The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 39 Woman Resurgent: The Notorious Harriet Martineau

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Woman Resurgent: The Notorious Harriet Martineau

The first thing to know about the Victorians is that what they said and wrote was generally a monumentally different thing from what they actually believed. The “we are not amused” stiff upper-lipping of Queen Vic’s court didn’t replace the raucous freedoms of Aphra Behn or John Wilkes so much as it drove them inwards. Private heresy was the age’s unspoken epidemic, and the Victorians liked it that way. They adored their George Eliots, people who thought and behaved privately according to their often wildly heterodox inner convictions but who produced literature where virtue triumphed in the end under the benevolent rod of God and society.

HarrietMartineauThis was given to be understood. It made everybody miserable, but it was a livable miserable, a foundation of sublimated spirit upon which an Empire might be solidly built. Darwin perturbed the order, but so great were the Victorians’ gifts for defanging the dangerous that even Darwinism came to be just part of a Brit’s natural credo of progress and pride. Amongst all this masterful appropriation, though, there was one person they never quite figured out how to assimilate for all their Borg-like social genius. She played the game when she felt like it, didn’t when she didn’t, and gave exactly zero damns about how her thoughts fit within the reigning paradigm.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was the desperately awaited successor to the mantle of Delarivier Manley (1670-1724). Manley had been the last woman who was accorded respect as a female publicly commenting on matters of politics and economy, somebody who could trade scurrilous jests with Jonathan Swift and lambast the Tories’ political rivals. Martineau had Manley’s political chops and fearlessness, but managed to avoid her predecessor’s predilections for scandalous rumor-mongering. She enjoyed esteem and even political power even while advocating for radical causes, including the general abandonment of Christianity in favor of a deterministic scientific positivism that would lift man at last from his metaphysical stupor.

Martineau’s unique place in British intellectual history was carved partly by the miseries of her constitution. As a child, she could be thrown into a paralyzing terror by, well, just about anything. Stairs, the garden, the night sky—everywhere she walked her hyperactive mind anticipated crushing, smothering death, a lingering fear she chose to stuff down inside rather than exhibit in true Georgian fashion, leading to a childhood of lonely isolation interrupted here and there by abject fear. Unsurprisingly, the child who could find nothing but horror in this life became overbearingly religious, taking it upon herself to lecture family members on the contents of their morality, and wishing keenly for a quicker road to the next, presumably kindlier, world.

The onset of virtual deafness while she was still a teenager didn’t much help her attachment to existence either. Growing up, one of her relatives was a deaf child whose company everybody dreaded for the extra labor it took to make themselves understood to her, and now that Martineau’s hearing was failing as well, she feared not only the loss of her sense, but the idea that everybody in her life would come to see her as a nuisance and trial no matter how helpful or unobtrusive she managed to become. To compensate, she perfected her embroidery and nursed her griefs privately until disaster came crashing down on her once prosperous manufacturing family.

Bankruptcy. The prospect of cold, undiscriminating poverty that forced everybody to do what they could to contribute to the general resource pool. It was Martineau’s turning point. Free from the need to be genteel, she could now turn herself to an occupation, and found that her gifts lay with authorship. She began with a handful of award-winning essays expressing the standard truths of her Unitarian upbringing, work that she later came to be fully embarrassed by for its religious and metaphysical naivety. Having dispensed with the necessary Awful First Works, she proceeded at a remarkable clip to the stuff that would make her name.

The project she became famous for was a bold idea to communicate the ideas of cutting-edge political economy through fiction. She conceived the plan in 1832, the year of the Reform Bill and a cholera epidemic, and most publishers reasonably assumed that a set of fictional stories about labor theory and population-to-production ratios could only drown in the sea of big happenings sweeping England. Desperate for the money that might relieve her family’s condition, she presented her prospectus to publisher after publisher until finally one agreed to undertake the printing under insulting terms that Martineau nevertheless had to accept.

The result was a series of twenty-five tales, the Illustrations of Political Economy.    Every month she’d produce a new tale centered around a modern piece of economic theory, the purpose being to drum up interest and understanding in the middle classes for the bills being debated by Parliament and to inform the lower classes of the larger web of concerns in which they were so hopelessly caught. According to everything we know about how art functions, nothing should work worse than fiction married to economic lecturing. The result ought to have been something like those cloying moral health videos of the 1950s where Johnny America tries his first cigarette in the third minute and murders his parents in the twelfth. Often, Martineau dances along that knife edge, but damn it all if I don’t love them, in precisely the same way I love professional wrestling, as works of art so painfully obvious in their purpose, so transparent and earnest and silly that you can’t help but find them delightful.

Illustrations was a best seller, adored by statesmen and royalty and workers alike for its sentimental portrayals of families trying to improve their lot through sensible applications of economic knowledge. The theories being espoused were presented with zero subtlety and were reiterated dozens of times within the space of eighty pages. In a work of nonfiction nothing could have been less appealing, but when wed to the stock characters of British industrial and rural life, there was a definite charm there and a strong call to reform that parliamentarians could use to push through the bills that slowly modernized the government of England. Whenever a politician had a cherished notion for improvement, he would bring the subject to Martineau and beg her to fictionalize it, knowing that her treatment would put the issue sympathetically on the lips of the whole nation.

She was the John Oliver of the nineteenth century, except with sickly, starving waifs in place of snappy satire.

Wrapping up the series, she decided to take an inspection tour of America in 1834 to see for herself what the situation was regarding the conflict between slaveholders and abolitionists. She witnessed firsthand the violence against abolitionists even in the theoretically freedom-loving bastions of the North, and saw the wages of slavery as families were torn apart in front of her eyes on the auction blocks of the South. The book that resulted, Society in America, was a frank look at the struggles of the abolition movement that had until then been laboring in the British imagination under a heap of Southern propaganda as to the brutality of its methods and intentions.

All was going so well, it was high time for disaster to strike, which it did in the form of a five-year illness that kept her housebound from 1839 to 1844. During this time she slowly worked over the content of her beliefs, and particularly her dependence upon metaphysical commonplaces, asking: Is it reasonable to believe that just because we want to live past our death, we do? Is there actually a necessary connection between godly beliefs and good behavior? What beliefs does society really need to push forward?

When her health returned, she grabbed at an opportunity to tour the Middle East, taking away from the experience a confirmation of her growing belief that religions rise and fall with their historical backgrounds, and that, as the Reformation spelled the end of the religious age and the beginning of the metaphysical one, so did modern England spell the end of metaphysics. She wrote her thoughts up in Eastern Life, Past and Present, a history of the development of religious thinking from Egyptian through Roman, Christian, and Muslim times which documented the shading of religious dogma into metaphysical principle under the steady pressure of civilizational advance.

The book was considered a dangerous enough piece of heterodoxy, particularly as the author was a female speaking out publicly about the contingent nature of religious belief. If that was audacious, her next move was straight heresy. She teamed up with Henry George Atkinson, an underpublished but brilliant religious skeptic, to publish the Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development (1851), a root and branch defense of the morality of rigid determinism and scientific positivism that did away entirely with all notions of afterlife, prayer, the special protection of deities, the divine origin of morality, and the idea that religion was generally beneficial to society even if not strictly true. Somehow the fact that she jointly published such a book with a man was even more objectionable than her solo book of religious history, as if the precedent of men and women working side by side on a project of theological heterodoxy was one to be especially guarded against for the sake of motherhood and femininity.

But in spite of the loss of friends and the outraged letters, Martineau pushed on down her peculiar path, creating a two-volume translation and commentary on the secular positivism of Auguste Comte that brought his works to wider English attention and so impressed Comte that he had them re-translated into French to serve as the standard introductory work to his thought.

She had revived the possibility of women participating in the rough and tumble world of political discourse, and of expressing the full content of their religious disbelief in a public forum. Through her fiction, the complexities of advanced political economy made their way out of the parliamentary records and onto the bestseller page. She brought continental skepticism to England and diversified the burgeoning world of British skepticism through her unique voice, all while keeping up correspondence with the pillars of British government, science, and artistic life. Erasmus Darwin, brother of Charles, was a close friend, William Wordsworth a neighbor, and prime ministers reached out to her as their best hope at a fair hearing with the English people. And yet today, if she’s mentioned at all, it’s as a passing eccentric blue stocking brandishing an ear trumpet, a bit of comic relief showing up for a line or two in books about more important Victorians. But Martineau nudged decisively and for all time the vectors of who could talk, and what they could talk about, and that is worth ten Bulwer-Lyttons, three Palmerstons, and one and a half Disraelis, any day.

Further Reading

Harriet Martineau wrote her Autobiography in 1855 when she took it as a given that she’d be dead by the end of the year. She in fact lived another two decades, but this book takes you up through the Comte translation, which was in many ways her last major work besides the Autobiography itself. Broadview Press, who seem to specialize in printing all the best stuff from the forgotten past of female fiction and memoir, have a great edition of it masterfully edited by Linda H. Peterson, and they’ve also published a few of the Illustrations in a separate volume. The editor of that volume, Deborah Anna Logan also has a biography of Martineau, The Hour and the Woman (2002), which I dearly wish I could say I enjoyed, but which I, in fact, did not.