Called by William Davenport "the first of the notable women of the nineteenth century," Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich on June 12th, 1802, the fifth child of Thomas Martineau and Elizabeth Rankin Martineau. Of French Huguenot origin, the extensive family boasted a long line of surgeons but Thomas Martineau was a bombazine manufacturer. Martineau's childhood, according to her Autobiography, was not a particularly happy one for she was a nervous, fearful child, often ill, and often imagining herself singled out by her mother and siblings for criticism. She was, however, fortunate in her education. After being taught Latin, writing, arithmetic, and French at home by her older brothers and sister, she and her sister Rachel attended Rev. Isaac Perry's school for two years where she received the same education as the boys. At about the age of 12, she first became troubled by the deafness that was to be with her for life, to a greater or lesser extent. As an unhappy teenager, she was sent to stay with her aunt in Bristol where she was inspired by the intellectual zeal of the family and influenced by the teachings of the prominent Unitarian minister, Dr. Lant Carpenter. In 1826 her father died, and three years later the family business failed. Martineau and her two sisters were thus forced to earn their own living, a circumstance which she felt was far better than living in genteel poverty. By then, however, Martineau had already embarked on a literary career, her first article appearing in the Unitarian periodical, The Monthly Repository, about 1821.

Martineau's meteoric rise to fame came with the publication in 1832 of the first of her series of stories told to illustrate the principles of political economy. From that time forward, she was never short of requests for her writing, the documents she needed, or publishers. She moved to London later that year where her mother and a widowed aunt eventually joined her in a house in Fludyer Street, Westminster. There she seems to have entered with zest into the intellectual and social life of the cultural centre of the country. When her political economy series concluded in 1834, Martineau sailed to the United States for a two-year holiday, a trip which provided the material for two books, a lifelong commitment to the Abolition movement, and a position as an English spokesperson on American affairs. In 1839, on a trip to the Continent to examine the Italian settings of some of Shakespeare's plays, she fell ill in Rome and was carried home there to be diagnosed with a mortal tumour of the womb. She moved to Tynemouth near Newcastle to be close to her doctor brother and waited for death for five years, but recovered her health through mesmerism. Determining not to return to London, she built a house in Ambleside in the Lake District, not far from the Wordsworths and Mrs Thomas Arnold at Fox How. There she wrote her History of the Peace and the translation of Comte's Positive Philosophy as well as a highly controversial work on theology/philosophy with Henry Atkinson, Letters on the Laws of Man's Development. She also continued writing for various periodicals among them the Westminster Review and Household Words. But her energy was not entirely devoted to literary pursuits: She embarked on small-scale farming, she gave an annual series of winter lectures to the working classes, and she established a Building Society. When the hordes of tourists arrived in the summer, Martineau rented her house and travelled, making an extended trip to the East and a shorter one to Ireland.

In 1855, she was diagnosed once again with a mortal illness which she declared was heart disease but which was probably a return of the tumour. Expecting to die at any time, she wrote her Autobiography in three months, had it printed for immediate release on her death, and commissioned her lifelong friend, the American abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, to write a third volume. Carefully nursed by first her niece Maria Martineau and, after her death, other nieces, Martineau devoted most of her time to her work as an editorial writer for the Daily News newspaper. The first female leader writer, she was to produce nearly 1500 editorials before her health deteriorated to the point that she could write no more. Collaborative work with Florence Nightingale also commenced during this period and one of the last campaigns of her life was that for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Martineau died in 1876 twenty-one years after her "death sentence" of 1855.


Harriet Martineau's social network was very large despite spending the last 25 years of her life as an invalid. Her Unitarian connections, her work in the Abolition movement, her frequent choice of political topics in her writing, and her inclusion in London literary circles during the 1830s all contributed to the breadth and diversity of her social contacts. Like other writers who flocked to London in the early 1830s, Martineau used her few contacts to bring herself to the notice of publishers and established writers. The success of her Political Economy series insured her a place in literary, artistic, and political circles where she made particular friendships with the Carlyles and the Macreadys. She also came to know the Miss Berrys, Fanny Kemble Butler, Anna Jameson, Harriet Grote, and Sarah Austin, a distant cousin. Through her Unitarian and Abolition contacts, she became a lifelong intimate friend of Elizabeth Jesser Reid and a supporter of that social group's work for female education. When she travelled to the United States, Martineau met most of the American abolitionists and formed firm friendships with many, the most important being with Maria Weston Chapman. Unfortunately, comparatively few letters from this, her most intimate female friendship, appear to have survived. She was also introduced to the New England literati. Although her controversial writings and her own susceptibility to taking (and giving) offense led to the loss of some of her friendships, her retreat from the London social scene to the Lake District after her first illness did little to diminish her social participation. Her intimate friendship with John Chapman survived until the middle 1850s and she appears to have been warmly attached to Richard Monckton Milnes as well. A steady succession of visitors made their way to The Knoll, the home she had built at Ambleside, and until her second illness immobilized her, Martineau frequently returned to London as well as travelling to Scotland, Ireland, and the Mediterranean. Martineau never met Florence Nightingale, but when Nightingale appealed to her for help for her sanitary reform plans, she responded with alacrity and worked hard to increase their intimacy. Visits by and to her extended family were also frequent.

Harriet Martineau's Family Network

Despite family quarrels, Martineau kept in frequent contact with her siblings and other members of her extended family. Her eldest sister, Elizabeth, married Thomas Michael Greenhow, a Newcastle doctor. Greenhow attended Martineau in her first illness, but they became estranged over her decision to publish an account of her cure by mesmerism in the Athenaeum. Martineau's relations with her mother also seem to have been affected by this rupture and it appears that a reconciliation was not effected until shortly before Mrs Martineau's death in 1848. Martineau's eldest brother, Thomas, died young in 1824. Her eldest surviving brother, Robert, a Birmingham tradesman, was her financial advisor. He married Jane Smith and they had at least six children. The oldest girls, Susan and Maria, frequently stayed with Martineau and Maria became her trusted nurse and confidant during Martineau's second illness. Arguably, her relationship with Maria was the most important of her life. When Maria died of typhoid fever in 1864, she was replaced as Martineau's nurse by her younger sister, Jane (Jenny). James, Martineau's younger brother, is the most famous of her siblings. A prominent Unitarian minister, he married Helen Higginson and they, too, had a family of at least six children. Martineau's Autobiography reflects clearly both her devotion to and competition with this younger brother. Their relationship seems to have ruptured permanently in the 1850s after the publication of the Atkinson letters. Living in Liverpool were Martineau's other two sisters: the elder, Rachel, ran a school, and the much loved younger, Ellen, lived with her husband Alfred Higginson and their children.

Martineau's parents both came from large families. Her father was the youngest of seven children; her mother had at least five siblings. Among her aunts, uncles, and cousins, several figures played an important part in Martineau's life. Her aunt, Catherine Rankin Turner, seems to have kept in close contact through the years and she acted as a relief nurse during Martineau's second illness whenever Maria and then Jane returned to Birmingham. Her aunt on her father's side, Margaret Martineau Lee, lived with Harriet and her mother in London until Martineau's first illness. Her uncle Peter Martineau, a London brewer and sugar refiner, provided Martineau with a place to stay when she first came to London and provided continual support--psychological and financial--for her career.


Harriet Martineau was an indefatigable letter writer. Thousands of her letters survive, scattered in archives across several continents. The largest collection of primary material is at the Birmingham University Library which holds approximately 1500 letters by and to her. Another large collection is at the University of California Library, Berkeley campus. Despite her prominence as a female intellectual and social commentator, few of Martineau's letters have been published. Her correspondence with her cousin, Fanny Wedgwood, edited by Elizabeth Sanders Arbuckle was published in 1983 and a selected edition of letters, edited by Valerie Sanders, appeared in 1990. For the most part, Martineau's handwriting is very easy to read. The ink is consistently very black, the letters well formed, and emendations are minimal. Martineau prided herself on her ability to write perfect copy without the need of drafting first. Until the very last years of her life, there is little sign of infirmity in the writing although Martineau not infrequently pointed to the hand as an indicator of her ill health. During her illnesses, she frequently employed an amanuensis, sometimes, it would appear, strategically. Maria Martineau, a frequent amanuensis, wrote a hand surprisingly like Martineau's and it can be difficult to tell their handwriting apart. During her first illness, Martineau issued an edict to all her correspondents that her letters be destroyed. Many, no doubt, obliged, but some protested even to the point of ceasing to correspond with her. Until all the letters have been gathered together, it will be difficult to ascertain just how effective Martineau's request was.

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