The Maclise Portrait-Gallery/Miss Harriet Martineau


"Ah! welcome home, Martineau, turning statistics
To stories, and puzzling your philogamistics;
I own I don't see any more than Dame Nature,
Why love should await dear good Harriet's dictature,
But great is earth's want of some love-legislature."

So, in his Blue Stocking Revels, or the Feast of the Violets, sings genial Leigh Hunt, whom we summon once more, as Master of the ceremonies, to usher in another of the fairer members of this, our "Gallery." Welcome, once and again, Miss Martineau; who, though you may rather belong to the Marthas, who are "careful about many things," than the Maries who choose "the better part," have yet earned our respect and gratitude for a long and consistent life of labour, whose sole object was the improvement and benefit of your generation.

Miss Martineau was born at Norwich, June 12th, 1802, and was descended from a French family, which settled in that city, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and carried on there the manufacture of silk for several generations. She was the youngest of eight children, and when her father, who was supposed to be wealthy, fell into commercial difficulties, she determined to cultivate a talent for composition, which she had early shown, and bravely turned to literature as a means of independent support. Her first appearance in print was about the year 1821, in the organ of the Unitarian body, The Monthly Repository, in which Talfourd first made essay of his nascent power. In 1823, she published a volume of Devotional Exercises for Young People; in 1824, her Christmas Day; and in 1825, the sequel. The Friend. In 1826, appeared The Rioters, and Principle and Practice; and in 1827, The Turn-Out, and Mary Campbell. In 1828, we have a tale, My Servant Rachel; a series of "Tracts," on questions concerning the operative classes; and a sequel to Principle and Practice. In 1830, a work entitled Traditions of Palestine enabled her to present a series of interesting and graphic sketches of the Holy Land at the time of Christ. In 1830, the committee of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association offered premiums for the best essays on the "Introduction and Promotion of Christian Unitarianism among the Roman Catholics, the Jews, and the Mahometans." The comparative merits of the competitive essays were decided upon by three distinct sets of arbitrators; and by each set, the prize was awarded to the essay written by Miss Martineau. One is entitled The Faith as unfolded by many Prophets; the second, Providence, as manifested through Israel; and the third,—which I have alone read, and which is certainly an able performance,—The Essential Faith of the Universal Church deduced from the Sacred Records (1831, 8vo, pp. 88).

It was about this same time that Miss Martineau, stimulated by the perusal of Mrs. Marcet's Conversations, conceived the idea of writing a series of tales, of monthly issue, with the object of exemplifying the leading doctrines of Political Economy by imaginative illustration. She submitted her plan to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; but the
Miss Harriet Martineau - AUTHOR OF ILLUSTRATIONS OF POLITICAL ECONOMY.png

AUTHOR OF "ILLUSTRATIONS OF POLITICAL ECONOMY."

committee of that body rejected it, on the ground that facts could not be clothed with advantage in the garb of fiction. Perhaps this is generally true. The novelist may take history, if he chooses, as the foundation of his story, but it will always be read with the suspicion that facts have been moulded,—as, indeed, they generally are,—to suit the writer's idea of poetic justice or artistic development. Thus, very little is gained; and though the book may keep its place as a work of imagination, it will fail, however truthful it may be, as a relation of historical or biographical facts.

However this may be, between those who objected to the teaching of political science by the aid of fiction, and those who did not want fiction to have any didactive purpose, the authoress encountered no small amount of discouragement and difficulty before she found a publisher with sufficient enterprise for the proposed undertaking. At last, however, the first volume or number of the Illustrations of Political Economy saw the light, and proved by its immediate and great success, that its writer had formed no undue estimate of her own abilities, or erroneous judgment as to the propriety of her method of treating the subject. The succeeding volumes were expected with impatience; edition after edition was exhausted; and the tales were translated, one by one, into French and German. As felicitous illustrations of important truths they are of great and enduring value; and they will doubtless continue to be read for their interest as works of fiction and admired for the ingenuity which the writer has shown in avoiding that artificiality of construction which seems necessitated by the restriction of a plot to the special object which it is intended to subserve.

To this series, may be added six tales, entitled Illustrations of Taxation; and four others, called Poor Law and Paupers. These are, perhaps, unequal in merit; but they were no doubt the means of inducting many a reader into the mysteries of Political and Social Economics, who, but for the attractive guise of the mystagogue, would never have ventured to lift the veil.

To make adequate pause at each landmark in the literary career of so industrious and prolific a writer as Miss Martineau would require a volume. In 1837, she paid a visit to the United States, where she remained for a period of two years. This sojourn resulted in the production of her Society in America, which is full of interesting details as to the politics, domestic economy and social life of that country ; and, a year later, to a work entitled Retrospect of Western Travel, in which are recorded those more personal impressions which did not find place in the earlier work, and reminiscences of the eminent persons with whom she had come in contact. In 1839, appeared her first novel, Deerbrook, in the orthodox three-volume form; a production which, perhaps, hardly sustained the reputation which her political tales had gained her as a writer of fiction—certainly not as a teacher of social economy. To her next novel, which exhibits a marked improvement in dramatic interest and constructive skill, may be applied the remarks which I have already made on the propriety of employing fiction to enforce or illustrate fact. This novel. The Hour and the Man, of which the sable patriot, Toussaint L'Ouverture, is the hero, would probably have attained a higher estimation, if it had appeared professedly as a simple biography. Lamartine, it will be remembered, has also chosen, as the subject of a drama, the career of this extraordinary man, who has, once for all, vindicated the capacity of the Negro race for moral and intellectual greatness; and by his own cruel fate in a French dungeon, reconciled us to the lingering death of Napoleon at St. Helena,—if only on the principle of retributive justice:—

"—————nec lex æquior ulla est,
   Quam necis artifices arte perire suâ."

About this time, also, she produced the beautiful series of tales for children, entitled The Playfellow,—including "The Settlers at Home," "The Peasant and the Prince," "Feats on the Fiord," and "The Crofton Boys,"—a collection which placed her in a high rank as a writer for the young.

At this period, Miss Martineau fell into ill-health, of which her Life in the Sick Room affords the details. This went on for several years; till, all hope of recovery by orthodox means having been abandoned, she determined to make trial of the curative powers of Mesmerism. The result of the experiment, as related by herself in the columns of the Athenæum, was the perfect restoration of her mental and physical energies. Of this she gave evidence, more suo, by the production of her Forest and Game Law Tales, three volumes in which the effect of these enactments in ancient and modern times is discussed, and their special bearing on the classes of society more immediately affected by them. In 1846, she wrote a pretty tale, The Billow and the Rock; and in this year started on an expedition to the East, in company with her brother, the Rev. James Martineau, and other friends. This resulted in the publication of Eastern Life Past and Present, a work in which her impressions are recorded in her usual graphic and vigorous style, albeit impaired to some extent by a certain tone of speculative scepticism which shocked religious readers to no small extent. This culminated, a year or two later, in downright Atheism, as expounded in her Letters on the Laws of Man's Social Nature and Development, being a correspondence between herself and Mr. H. G. Atkinson, a Mesmerist, and published in 1851. This book is duly pronounced by good, religious people "shallow and illogical in reasoning"; based, it would seem, solely on a profound faith in her correspondent's infallibility as a teacher, to which faith all higher and purer beliefs are sacrificed; a book that could injure no one "whose judgment was not warped by a similar influence." Since, then, "her arguments refute themselves/' and her statements are "too silly to do any harm," why do pious folk wax angry about the book?—

"Tantæne animis cælestibus iræ?"

Well, so it is, and always will be. A certain wise man once, on being questioned as to his "religion," replied that he was of the religion of all wise men; and on being further pressed as to the nature of that religion, said that that was just what wise men kept to themselves. It is perhaps to be regretted that Miss Martineau was not "wise" in the same sense. Anyway, the conclusions, long established, are:—(1) That the question of the existence, or the non-existence of a God, by the à priori mode, or any other, is best left alone; and (2) that so far as your estimation by society is concerned, it is better (as some Frenchman has said) to believe in a God with a hundred arms, and a hundred legs, than none at all!

Just at this time Charles Knight was in want of some able hand to take up his History of England during the Thirty Years' Peace, which he had already commenced, but was forced to relinquish. He applied to Miss Martineau, with the result that the History was carried on and concluded with a vigour and impartiality which ensured its reception by the public, and did vast credit to her in her new character of historian.

To Charles Knight's series she contributed a useful little manual, How to Observe; and with that regard for usefulness in the abstract which ever characterized her labours, descended from her higher platform, to engage in the compilation of four "Guides,"—The Maid of all Work, The Housemaid, The Lady's Maid, and The Dressmaker. Her Household Education,—a very popular work,—originally appeared in The People's Journal; and she was also author of a Complete Guide to the Lakes.

I can only glance at the literary occupations in which the later years of the life of Miss Martineau was unceasingly employed. She wrote leading articles for the Daily News; reviews for the Westminster; a series of papers in Household Words, in which the industries of Birmingham,—a town in which she took a keen interest, her brother being a leading merchant and manufacturer there, and her nephews, at the present moment, ranking among its most useful and honourable citizens,—are treated of in a popular and engaging style ; social sketches for Once a Week; a work entitled British Rule in India (1857); another on army reform, England and her Soldiers (1859) Health, Husbandry and Handicraft (1861); pamphlets on political and educational questions, too numerous to particularize; and a free and epitomized translation of the Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte.

In 1846, she had purchased a little farm, the "Knoll," near Ambleside, and here she continued to reside, applying herself to agricultural matters with an energy and success, which showed her fitness also to conduct the practical business of common life. Here she employed her later years in the composition of an Autobiography, which was published after her death by Smith, Elder & Co. This she divides into six periods, of which the most interesting are the third and fourth, which include the space between her thirtieth and forty-third year. The book abounds with sketches of personal character, of which it may be said that the general tone is hardly characterized by the good-nature and liberality of interpretation which the reader might have wished to find. She has nothing kind, for instance, to say of the gifted family of the Kembles, who are shown forth, one and all, as conceited, vulgar and insincere. She accords to the distinguished artist. Sir Charles Eastlake, but a "limited understanding." Macaulay she pronounces to have had "no heart," and his nephew and biographer, Trevelyan, "no head." Thackeray, the snob-taker, was appropriately, a snob himself. She considers N. P. Willis a lying dandy. Lord Althorp she holds to be "one of nature's graziers." She falls foul of Earl Russell, and the whole Whig party as conceited incapables; and she pronounces Lord Brougham to be a creature at once obscene and treacherous. Lord Jeffrey was "one of the most egregious flatterers of vain women in general." Finally, she is equally unjust to herself, for she makes no attempt to set adequately before her readers the physical and other disadvantages under which she herself laboured. Her description of Sydney Smith is good when she depicts him in a morning call, sitting down "broad and comfortable" in the middle of her sofa, "with his hands on his stick, as if to support himself in a vast development of voice," and then beginning, "like the great bell of St. Paul's, making her start at the first stroke." The mischief of the thing is, that no effective answer can be made to the injurious opinions expressed in this posthumous book, which, as it waited her own decease for its publication, should have been delayed till the death of the parties named, and even that of their immediate descendants.

It is well to mention that a Government pension was on three occasions offered to the subject of these notes. One by Lord Grey, or Lord Brougham,—I forget which,—in 1832; again, in 1839, by Lord Melbourne; and lastly, by Mr. Gladstone. Unlike Dr. Johnson, who vilified pensioners, and then himself accepted a pension, Miss Martineau firmly declined the proposed honour, although naturally gratified by such an admission of her claims, on the ground that acceptance was inconsistent with her expressed opinions on the subject of taxation. This noble and disinterested sacrifice to principle was, it must be remembered, made at a time when failing health rendered literary exertion impossible, and pecuniary anxieties were impending which a certain income, however small, would have removed; and must gain the respect even of those who consider erroneous her notions on the metaphysical nature of the Deity.

It was at Ambleside, on June 27th, 1876, that this existence, which may be said to have been entirely and unselfishly devoted to the promotion of the happiness and well-being of mankind, came to a close. Her Will, by which her personalty, sworn under £10,000, is suitably divided among her brothers and sisters, an old servant, and a few friends, contains one peculiar provision which indicates the desire of the testatrix, even when dead, to benefit the living. "It is my desire," she says, "from an interest in the progress of scientific investigation, that my Skull should be given to Henry George Atkinson, of Upper Gloucester Place, London, and also my Brain, if my death should take place within such distance of his then present abode, as to enable him to have it for the purposes of scientific observation." By the second codicil, dated October 5th, 1872, this direction is revoked; "but," the codicil proceeds, "I wish to leave it on record that this alteration in my testamentary directions is not caused by any change of opinion as to the importance of scientific observation on such subjects, but is made in consequence merely of a change of circumstances in my individual case." The "circumstances" alluded to were doubtless these. When the removal of Miss Martineau to London took place, the "Burke and Hare" murders, and "body-snatching" generally, were the special horrors of the day. The only authorized supply of "subjects" for dissection was from the gallows; and philanthropic persons sought by selling the reversion of their bodies (a transaction which, legally, does not hold good), or like Jeremy Bentham, leaving them to some institution, or medical expert, by a special bequest (also nugatory), to dissolve the association of disgrace with the necessary procedure of dissection. The difficulty was, in great measure, relieved by the passing of Mr. Warburton's Bill; and hence the necessity for such an arrangement as that made by Miss Martineau ceased to exist. The singular provision had, however, become known; and shortly after the execution of the document, the testatrix received a letter from the celebrated aurist, Mr. Toynbee, asking her point-blank to bequeath him a "legacy of her ears." She had suffered from deafness all her life; a large amount of mischief and misery was caused by the ignorance of surgeons with regard to the auditory apparatus; and this ignorance could only be removed by such means as he proposed. The lady to whom this strange request was made, says with grim humour, that she felt "rather amused when she caught herself in a feeling of shame, as it were, at having only one pair of ears,—at having no duplicate for Mr. Toynbee, after having disposed otherwise of her skull." She, however, told him how the matter actually stood; and a meeting took place between the doctor and the legatee, "to ascertain whether one head could, in any way, be made to answer both their objects."

An autopsy of her body was eventually made by Dr. T. M. Greenhow, of Leeds; a full detail of the appearances at wdiich will be found in the British Medical Journal, for April 14th, 1877, p. 449.

Sincere conviction and fearless utterance are of vast benefit to society, even when the former is erroneous, and the latter unpopular. Nothing is more remarkable in the character of Miss Martineau than the decision with which she formed opinions, and the courage with which she expressed them. At her day, this was a matter of greater singularity and difficulty than at the present one ; and the amount of suspicion, ridicule, misconception, and dislike which it engendered was correspondingly greater. The sketch of Maclise is, of course, a caricature; but an innocent one. Croker's article in the Quarterly, bearing on Miss Martineau's adoption of the principles oflvlalthus, is coarse and ungenerous. Tom Moore addressed her in a parody, "Come live with me and be my Blue." Maginn ungallantly hints that no one who inspects her portrait can wonder at her celibate proclivities, or is likely to attempt the seduction of the "fair philosopher" from her doctrines on the population question. He further adds with reference to MacUse's caricature:— "There she sits cooking—

'————————rows
 Of chubby duodecimos';

certain of applause from those whose praise is ruin, and of the regret of all who feel respect for the female sex, and sorrow for perverted talent, or, at least, industry." Of the personal appearance of the strong-minded lady, William Howitt enables us to form an amusing conception by giving us the words of an old woman who met her at Ambleside:—"Is it a woman, or a man, or what sort of an animal is it? said I to myself; there she came, stride, stride, stride,—great heavy shoes, stout leather leggings on, and a knapsack on her back!—they say she mows her own grass, and digs her own cabbages and taturs!" There is no harm in any of this; nor will there be thought to be, I hope, in the verses with which I round off these notes, — notes, which so far as my own judgment is concerned, are intended to be entirely respectful, and appreciative of the character and abilities of one of the most remarkable and admirable women whom this country and century have produced.

"AN ODE TO MISS HARRIET MARTINEAU.
Come, let us touch the string,
And try a song to sing,
 Though this is somewhat difficult at Starting, O!
And in our case more than ever,
When a desperate endeavour,
 Is made to sing the praise of Harry Martineau!

"We might get on pretty well,
With the pretty L. E. L.,
 Our compliments unlimitedly carting, O!
We'd call her fair, not wise,
And we'd laud her laughing eyes,—
 But this would never do with Harry Martineau!

"For wisdom is her forte;
And, Lord knows, to pay your court
 To women who talk wisdom is departing,—O!
From the very laws of chatter,
Which, like the laws of matter,
 Shine clear before the soul of Harry Martineau!

"Oh! how she shows her reading,
When she writes about good breeding,
 And tells us what good housewives have their heart in, O!
She points the way to riches,
If they would resign the breeches—
 But that is all my eye to Harry Martineau!

"She'll also tell you how, man,
To be a perfect ploughman,
 And how to give a pound a touch at parting, O!
That'll bring it back again,
With a rich attendant train;
 But that we fear's my eye and Harry Martineau!

"Of bacon, eggs, and butter.
Rare philosophy she'll utter;
 Not a thing about your house but she'll take part in, O!
As to mine, with all my soul.
She might take (and pay) the whole—
 But that is all my eye and Harry Martineau!

"Her political economy
Is as true as Deuteronomy;
 And the monster of Distress she sticks a dart in, O!
Yet still he stalks about,
And makes a mighty rout.
 But that we hope's my eye and Harry Martineau!

"So having said my say, sir,
And done my best to praise her,—
 A task, which, when a youngster, I'd some art in, O!
As perhaps I may have now, sir,—
With this I make my bow, sir,—
 All lustre to the eyes of Harry Martineau!"[1]


  1. Fraser's Magazine, May, 1834.