The archive consists of the literary manuscript of 'Life in the Sick-room', manuscript correspondence mainly with Mr Henry Reeve and to Dr Ogle (1839-1901) and photocopied correspondence containing references to Harriet Martineau.
Papers of Harriet Martineau
Scope and Content
Administrative / Biographical History
Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was born in 1802, the daughter of Thomas Martineau, a textile manufacturer from Norwich and his wife Elizabeth Martineau. Both were Unitarians and were in favour of education for girls. Consequently, Harriet and her two sisters were taught in a similar way to their three brothers until the latter left for university. Harriet became deaf at an early age. She began writing while in her period of 'mourning' when her brother James, to whom she was closest, left for university. Her first article, 'Female Writers On Practical Divinity', was published anonymously in the monthly repository in 1821. Whilst in 1823 the Unitarian journal, The Monthly Repository, published her anonymous article, 'On Female Education', which described the differences between the sexes as being caused by differing methods of training. Martineau was engaged to John Hugh Worthington but he died of 'brain fever' before the marriage took place. This, combined with the financial difficulties (resulting from the economic crash of 1826) and death of her father, necessitated her earning her own living and freed her to pursue a writing career. she continued to work for the 'Monthly Repository' to support herself. Additionally, she began writing religious works such as 'Devotional Exercises for the Use of Young Persons' and 'Addresses for the Use of Families', both published in 1826. Martineau worked as a seamstress, taking in sewing at home (as opposed to working in a 'sweat shop'), sewing during the day and writing at night until the 'Illustrations' was accepted for publication. Harriet's interest soon moved to politics and she created the series of stories entitled 'Illustrations of Political Economy', in order to popularise the utilitarian theories of Bentham and Priestly and the economic of Smith. When the series of 24 volumes was published in 1832-3, they became a huge success and were followed up by 'Poor Laws and Paupers illustrated' (1834). The profits enabled her to set up home in London and undertake a two-year tour of the United States of America. She based two books on this experience: 'Society in America' (1837) and 'Retrospect of Western Travel' (1838). Martineau remained ambivalent towards women's suffrage, arguing that until women had education, access to professions, and economic independence, their votes would be compromised by the men in their lives. She was, however, keen on the Garrisonian branch of the abolition movement, because it focused on emancipation and included women activists, as opposed to more politically-oriented groups as illustrated in one of her chapters entitled 'The Political Non-Existence of Women'.
In this period despite increasing illness, and in addition to her political and historical works, Martineau began writing different genres. Her only novel 'Deerbrook' was published in 1839; followed by a historical biography 'The Hour and the Man' in 1840; and a series of novelettes for children 'The Playfellow' in 1841.
She moved to Ambleside in the Lake District in 1845. In 1847 Harriet went with friends on a tour of the Near East for eight months, returning with the manuscript of 'Eastern Life Present and Past', published in 1848. The proceeds from this work paid for her to build her own home in Ambleside. The work was well received but the religious views that it presented were treated with some hostility. During this period she also worked on 'The History of the Peace', which was published in 1849.
The publication of 'Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development' in 1851 was received with more hostility. In this work Martineau advocated agnosticism. The scandal with which it was received was due partly to her insistence that three of the world's primary religions - Judaism, Islam, and Christianity - grew out of the same geographical area and the same, or similar, theological systems, and were not necessarily incompatible. The scandal was also due to her challenge to the dating of human life and cultures, as presented in the scriptures. Martineau, as well as her historical and anthropological sources (Wilkinson, for example) predate the scientific revolution heralded by Darwinism, by nearly twelve years (1859). Martineau's views expressed in 'Letters on the Laws' also destroyed the relationship between her and several members of her family.
Harriet returned to journalism in 1852 as a member of staff at the Daily News where she wrote over 1600 articles during a 16-year period. Harriet also contributed articles for other publications, including pieces on the employment of women for the 'Edinburgh Review' and on the state of girls' education for the 'Cornhill Magazine'. Plagued by invalidism periodically throughout her life, ill health became a problem again in 1855 and she wrote an autobiography in that year in the belief that she was dying. However, she recovered and continued with her career in journalism for approximately another twenty years. Harriet was always interested in and vocal on women's employment, women's education and the legal position of married women. In 1866 she joined Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss in creating and presenting a petition asking Parliament to grant the vote to women. Harriet also campaigned for women's entry into the medical profession. From 1864, and again in 1869, Harriet was active in the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts in which she would later be joined by Josephine Butler. Eventually, ill health began to restrict her public activities during the 1870s, though she continued to write until her death. She died of bronchitis aged 74 in 1876.
The Martineau/Reeve letters have been sorted into chronological order.
Conditions Governing Access
This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit.
Donated to the Library by relatives of Harriet Martineau. Repackaged through funds kindly raised by the Virago 30th Birthday Party.
Other Finding Aids
The Women's Library Catalogue