Born into a middle-class family in Norwich, and educated at a Unitarian girls’ school, Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was one of the most outstanding intellectuals and prolific writers, who made significant contributions to political economy, sociological theory, journalism, Condition-of-England Question and the Woman Question debates in the early and high Victorian era. Although cultural prejudices prevented women from studying at universities, Martineau received a better formal education than most women of her time. After the death of her father, a textile manufacturer, she decided to pursue a career of a writer, one of few legitimate occupations open to impoverished middle-class women in Victorian England.

Martineau, who suffered from a number of physical ailments all her life, became deaf at the age of 12 and had to use an ear trumpet for the rest of her life. She also suffered from a loss of smell and taste. In spite of these disabilities, she developed a powerful and profound intellect, and remained active in the public sphere for over half a century. In her thirties she was confined to bed for more than five years. When doctors described her illness as incurable, she decided to try mesmerism. Surprisingly, she recovered within a few months and described her case in “Life in the Sick-room: Essays by an Invalid” (1844), and “Letters on Mesmerism” (1845). She examined frankly her own illnesses and initiated a public debate about illness, cure and the status of invalids in society.

Early works

At first Martineau wrote articles for the Unitarian periodical, The Monthly Repository, on various topics. In the late 1820s, she wrote a number of didactic tracts, which followed the pattern and style developed by Hannah More, but were more radical in their content. Some of them, e.g. The Rioters (1827) and The Turn-Out (1829), which dealt with industrial development, anticipated her most popular publishing venture, Illustrations of Political Economy. After her initial success as a journalist and social commentator, Martineau moved to London where she became acquainted with the most eminent writers, intellectuals and scholars, including William Wordsworth, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Malthus, Robert Owen and Charles Babbage. Fascinated by her extraordinary intellect, Carlyle wrote in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson (June 1, 1837):

She is one of the strangest phenomena to me. A genuine little Poetess, buckrammed, swathed like a mummy into Socinian and Political — Economy formulas; and yet verily alive inside of that! “God has given a Prophet to every People in its own speech,” say the Arabs. Even the English Unitarians were one day to have their Poet, and the best that could be said for them too was to be said. I admire this good lady’s integrity, sincerity; her quick, sharp discernment to the depth it goes; her love also is great; nay, in fact it is too great; the host of illustrious obscure mortals whom she produces on you, of Preachers, Pamphleteers, Antislavers, able Editors, and other Atlases bearing (unknown to us) the world on their shoulders, is absolutely more than enough. [Webb, 1]

Martineau’s popularity crossed the Atlantic and in 1832-1834 she visited the United States. After her return she published Society in America (1837), and two novels, Deerbook (1839) and The Hour and the Man (1841). Essentially, Martineau was a philosophical journalist, concerned with contemporary changes in society, but she made attempts to write fictional narratives with topical social commentary addressed to a popular readership. She supported the Radical Reform Movement because she believed that its members propounded economic and social progress. She welcomed the development of the railway, which contributed to positive changes in almost all aspects of public life in England. She was confident that England was safe from revolution, due to the social consciousness of both the middle-class and the working class. Martineau’s critical essays, topical commentaries and fictional narratives exerted a widespread influence on the social thought in England.


Martineau was an adherent of necessarianism, a deterministic doctrine of causation, derived from John Locke and popularised by Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), that held that everything was consequence of what had preceded it. There is no free human will or free human action; a person is a creature of circumstances. Martineau believed that the universe in general and society in particular operate according to certain natural laws which can be understood through science and education. The development of a truly free society she envisaged in her writings was governed by natural laws, which operated as the laws of political economy. Errors committed by people in the process can be remedied by science and a better education. Martineau tried to convince both capitalists and labourers that they should accept economic laws and work in harmony with them in order to achieve an industrial progress and general welfare.

Economics Educator

As a young woman, Martineau became keenly interested in the new science of political economy. She decided to write a series of fictional narratives, Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-1834), to simplify and popularise the basic principles of political economy. She had already read Conversations on the Nature of Political Economy (1827) written by Jane Marcet and, as she wrote in her Autobiography, she understood that she “had been teaching political economy unawares” in her earlier stories (122). Contrary to Marcet, who aimed her book at educated readers of the upper classes, Martineau addressed her Illustrations to the lower-class readership because she believed that the knowledge of rudiments of political economy would help them understand better the laissez-faire economic policy and adjust to its requirements. Martineau believed that free and popular education would improve the life of the lower classes of society. As Valerie Sanders asserts:

Optimistic about society’s prospects, Harriet Martineau felt, like other disciples of the philosophers David Hartley and Joseph Priestley, that an efficient education system would spread wisdom, contentment and peace throughout the nation. [31]

In her economic and social ideas Martineau followed the teachings of the founders of the classical system of political economy, David Ricardo, Adam Smith and James Mill. Her other early influence was Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham. Martineau’s prose is a blend of fiction and facts taken from the books of political economy. More than a dozen years before Elizabeth Gaskell, Martineau dealt with the industrial relations controversy. On the whole, Martineau held ameliorative views on the Industrial Revolution and the laissez-faire system in England. She believed that technical inventions and the general progress would improve the living conditions of the poor. Martineau’s tales suggest that the excesses and hardships of capitalism are due to misunderstanding and wrong action; obedience to the invisible hand of the market (a metaphor coined by the economist Adam Smith) will eventually lead to prosperity for all classes. According to Louis Cazamian's summary of this view,

the masses suffer because they do not understand the laws regulating society; all their misery springs from these inexorable socio-economic laws, and if they really want to attack the social order they must first understand it. Therefore, it would be a useful and noble work to show them their where mistakes lie. [51]

Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-1834) are the series of twenty-four fictional narratives with a concluding volume of summary designed to educate a wide and ordinary readership about the key aspects of political economy at the outset of the Victorian era. One remarkable drawback of the books is that Martineau failed to notice what Disraeli named the “two nations” in his Condition-of-England novels. Instead she provided a utopian vision of industrial capitalism without social unrest. Martineau, as Deirdre David put it, “transforms complex problems into happy fables” (43). Generally, she has a favourable opinion about the Industrial Revolution and avoids writing about its dark side. As Ivanka Kovacevic noted: “Nothing pleased her more than the sight of clean and efficient operatives deftly sewing or cutting, with the aid of vast, superhuman machines” (39).

One of the best tales in Illustrations of Political Economy, “A Manchester Strike” (1835), which describes the degradation and suffering of the poor, became an instant literary success, and now it is regarded as the first work of fiction to present industrial strife. This narrative anticipated Samuel Smiles’ idea of self-help. Martineau believed that social evils were man-made and therefore could and should be remedied by people themselves. Following the ideas of Malthus, Martineau warns its readers about the perils of overpopulation. Worried by an excessive supply of labour, she suggests that workers should marry at later age and have fewer children. Otherwise, they will continue to receive lower wages. As Susan Zlotnick observes:

Since in Martineau’s universe the only way to increase wages is to decrease the supply of labor, she counsels England’s workers to live by the principle of supply and demand. If the workers would have smaller families and bring less labor to market, demand would exceed supply and wages would rise; but conversely, as one master informs them, if they “ choose to bring up large families who will in turn rear large families to the same occupation, it is a necessary consequence that wages will fall to the very lowest point”. [155]

In the concluding part of Illustrations, titled “The Moral of Many Fables”, Martineau sums up her theory of political economy, which has not lost its topicality even today.

CAPITAL is something produced with a view to employment in further production. Labour is the origin, and Saving is the support of capital. Capital consists of:

      1. Implements of labour,
      2. Material, simple or compound, on which labour is employed, [and]
      3. Subsistence of labourers.

Of these three parts, the first constitutes fixed capital; the second and third reproducible capital. Since Capital is derived from Labour, whatever economizes labour assists the growth of Capital. Machinery economizes Labour, and therefore assists the growth of Capital. The growth of capital increases demand for labour. Machinery, by assisting the growth of Capital, therefore increases the demand for Labour. In other words, productive industry is proportioned to capital, whether that capital be fixed or reproducible. The interests of the two classes of producers, labourers and capitalists, are therefore, the same; the prosperity of both depending on the accumulation of CAPITAL. [4]

After the success of Illustrations of Political Economy, Martineau published two sequels, Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (1833-4) and Illustrations of Taxation (1834), which were also very popular with readers.


Martineau is considered the first woman sociologist. She wrote a number of scholarly essays devoted to social customs in England and the United States. How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838) is a treatise on the methodology of sociological research, in which Martineau examines social classes, societal development, religion, domestic relations, interactions between public institutions and the individual, and the Woman Question. Posing a question how societies can be analysed, Martineau claimed that observers of other societies made a fundamental methodological error; they compared other societies with their own.

Martineau also translated and condensed Auguste Comte’s six volume Cours de Philosophie Positive as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1853), which laid the foundations for the new discipline of sociology. The translation was favourably received by Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and other British positivists.


Martineau was one of the first Victorian writers who introduced the Woman Question into her polemical writings. Like Hannah More, she stressed repeatedly that women must contribute to the virtue of society. She also called for women’s education. Martineau concluded that the mid-nineteenth century was a period of transition for women, just as it was for political institutions, and religious belief; indeed for all the rapidly changing phenomena of the age. Martineau can be considered a proto-feminist thinker who contributed significantly to a public debate over women’s social and political rights although she did not support publicly the feminist movement. On “Female Education” (1823), published anonymously in the Monthly Repository, contained a plea for the higher education of girls and the development of all the powers of their sex. Some of Martineau’s most scathing attacks on male oppression and the plight of women can be found in American Society (1837), which contains a chapter titled “The Political Non-existence of Women”. She claimed that women were treated almost like slaves in the new republic. Martineau urged women to overcome constraints imposed by men on their gender.

If a test of civilisation be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power, — from the exercise of the right of the strongest. Tried by this test, the American civilisation appears to be of a lower order than might have been expected from some other symptoms of its social state. The Americans have, in the treatment of women, fallen below, not only their own democratic principles, but the practice of some parts of the Old World. The unconciousness of both parties as to the injuries suffered by women at the hands of those who hold the power is a sufficient proof of the low degree of civilisation in this important particular at which they rest. While woman’s intellect is confined, her morals crushed, her health ruined, her weaknesses encouraged, and her strength punished, she is told that her lot is cast in the paradise of women: and there is no country in the world where there is so much boasting of the “chivalrous” treatment she enjoys That is to say, —she has the best place in stage- coaches: when there are not chairs enough for everybody, the gentlemen stand: she hears oratorical flourishes on public occasions about wives and home, and apostrophes to woman: her husband’s hair stands on end at the idea of her working, and he toils to indulge her with money: she has liberty to get her brain turned by religious excitements, that her attention may be diverted from morals, politics, and philosophy; and, especially, her morals are guarded by the strictest observance of propriety in her presence. In short, indulgence is given her as a substitute for justice. Her case differs from that of the slave, as to the principle, just so far as this; that the indulgence is large and universal, instead of petty and capricious. In both cases, justice is denied on no better plea than the right of the strongest. In both cases, the acquiescence of the many, and the burning discontent of the few, of the oppressed testify, the one to the actual degradation of the class, and the other to its fitness for the enjoyment of human rights. [106-107]

Martineau became more concerned about the Woman Question after her return from the United States. She initiated a campaign on women’s employment. Martineau was one of the vehement critics of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which empowered the police to arrest and examine women who were suspected of carrying veneral disease. In the article “Female Industry” (1859), published in the Edinburgh Review, Martineau affirmed that young middle- class women should be allowed to break the strict codes of gentility and seek professions in order to be financially independent. Along with other feminist writers, such as Caroline Norton and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Martineau influenced debates about the Woman Question in the 1850s.


In an essay titled “The Achievements of the Genius of Scott”, Martineau presented her theory of the novel as an instrument of moral and political regeneration of society:

We must have, in a new novelist, the graver themes ’ not the less picturesque, perhaps, for their reality — which the present condition of society suggests. We have had enough of ambitious intrigues; why not now take the magnificent subject, the birth of political principle, whose advent has been heralded so long ? What can afford finer moral scenery than the transition state in which society now is? Where are nobler heroes to be found than those who sustain society in the struggle; and what catastrophe so grand as the downfall of bad institutions, and the issues of a process of renovation? Heroism may now be found, not cased in helm and cuirass, but strengthening itself in the cabinet of the statesman, guiding the movements of the unarmed multitude, and patiently bearing up against hardship, in the hope of its peaceful removal. [459]

Martineau announces the emergence of “new novelists”, like Disraeli and Gaskell, who are not interested in history, but in contemporary social and political issues. In line with this view Martineau published a full-length novel, Deerbrook (1840), in which she makes use of narrative fiction to explicate current social issues dealing with the questions of class and gender. Deerbrook may be regarded as an antecendent of the Condition-of-England novels. Although the main marriage plot in the novel, derived from domestic fiction, is conventional, an interwoven secondary plot involves the fate of an unmarried woman in Victorian society. As Ann Hobart writes:

It idealizes a domestic sphere inhabited by rational, socially conscious women at the same time that it calls into question the ideology of gendered duties that blocked women’s access to a personally sustaining position in the public sphere. [242]

Martineau thus integrated social criticism and the Woman Question into the domestic novel, which was later developed by Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot.


Martineau’s writings synthetised and popularised contemporary research in political economy and sociology. Her radical liberalism and feminism prompted a number of Victorian thinkers to deal more openly with social and woman issues. She contributed significantly to the emergence of the Condition-of-England novels in the 1840s and 1850s, which drew heavily on her insightful illustrations of the state of society. As an early feminist, Martineau repudiated women’s social and economic roles imposed by a patriarchal society. She highlighted the marginalisation of women and urged them to try to overcome gender-based social inequities.

After Martineau’s death her prodigious and versatile output, dispersed in various periodicals and miscellanous publications, was gradually forgotten and undervalued in literary and cultural history studies. However, studies by Robert K. Webb, Vera Wheatley, Valerie K. Pichanick, Caroline Roberts, David Deirdre, Susan Hoecker-Drysdale, Linda H. Peterson and others prove that Martineau’s writings can be still readable and challenging for present-day students of the Victorian era.

Bibliography and further reading

Cazamian, Louis. The Social Novel in England, 1830-1850: Dickens, Disraeli, Mrs. Gaskell, Kingsley. 1903. Translated by Martin Fido. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy. Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Hill, Michael R., Susan Hoecker-Drysdale. Harriet Martineau: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Hobart, Ann. “Harriet Martineau’s Political Economy of Everyday Life.” Victorian Studies. Vol. 37/2 (1994).

Hoecker-Drysdale, Susan. Harriet Martineau: First Woman Sociologist. Oxford: Berg, 1992.

Kovacevic, Ivanka. Fact Into Fiction. English Literature and the Industrial Scene 1750-1850. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1975.

Martineau, Harriet. The Moral of Many Fables in Illustrations of Political Economy. Vol. IX, London: Charles Fox, 1834.

_____. “The Achievements of the Genius of Scott.” Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 2, October 1832.

_____. Society in America. Vol. 3. London: Saunders and Outley, 1839.

_____. Autobiography. Ed. by Linda H. Peterson. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2007.

Peterson, Linda H. Traditions of Victorian Women's Autobiography: The Poetics and Politics of Life Writing. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1999.

Pichanick, Valerie K. Harriet Martineau: The Woman and the Work 1802-1876, 1980.

Roberts, Caroline. The Woman and the Hour: Harriet Martineau and Victorian Ideologies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Sanders, V. Reason Over Passion: Harriet Martineau and the Victorian Novel. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester, 1986.

Webb, Robert K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. New York: Columbia University Press 1960.

Wheatley, Vera. The Life and Work of Harriet Martineau. London: Secker and Warburg, 1957.

Zlotnick, Susan. Women, Writing, and the Industrial Revolution. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University, 1998.

Last modified 20 March 2010