Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau (1802–76)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 4, 325–327.

This prominent and controversial writer, a frequent correspondent of EBB in the 1840’s, was born in Norwich on 12 June 1802, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth (née Rankin) Martineau. Her younger brother James became well known as a Unitarian minister and religious philosopher. Her father was a textile manufacturer. In a self-written obituary published by The Daily News at the time of her death, Miss Martineau stated that her parents “gave their children the best education which they could, by all honourable means, command.” Harriet was hard of hearing as a child, and in later years resorted to an ear-trumpet. She began writing for The Monthly Repository while still in her teens. After her father died, in 1826, Miss Martineau helped with family finances not only through writing but also by doing needlework. Conditions were eased somewhat when she won three substantial prizes, offered by the Unitarian Association, for religious essays. In 1832–34 she achieved public recognition through a set of stories entitled Illustrations of Political Economy, relating to the sufferings of Britain’s poor and the need for social and economic reforms. Later writings covered a wide range, even including children’s stories. In 1834–36 she visited the United States, where—siding with the abolitionists—she became much involved in the conflict over slavery. In 1839 began the most publicized episode of her life, the struggle with an abdominal tumor. She underwent treatment by mesmerism, crediting it with a seemingly miraculous cure. Her controversial series of Letters on Mesmerism began in 1844 and appeared as a collected edition in 1845. Not until after Miss Martineau’s death was it known that the apparent recovery came from a shift in the position of the tumor (see Theodora Bosanquet, Harriet Martineau, 1927, p. 202). In any case, she celebrated her return to good health by making a strenuous trip to the Middle East (1846–47) and subsequently writing Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). During her illness she was offered a government pension, which she rejected on grounds that it would tend to stifle her freedom as a writer. In 1843, however, a group of friends raised a fund for her, amounting to about £1,300. Having left London on account of her health in April 1839, in the mid-1840’s she acquired property at Ambleside in the Lake District near William Wordsworth’s home, and had a house built. There she continued her literary work and engaged in efforts to help the community. Miss Martineau died at her Ambleside residence, “The Knoll,” on 27 June 1876, and her body was taken to a family burial site at Birmingham.

Miss Martineau was so well acquainted with RB’s friends the Flower sisters that she placed them—thinly disguised—in her 1831 novel Five Years of Youth; or, Sense and Sentiment (see vol. 3, p. 311). RB is mentioned in G & M (p. 136) as being acquainted with Miss Martineau as early as 1837, and in that year she inscribed to him a copy of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (Reconstruction, A574). Her Autobiography—ed. Maria Weston Chapman (1877), I, 417–418—refers to her strong interest in Paracelsus (1835). She goes on to say: “The unbounded expectation I formed from that poem was sadly disappointed when ‘Sordello’ came out [in 1840]. I was so wholly unable to understand it that I supposed myself ill. But in conversation no speaker could be more absolutely clear and purpose-like.... A real genius was Robert Browning, assuredly; and how good a man, how wise and morally strong, is proved by the successful issue of the perilous experiment of the marriage of two poets.” She then said of EBB: “I … think her poetry wonderfully beautiful in its way, while wishing that she was more familiar with the external realities which are needed to balance her ideal conceptions.” The earliest extant piece of correspondence between either of the Brownings and Miss Martineau is letter 622, by RB, thought to have been written on 9 April 1838. Most of the further known correspondence, however, consists of letters from Miss Martineau to EBB—preserved despite the fact that Miss Martineau pleaded with her acquaintances to destroy all letters they received from her. The first letter to EBB was written on 1 August 1843. Miss Martineau expressed admiration for “your very noble poem, Pan Departed” (“The Dead Pan,” which was to be printed in Poems the following year and was already being seen in manuscript by various individuals). After commenting further on the poem she wrote: “These few words may perhaps not come amiss from one who has for friends some who are yours,—who has, like you, lost health, & become inured to the want of it, & who, like you, almost forgets to wish for ease & vigour in the keen sense of enjoyments which bear no relation to the body & its welfare.” EBB reported this to Mary Russell Mitford on 12? August 1843, and wrote of Miss Martineau: “She is a very noble woman—& her least word wd. give honor to me.” On 31 August of the same year, EBB wrote to R.H. Horne: “I have had a great pleasure lately in some correspondence with Miss Martineau, the noblest female intelligence between the seas.” A portrait of Miss Martineau was one of five from Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age (1844) which EBB placed on the wall of her room at 50 Wimpole Street—“because,” as was explained to RB on 4 December 1845, “she was a woman & admirable, & had written me some kind letters.” EBB’s interest in Miss Martineau was predictably intensified when the latter underwent mesmerism and supposedly thereby recovered from disease—mesmerism being a subject which both frightened and intrigued EBB. She admired Miss Martineau’s willingness to sacrifice privacy in publishing the full story of her treatment. Miss Martineau discussed this sacrifice in a letter to EBB dated 10 December 1844: “I took my part deliberately,—knowing privacy to be impossible, & making up my mind to entail publicity as the only course faithful to truth & human welfare. I cannot tell you how the thought of Godiva has sustained & inspired me.” The 1845–46 letters between EBB and RB are liberally sprinkled with references to Miss Martineau. It becomes clear that RB was not deeply enthusiastic about her, and both writers disagreed with her on at least one point. Miss Martineau believed that women should be allowed to serve in Parliament; RB and EBB did not. EBB, even before she began corresponding with her future husband, was considerably shaken by a scolding she received from Miss Martineau in a letter of 22 August 1844. In it, EBB was accused of having written to Miss Martineau in excessively flattering terms: “Your estimate of me seemed almost absurd,—& your expression of it such as never ought to pass between sincere & humble Christians.” After taking some time to recover from her “humiliation,” EBB wrote to Miss Mitford on 28 September: “I really felt abashed.... I thought everybody wd. think as even Papa did, ‘Why what can you have been saying?’” By this time, however, Miss Martineau had already apologized (in a letter of 16 September 1844) and had commented at length, for the most part very favourably, on EBB’s new Poems (see Reconstruction, C76, for Miss Martineau’s copy of this work). Correspondence continued, as already indicated, about Miss Martineau’s mesmeric treatments plus other topics. The exchange of letters does not appear to have continued much beyond the time of EBB’s departure for Italy, though in writing to Miss Mitford from Florence on 20 August 1847 she mentioned receiving “a few kind lines yesterday from Miss Martineau.” In 1860 Miss Martineau wrote to an American paper harshly criticizing EBB’s views on Napoleon III as expressed in Poems Before Congress, published that year. EBB apparently did not make a direct reply to Miss Martineau, but in writing to Arabella Moulton-Barrett on 11 June she called the criticism “monstrously unjust & absurd.” EBB died just over a year later; Harriet Martineau survived her by 15 years—minus two days.


National Endowment for the Humanities - Logo

Editorial work on The Brownings’ Correspondence is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This website was last updated on 6-14-2024.

Copyright © 2024 Wedgestone Press. All rights reserved.

Back To Top