown us the hidden killers of the Victorian home and the Great British Sewing Bee lately asked contestants to re-fashion a staple of the Victorian wardrobe: the corset. If you Google the Victorians 2,210,000 results rise up to meet you. Is there anything, one might ask, we still don’t know about the Victorians?
In a series of monthly blogs over the next 12 months I will be looking at underrated, overlooked, surprising or compelling Victorian members of The London Library as we celebrate the Library in its 175th year. We start today, 140 years since her death, with the forthright, formidable and half-forgotten Victorian woman of letters, Harriet Martineau.
The work of this founder member of the Library was internationally influential during her lifetime. Today, however, she is more likely to be known for her novel Deerbrook, than for her work in the field of comparative sociology; her progressive politics; or feminist sociological perspectives on marriage, children and domestic life.
Martineau’s absence from the mainstream today belies her 19th century profile. Caroline Darwin sent her brother a copy of Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy while he was aboard HMS Beagle: in her letter she described Martineau as “a great Lion in London”. George Eliot referred to her as “the only English woman that possesses thoroughly the art of writing.” Illustrations was a ground-breaking, bestselling series which catapulted Martineau to national fame in 1832. Her innovative use of popular fiction to address economic issues such as strikes and taxation paved the way for the medium to take hold as a vehicle of social reform. She may have written novels and children’s stories but she is also responsible for the first systematic methodological treatise in sociology and conducted detailed international comparative studies of social institutions. Her international influence was recognised by the American Wendell Phillips who, in 1877, called this slightly built, profoundly deaf, outspoken woman from Norwich “the greatest American abolitionist.” Harriet Martineau was a trailblazing polymath.
In addition to 50 books, Martineau penned over 1600 leader articles on the issue of slavery. She was considered an expert on America at home, having spent two years travelling the country in 1834. On her outward journey Martineau wrote How to Observe Morals and Manners, a landmark work in the field of sociology. In America, from the slave market to the House of Congress, she travelled extensively – visiting prisons, schools, plantations, factories and universities – and she talked to an astonishing array of people, from prison inmates to Congressmen. Well known for her opposition to slavery, which she said was “indefensible, economically, socially, and morally”, she arrived in America during pro-slavery riots and was quick to lend the weight of her name to the abolitionist cause – which was seen as a wildly radical move at the time.
When she returned to Britain there was a Molière-type farce as three publishers simultaneously bid for her work from separate rooms in her house. Society in America resulted in 1837, followed in 1838 by Retrospect of Western Travel and by The Martyr Age of the United States in 1839: the first account of the history of American abolitionism. Published over a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her novel The Hour and the Man was written to support the abolition of slavery. She was foreign correspondent for the Anti-Slavery Standard in America and kept the issue prominent at home in articles in The Daily News.
Martineau was successful and controversial, acknowledging in her autobiography that at least five of her books could potentially have ended her career. She can often be seen, however, head above the parapet when controversial Victorian storms raged. At an unveiling of a statue of her in Boston in 1877 Wendell Phillips, in his last public address, said:
“It is easy to be independent when all behind you agree with you, but the difficulty comes when nine hundred and ninety-nine of your friends think you are wrong. Then it is the brave soul that stands up, one among a thousand…This was Harriet Martineau.”
Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian