Genre Studies

In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Harriet Martineau advocates for observers of morals to focus on physical objects. Rather than simply investigating the behavior of workers, she suggests that we look at occupations. Rather than determining local feelings about death and dying through conversation with members of the particular community, she encourages travelers to visit a local cemetery.

Dallas Liddle takes a similar approach when examining Martineau’s views on composition. He argues, along with Bakhtin, that the genre an author employs can tell us much about that author’s worldview. Basically, he says that each genre embraces a specific set of values. Liddle points out that the seemingly odd principles of composition that Martineau sets out in her autobiography can be better understood when we recognize that these are the same principles valued by journalists of the time, of which Martineau was one.

Initially upon reading Martineau’s statements on composition, I had half a mind to categorize her a “dangerous,” much like some of the reviewers of her era. As someone her earns a living by teaching first-year college students to write academically, some of Martineau’s practices—like refusing to revise—raise an eyebrow. However, when Liddle explains the constraints of news writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Martineau’s aversion to revision makes more sense.

My reaction to this practice of Martineau’s prompted me to consider the inherent values of academic writing and how they match (or don’t match) those that Martineau mentions in her autobiography and that Liddle emphasizes in his article. A couple of those principles seem particularly applicable to college writing.

Liddle notes that throughout her autobiography, Martineau suggests that she does not write out of personal desire; instead, she writes on subjects that are begging to be written about or because the public or some friend or relative specifically asked her to write. Liddle asserts that this principle likely stems from the idea that journalists surrender themselves as individuals and write solely for the public interest. In academia, we do something very similar. Professors consistently encourage students to develop “original” arguments, to look for gaps in the existing scholarship where they can enter the conversation and add their own thoughts to the debate. Academics mold their research interests so as to answer a specific need. They (we) write on subjects that are asking to be written about. Originality is one of the primary values of academia.

Liddle also briefly mentions Martineau’s productivity, stating that she would complete an impressive number of pages per day and would write at a specific time each day regardless of her mood. This also is partly the result of employment as a journalist since deadlines did not disappear when she did not particularly feel like composing. Such discipline is also important for academic writers. Writing students never “feel” like writing the essay they are assigned, yet professors expect them to nonetheless. Professors also will frequently impose writing schedules on themselves, forcing themselves to complete particular tasks toward publishing an article or a book. Such practices indicate the importance of productivity.

Whether or these values are good ones to hold is another question altogether, but examining genre conventions to learn about the worldview of an author seems incredibly helpful.

Imitating Nature and Natural Law

In her essay Achievements of the Genius of Scott, Harriet Martineau argues that one of the “great services rendered” by Walter Scott’s fiction is “the introduction of the conception of nature, as existing and following out its own growth in an atmosphere of convention” (34). By this, Martineau refers to the scenes in Scott’s novels in which the ruling classes are portrayed engaged in ‘commonplace’ activities. Though Martineau points out that Scott was apt to “[throw] the gloss of romance over his courtly scenes of every character” (35), he did a great deal to humanize the titled classes in a way that endeared them to his readers. As Martineau puts it, Scott was “the fit person to show the one to the other” (35). In discussing these ‘human’ portrayals of the aristocracy, and in praising Scott’s characterizations as corresponding to ‘nature’, Martineau (perhaps inadvertently) anticipates a concern that will soon be central to novelistic discourse – the concept of Realism.

What Martineau praises in Scott, she practices when it becomes her time to turn to fiction writing. What she admires in this other writer, she adopts as part of her own practice of composition. When contemplating the novel that will become Deerbrook, Martineau admits in her Autobiography that “creating a plot is a task above human faculties” (189). The difficulty of plot-making, for Martineau at least, stems from the deep-seated belief that “every perfect plot in fiction is taken bodily from real life” (189). Martineau, like Scott before her, wishes to depict nature as clearly as possible.

Martineau’s praise of Scott’s portrayal of nature is directly connected to her other, far more pronounced praise of Scott: that of the moral exemplar. Martineau does not at all mince words when it comes to praise of this kind: “There is little reason to question,” she states, “that Scott has done more for the morals of society … than all the divines … of a century past” (28). Moral philosophers will often refer to codes of ethics as ‘Natural Law’, intimating that moral behavior or ‘law’ is inherent to a world created by a Divine Will, not an artificial construct placed on the world by society. As with depictions of nature, the concept of Natural Law also finds its way into Martineau’s own writing when she addresses social injustices. Martineau relates in her Autobiography how important the idea of justice was to her from a very young age. And though she states that her writing about social issues is simply because she “could not help it” (394), we are told that a personal resolution made by the author in 1829 states her reasons for writing are “to inform some minds and stir up others” (394 n.1). If moral behavior is self-evident, if it is ‘written in nature’, then, to Martineau, just as ‘self-evident’ is the compassion and justice with which we should treat our fellow man – whether this means allowing women greater opportunities for education, or reforming the prison system.
In both her depictions of nature and her championing of natural law, Martineau, it can be argued, imitates one of her great literary inspirations. By doing so, she, like Scott, becomes an exemplar to the readers of her generation.

Sorry, I’m not sorry

One of my artist friends recently posted a sketch of this phrase on Instagram: “I’m not sorry for not replying sooner.” The caption explains that it’s part of a project for a series about “women who are no longer apologizing about things they shouldn’t be apologizing for in the first place.” Having just read some of Harriet Martineau’s work, I found this fascinating. While there were 246 likes (a high number in comparison with her other posts), the comments were particularly striking—and all by women. “I still struggle with this everyday,” wrote one woman; “PREACH” said another,” and several women started to list all the things they are not sorry for: “I’m not sorry for walking in the same door as someone else, I’m not sorry my kid pushed your kid, etc.”

While Martineau is not directly apologetic in this way—I think she might be appalled at that suggestion—her attitude about writing itself does relate. Women that constantly apologize and Harriet Martineau both feel the need to consider the needs/wants of others carefully…but they simultaneously fail to consider their own needs/wants. It is as if acting on behalf of someone else is valid, but doing anything out of one’s own wishes is not.

Several of Liddle’s points illustrate the way Martineau tried to suppress any sort of “self-interest” in terms of her writing. Though his article convincingly argues that Martineau conformed to journalism conventions of her time, it also suggests that Martineau consistently did not see her own needs/ wants as a sufficient impetus for writing. He argues that her writing projects will only be taken “from necessity, or at the direction of….others,” that she wanted to appear “entire[ly] innocent of professional calculation or strategy,” and that she consistently reported “an enthusiastic reception” about her work as a reason to continue writing (51-55). Liddle’s assertion that the factual information does not support her “Authoress’s Tale”—and his assertion that critics have largely overlooked these discrepancies—makes sense. She needed reasons other than her own desires to be a writer, and so she embellished her tale of becoming an author.

It is unsurprising, then, that some of these same points also appear in the introduction to her Autobiography. Instead of explaining that she simply wanted to write an autobiography, Martineau frames it entirely in terms of others’ wants/ desires. She explains that the completion of her own autobiography “is one of her duties” and further explains that “for thirteen or fourteen years it has been more or less a weight on her mind” (34). She also emphasizes the sacrificial nature of this work through suggesting that though “there ha[d] been no lack of encouragement or instigation” on the part of her friends, her own health issues had prevented her from finishing.

And “On Women’s Education” has some of the same thrust. Though Martineau gives several compelling reasons for women to be educated, their own desire for knowledge isn’t among them. Instead she makes the strongest argument possible from a male perspective: that women will be better companions to men, that women will perform daily tasks more effectively, and that Christian humility is part of education. The form of the essay itself—a list of possible objections followed by lengthy responses—suggests that she expected it to be controversial. She does not mention what education has done for her personally, and though she does group herself with women at a few points, she also uses the universal “we” to include herself with her assumedly male readers.

It is not surprising that Martineau’s gender affected how she thought about her work, not that she felt the need to dismiss her own needs/ wants in terms of her writing. But it is fascinating how widespread such a mindset still is—at least to an extent—among women. We are no longer arguing about the benefits of women being educated, but some of us do feel the need to constantly apologize, even if we don’t need to.

“Frailty, Thy name is Woman”

Before launching on her exploration into Victorian genres, Liddle states, “For modern readers, Martineau the writer is a more puzzling and less sympathetic figure than Martineau the feminist who advocated women’s education and opposed the Contagious Diseases Acts . . . the successful and independent professional woman” (“The Authoress’s Tale” 46). Harriet Martineau was certainly one of the leading advocates in the nineteenth century for women’s rights, and her life was an example of the meaningful existence a woman could enjoy without the badge of marriage. Yet her advocacy is restricted within the immediate backyard of conventional expectations of women’s roles. The controlled and cautious quality of Martineau’s call for equality in “On Female Education” may lead us to question the extent of her concern for women’s rights. However, Liddle’s argument for the impact of specific genre expectations on Martineau’s Autobiography can extend to Martineau’s other work and rejuvenate our appreciation of her writing.

In the Autobiography, she bluntly declares, “I am, in truth, very thankful for not having married at all. I have never since been tempted, nor have suffered any thing at all in relation to that matter which is held to be all-important to woman, – love and marriage” (119). This frank reflection on her life argues candidly for women’s independence. Martineau’s praise for Sir Walter Scott’s treatment of women in her essay, “On the Achievements of the Genius of Scott,” emphasizes the unconscious awareness Scott raises for women’s belittlement: “It [the term womankind] may lead some watchful intellects – some feeling hearts – to ponder the reasons of the fact, that the word mankind calls up associations of grandeur and variety, – that of womankind, ideas of littleness and sameness” (47). Both of these statements demonstrate a strong concern for the position of women in the nineteenth century.

However, Martineau’s work is not entirely free from the conventional values of her time. Just a few lines after her bold profession of gratitude in singleness, Martineau qualifies her pleasure as an unmarried writer. She writes, “The simplicity and independence of this vocation first suited my infirm and ill-developed nature, and then sufficed for my needs, together with family ties and domestic duties, such as I have been blessed with, and as every woman’s heart requires” (Autobiography 120). The undercutting vein of support for women’s joy in domestic duties appears even stronger in “On Female Education.” Towards the end of this essay, she declares, “Let her [woman] be taught that she is to be a rational companion to those of the other sex among whom her lot in life is cast, that her proper sphere is home – that there she is to provide not only for the bodily comfort of man, but that she is to also enter into community of mind with him” (81). Martineau’s conventionality may well cause us to sigh and let her fall from our esteem as a forerunner of contemporary feminism.

But we might not yet need to remove Martineau from her feminist pedestal. Liddle summarizes Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory on genres, pointing out that existing worldviews are worked out to their best expression in any genre while the same worldviews are also “discursively re-creat[ed]” within any genre. With this thought in mind, we must ask how the genres in which Martineau wrote were already laden with a worldview that both restricted her feminism and provided her with forms to reinvent and challenge existing views of women.

The Plot Calling the Kettle Black

Martineau argues that “creating a plot is a task above human faculties” (Autobiography 189); her advice is then for plots to be “taken bodily from real life” and be “analogous narratives with those of actual experience” (189). When traced through her work, this premise provides a correlation between her article on Sir Walter Scott and her description of the development of her own novels.

While she identifies just one of Sir Walter Scott’s works in the Autobiography as having a “perfect plot” derived from experience, Martineau’s article “Achievements of the Genius of Scott” provides a little more generously for the rest of his texts. Martineau critiques his novels for lacking fair representation of all classes (41), but she ascribes this failure to his ignorance of those classes rather than any meaner motive: “In short, he knew not that all passions and all natural movements of society, that he has found in the higher, exist in the humbler ranks” (43). Her stances regarding the role of personal experience in the development of plot necessitates that she qualify her critique and excuse this fault to some extent, as she recognizes that she “[charges] him with omission of which he was unconscious, and which he would, perhaps, scarcely have wished to repair, as it must have been done at the expense of his Toryism, to which the omission and unconsciousness were owing” (Achievements 44). His life experiences result in the plots and characters of his novels, and while Martineau finds them lacking in some ways, she still regards him as a “character of Genius” (Achievements 27) partially because the books stem from “real life.”

To this effect, in the list of the admirable influences Scott wrought on society, Martineau includes that “he has taught us how more may be achieved in a wider space” (Achievements 53) and has provided inspiration for the new novelist: “Instead of tales of knightly love and glory, of chivalrous loyalty, of the ambition of ancient courts, and the bygone superstitions of a half-savage state, 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” (54). Thus, when she attempts her own novel, Deerbrook, Martineau claims that she embraces these “graver themes” inspired by Scott and the life she knows in her plot. Specifically, Martineau chooses to challenge her audience with a discussion of the “discipline of temper” (Autobiography 409). She also portrays the middle class “because it was my own, and the one that I understood best” (408). Martineau notes with some exasperation that her most vocal critics are those also in the middle class, but also attributes the novel’s success to this portrayal of “familiar life” (408).

For a woman whose goal, according to Liddle, is to portray herself as a journalist throughout her autobiography, Martineau’s consistent dedication to realistic plots and characters, pulled from life experience, seems only logical. It will be interesting to see if the reality of Deerbrook matches her perception and portrayal of it in her autobiography.

Don’t be Charitable, Stupid

“But how inefficient is benevolence when not directed by knowledge!”

Martineau’s cry for the education of women is not the feminist manifesto contemporary audiences would wish. After all, one of her arguments for women’s education is to, “enlarge and steady the mind, and raise it, nearly at least, to the level of the other sex.” However, this concept of educated charity is a call that can easily be adapted to contemporary audiences, specifically, evangelical Christians in the west.

“An enlightened mind…can comprehend extensive views, can design not only the present relief of misery, but can look forward to the permanent improvement of its kind.” This efficiency and the argument that women’s charity will benefit with education remains a relevant argument. Women of many ages are frequently involved, deeply involved, in non-profit work, social work, long and short-term religious missions, and family care. For full efficiency in these sectors, women’s education must even now be stressed. This is not to say that only women should be encouraged in these sectors, or encouraged to participate in these sectors. Rather, women should be encouraged to further their educations so that they might contribute their combined intellectual abilities to the solving of social issues. The reputation of Women’s historical involvement in social work and missions is rich, but often fraught with reports of cultural insensitivity and hard proselytization. The current stereotype of the young blonde female student surrounded by African children on her five-day missions trip to Uganda is a vestige of a culture that idolized the nurturing, social issues-minded woman, while ignoring her education in world economics, religion, gender, and culture.

One cannot help thinking, as the column in which charity is addressed in Martineau’s brief article continues, that she is being highly facetious as she addresses a *potentially* all-male audience in a *potentially* male voice. For, after she argues for education-to-further-benevolence, she throws in the idea that when all the “feminine duties” are fulfilled, an education is needed to “make social intercourse more delightful…such will cheer the hours of dulness, and furnish pleasant subjects for the thoughts to turn to in times of sickness or sorrow.”

Basically, Martineau wants women to gain an education so they’re not dull, selfish, whining snobs, in charitable endeavors or at home. However, what is difficult about the passage remains the idea that women shouldn’t be educated people for the sake of not being dull, selfish, whining people — it is because they should be educated women so that they might become more cheery and efficient nurses and social gophers for everyone else. 

Plotting, Prophetic Martineau

Martineau’s comments on the inability to invent a unique plot are fascinating and baffling considering her own later admission that the plot of Deerbrook actually is, though unintentionally, unique. Here is Martineau’s explanation as to why the creation of unique plot is impossible:

“…the creating a plot is a task above human faculties.  It is indeed evidently the same power as that of prophecy; that is, if all human action is (as we know it to be) the inevitable result of antecedents, all the antecedents must be thoroughly comprehended in order to discover the inevitable catastrophe.  A mind which can do this must be, in the nature of things, a prophetic mind, in the strictest sense; and no human mind is that. The only thing to be done, therefore, is to derive the plot from actual life, where the work is achieved for us, accordingly, it seems that every perfect plot in fiction is taken bodily from real life” (189).

Accordingly, she did take the plot of her Deerbrook from “real life,” but her understanding of the real events was mistaken, and so she later realized that, “Deerbrook was a fiction, after all, in its groundwork.”  What a chuckling irony.

But I wonder what Martineau conceives a plot to be, exactly.  Is it the exact progression of events?  Because in that case, why do Dickens’ plots not qualify?  And how do Scott’s really improbable plots make the grade?  (Honestly, King Richard, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and the passionate Jewess all in one book?…)  If the most original plot must be from a “prophetic” mind, then what is that?

What if it is possible to be a prophet.  Not, obviously, the doomsday “The-sky-is-falling” prophet, but the sort with the important antecedent “if you keep doing what you are doing, then the sky will fall.”  Is this not precisely what a novelist does?  Invent a situation, and then explore the result of that situation when engaged with by invented characters?  Of course, a situation, or problem, must have antecedents or causes.

And in fact, Martineau’s conception of the prophet is one who understands antecedents, but not conclusions.  If “all antecedents must be thoroughly comprehended in order to discover the inevitable catastrophe,” then is she not suggesting that the “inevitable catastrophe” is the conclusion?  What about the solution to the catastrophe?  What about the conclusion?

The implication of this claim, too, is that journalists can comprehend all the antecedent causes of a catastrophe.  That seems a bit cocky. But I wonder if this does not also provide us a solution.  If we acknowledge that even in factual cases, the causes, the effects, the response of characters cannot be fully comprehended or anticipated, then the novelist’s job becomes a great deal more similar to the journalist’s than Martineau originally thought.  And perhaps this is why she could accidentally write what she initially called impossible – an original plot. She actually didn’t even understand the catastrophe. And at that point of failure, Martineau really was a plotting prophet.


Autobiographical Humanizing

Autobiographies are quite remarkable in that they enable one to be both the author and a character simultaneously.  Thus, in Martineau’s autobiography, she is not just Harriet Martineau the writer, H.M. the feminist, H.M the sociologist, she is Harriet the protagonist.  She, the author, has the power over the dimensions, flaws, and development of herself, the character.

As Dallas Liddle observes, Martineau’s autobiography is structured according to the journalistic genre and narrative choices are made based on the genre’s ideals (“The Triumph of Journalism in in Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography”).  Liddle also states, “For modern readers, Martineau the writer is a more puzzling and less sympathetic figure than Martineau the feminist…, the sociologist …, the successful and independent professional woman, or the political writer …” (Liddle 47).  For her readers, both then and now, Martineau has taken on many characters through her works.  Liddle goes further to add that “while Martineau’s positions on women’s issues, class issues, and international politics now seem mostly admirable, many of her statements about the theory and practice of writing are difficult even to quote or reference without seeming to intend ridicule….There is an unfortunate touch of Lady Bracknell in these wrongheaded categorical declarations that make them painful reading for admirers of Martineau’s career…” (47).

Liddle refers to Martineau’s abhorrence of revision – a firm advocate of the single, first and final, draft – and declaration that “it is impossible on principle for a human being to create a plot” (Liddle 47).  I can certainly understand Liddle’s statements; such claims from an author are bizarre to say the least.  Yet, I was intrigued that Liddle and I had such different reactions to this section in Martineau’s Autobiography.  Rather than being pained by her words, it was a moment that added another dimension to her character, letting me see her as, of all things, a fellow human.

As Liddle states, we often relate to her as the feminist, the sociologist, the professional woman, the political writer.  In studying an author, or any historical figure, we often forget to relate to them as fellow humans.  To have Martineau declare her hatred of revision – while I myself would probably not practice based on her philosophy, it was eye opening to hear a lauded writer share in the frustration of multiple drafts.  She proclaims, “Creating a plot is a task above human faculties, indeed evidently the same power as that of prophecy…  A mind which can do this must be in the nature of things, a prophetic mind, in the strictest sense; and no human mind is that” (Autobiography 189).  This is a personal connection for me, though I would surmise many have similar experiences.  Ever since childhood I have devoured plots, I have loved the world is that author has somehow had the power to conjure me to, but I have never understood them.  I have gathered a working knowledge of many genres and been relatively successful in some; with writing that is purely creative, I have continually been frustrated with my attempts, never understanding how my beloved authors worked their magic.  It amazed me to hear Martineau similarly compare it to a work of prophecy.

As Liddle explain, Martineau chooses a specific narrative arc for her autobiography.  I don’t know whether these statements were Martineau were intended to make her character more “human” – my guess would be that their intentions align more with Liddle’s analysis – I am grateful that they created another means in which to relate to Martineau

Pushing but not Bursting the Spheres

What I found most interesting about Martineau’s piece “On Female Education” is just how aware she is of her audience and the context she is writing within. She approaches the topic of women’s education in a manner that would likely make modern feminists cringe, but in her social context gave her room to speak.

It is clear that Martineau writes with an acute awareness of the separate spheres dictated by Victorian society, arguing each of her points artfully as ideas that begin to push against the traditional views of women’s education, without entirely alienating her audience by rejecting all strictures. As in her other pieces, it is clear that Martineau writes with rhetorical finesse—aware of her audience and their limits and writing accordingly.

It is difficult to see here how far beyond her time Martineau was in terms of women’s roles in society. Even as I would argue that she carefully places her argument within a palatable context for her nineteenth century readers, using the accepted language etc., she may have agreed with more of the traditional roles than we’d like to think. She emphasizes quite often that woman is intended to be a companion to man and that “her proper sphere is home” (81 emphasis Martineau’s). Indeed, she uses much of the language of the helpmeet. And yet, we cannot neglect the impressive statements that she makes regarding women’s education. She is clearly advocating for a drastic change in mentality as well as practice.

In particular, I thought her response to the third objection—that “proficiency in knowledge” might inflate “the vanity so universally ascribed to the sex”—quite clever. Martineau writes: “if the taste for knowledge were more generally infused, and if proficiency in the attainments I have mentioned were more common, there would be much less pedantry than there is at present; for when acquirements of this kind are no longer remarkable, they cease to afford a subject for pride” (80). I cannot help but read a certain level of snarkiness into Martineau’s words, as she writes that limiting knowledge in fact promotes vanity. She flips a likely prevalent concern about educating women into a clever argument for encouraging widespread education.

Thus, while I am still left with questions as to how to understand this treatise of Martineau’s on female education, one idea that I think we can walk away with is that in her precarious position as a female writer (though I’m not sure if this piece was anonymous), she understood the rhetorical situation and social context she was writing into and that ought to influence how we view her arguments.

Why All the Hubbub?

Many things about Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography puzzle me. Her previous declaration against “literary lionism” emphasized that the over inflation of the writer’s ego would cause the work to suffer, but isn’t Martineau performing the most self-involved activity by writing her autobiography? She doesn’t even need to be lionized by others; she is good to go all on her own.

However, what most causes me pause with Martineau’s Autobiography is the introduction. While she mentions that she thought she was always meant to write her memoirs, and such, the meat of the introduction deals with her adamant desire that her personal letters of correspondence not be published. She says that she has asked her most intimate friends to burn her letters, so that they will not end up in the wrong hands. Martineau is very clear about not wanting her letters made public after her death, so I wonder how she would feel about The Pickering Masters “The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau” and the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections which features many Martineau letters.

The confusing aspect of her introduction lies not only in not completely understanding her insistence on not publishing her letters, but that this is how she decided to start her autobiography. Instead of thanking people in her life or discussing millions of other things, she chose to re-emphasize the fact that her letters were to be burnt or left alone. I got the feeling that this introduction was meant as a warning to friends and family who may have other opinions on publishing. Martineau believed that people could not be freely open with each other if there was a fear of that openness being seen by someone else.

She questions the sanctity of confidential communication and the honor of privacy. Saying that all friends would have to be on guard with each other if they believed there was a chance of the communication becoming public. While, many of Martineau’s arguments in her texts are quite convincing, it is difficult for me to understand her obvious paranoia over these letters. Her reasoning is less than complete. This leads me to ask the question, why all the hubbub? What’s in those letters she didn’t want us to read?



Literary Lionism and Longing to Be Known

Human beings have a remarkable tendency to attempt to re-make themselves, to form a cohesive narrative of their lives, and to make meaning of the world around them. In “The Authoress’s Tale,” Dallas Liddle accurately observes that Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography “is not in fact the story of Harriet Martineau’s life up to 1855, as scholars have not unreasonably assumed, but rather the story of her life as she wanted to represent it in 1855″ (67).  Martineau’s self-reflection was encouraged when she discovered she was facing a “mortal disease” (tumors and/or a severe heart condition) “which might spare me some considerable space of life, but which might, as likely as not, destroy me at any moment” (35). Though she lived fifteen years after this terminal diagnosis, it provided her enough uncertainty and urgency to begin the attempt to “clean up” her tarnished image, to fashion the legacy she desired to leave behind, and to determine what qualities she wished to be known for.

Harriet Martineau. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, surprisingly, the Autobiography voluntarily reveals Martineau’s vulnerability. She is no longer the character which my colleague Hannah Hannover describes in  “Angry Single Woman Seeks Basic Rights.” Instead, we see her as a nervous child who suffered from anxiety attacks and seriously contemplated suicide. She had “scarcely any respite from the terror,” avoiding contact with people at all costs until her aunt “won my heart and my confidence when I was sixteen” (Martineau, Autobiography, 40). We see her as the woman who fell deeply in love with a man who later went “suddenly insane” and died (Autobiography, 119). We see her grieving for her dead father and brother, persevering through her family’s financial ruin, and struggling with shame over her growing deafness.

After a career of passionate activism, why did she choose to portray this side of herself?

I believe the answer lies in the 1837 essay which she chose to reprint in her Autobiography, “Literary Lionism.” In this essay, she describes the female author thrust to the center of the drawing-room, the spectacle of entertainment, observed, praised, and engaged by all but befriended by none. She also wistfully describes an author on the other side of the publicity spectrum: the cloistered monk, secluded from all society.

Though she concludes that the ideal author strikes a balance between the monk and the lion, “active in some common business of life, not dividing the whole of his life between the study and the drawing-room, and so confining himself to the narrow world of books and readers” (228), her descriptions of the monk reveal a nostalgic longing for the seclusion and anonymity of the cloister.

“A Scribe or Copyist” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The monk has a unique “pleasure of intellectual exercise”: “We may even now witness with the mind’s eye the delight of it painted upon the face under the cowl. One may see the student hastening from the refectory to the cell, drawn thither by the strong desire of solving a problem, of elucidating a fact, of indulging the imagination with heavenly delights… One may see him come down with radiant countenance from the heights of speculation….” (213) Though he may perhaps hope that future generations will find his work useful, and though he may share his devotional insights with fellow monks, the act of composition for Martineau’s monk is completely insulated from the excessive, isolating praise received by the literary lion. Implicitly, he is also protected from vehement blame– which Martineau herself received in abundance.

Yet despite her longing, Martineau was denied this quiet, cloistered life.  And in many ways, the story she tells reveals the alienation of the literary lion. While fashionable society pumps her with questions about “her opinion of this, that, and the other book,” making painful small talk about “black and green tea, or the state of the roads, or the age of the moon,” (217) then roughly discards her with offhand comments (“O, I am so disappointed! I don’t find that she has anything in her” [222]), she really just wants to speak with the children. And for a person who struggled as a child with severe anxiety about social interaction, being the center of attention must have been very painful indeed.

One sees in Martineau’s autobiography the simple human desire to know and be known, to experience genuine friendship without the social frippery. Perhaps the revelations of vulnerability are her attempts to “pop the bubble” of inflated fame and literary lionism, to come back down to earth and just be ordinary. And perhaps it is our place to read graciously.

Works Cited

Liddle, Dallas. “The Authoress’s Tale: The Triumph of Journalism in Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography.” In The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain. 46-72. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007.

Miss Martineau’s Gentle Advice for Writers: Don’t botch your work!


“Revise, revise, revise.” As a writer, I was formed by this maxim. Now, as a teacher of writing, I repeat the refrain to my students. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read in her Autobiography the writing practices of accomplished Victorian author Harriet Martineau. Martineau “committed [her]self to a single copy” of each piece. After she had figured out what she wanted to say, she had always “written it down without care and anxiety” (113). She not only describes her process of single-draft composition in glowing terms; she also denounces revision as a sloppy practice! “I think I perceive,” continues Martineau daintily, “that great mischief arises from the notion that botching in the second place will compensate for carelessness in the first.” After dropping that bomb, she decides to stomp out the survivors: “I think I perceive”—oh, that phrase!—“that confusion of thought, or cloudiness or affectation of style are produced or aggravated by faulty prepossessions [i.e., revision practices]” (114). So, for Martineau, revision is “botching in the second place,” is it? Really, now! Revision is an art, I’ll have you know!

Once I let my flustered temper cool down, however, I was ready to give Martineau her proper due—and get to the more interesting questions of the matter. After all, Martineau’s method seems to have worked well for her: She does have a readable, pleasurable prose style. She was extremely prolific in multiple genres. She made a name for herself, a woman writer, under adverse circumstances. And after having meandered among her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, for a little while, I have a growing respect for this author. I’m not interested, then, in simply contradicting her writing practices.

Instead, I am intrigued by what her single-draft publications might reveal about how her mind and opinions develop—especially when she contradicts herself. Others bloggers and I have noticed differences between Martineau’s theory and practice of travel-writing (in her Society in America). Victorian scholar Dallas Liddle, in The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain, argues that Martineau attempts to present herself in the Autobiography as a humble, unambitious writer who unintentionally broke in on the publishing scene…but that Martineau contradicts herself in the details of the scenes, which suggest that she felt the triumph of satisfied ambition. Further, Liddle claims that the historical facts of Martineau’s first publication also suggest the latter (57).

Could Martineau’s single-draft writing be a reason these inconsistencies came into print? She writes in a state that is both purposeful and stream-of-consciousness. Thus, her writing most closely approximates her thoughts at a given period; she does not revisit it. The rest of us—those who revise—bring our many “selves” to the composition; we change between each draft, and we meld our thoughts from these different “selves” to most closely approach that which we intend. This certainly does not exempt from error those writers who revise (there are faults and risks), nor do I condemn the single draft—Liddle makes the excellent point that Martineau is aligning herself with journalistic writing style. However, “I think I perceive” that many of Martineau’s works frame inconsistencies—overt or hidden, as the case may be. The works are more interesting this way, fresh from Martineau’s mind, and I want to see what can be gleaned from her distinct, unblended writing “selves.”

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Does Martineau hold herself to the same standard as she those she addresses?

In How to Observe: Morals and Manners, Martineau discusses how making generalizations about different societies is dangerous because they create an incomplete view of the culture. She is ultimately making the point that when traveling to other countries, and writing a travel book, there is very little that the average person on one trip can definitively conclude.  However, I find it interesting that, while explaining how difficult it is to understand others behaviors, she uses the example of not necessarily understanding your neighbor down the street or the family underneath your same roof, even though you are exposed to both very often (13-14). Your daughter may cry because she ripped her dress, but does that mean that is the only reason she would cry? Or that crying is the only response she could have to ripping her dress? She seems to emphasize that people are more complex than what we can determine about them after only a few weeks of observation.

However, this very perceptive observation into the complexities of people begins to negate one of Martineau’s own social observations of “literary lions.” Basically she contends that popularity as an author creates a situation where the author can no longer write. Popularity creates a new class for the author in which they cannot see outside of. The main problems she sees is the author would not be able to view humanity as an impartial observer, the author would become too egotistical about their work, and never be able to move beyond it and improve. In this judgment of literary lionism, Martineau commits the same generalization that she proposes to be dangerous. She takes every author and believes she can anticipate what their response to popularity would be. It is this discrepancy between what she says and what she does that makes her seems to believe herself an exception to the rules of observation. If we cannot know our neighbors or our family completely, then how can Martineau generalize how all authors would react to popularity?

She says that writers would not live up to their potential if they are lionized because they would become big-headed about their work, thinking that it is the best thing they could ever create. However, is it not possible that acceptance of their work would propel the authors to continue their work? Martineau is also concerned that a popular writer would no longer be able to operate as an impartial observer. But this concern stems from an unrealistic premise: that anyone can truly be an impartial observer to begin with. People are biased. Based on the norms of their experiences there are certain activities or behaviors that will trigger as ‘non-normative.’ An unbiased observer is impossible, so popularity would potentially only affect a writer’s already held biases.

The discreptency between Martineau’s observations and her guidelines for observation emphasis one of her more poiniant statements: generlizations “reveal more of the mind of the observer than of the observed” (Morals and Manners 13). Martineau’s concerns reflect more her own fears about being lionized than her concern about other authors. Perhaps she envisions how she would react to being valorizes and assumes that everyone else would react as she would. Martineau doesn’t seem to hold herself to the same standard of observation that she requires of others.

Facing Fears and Fostering Sympathy

In an article on the “Trusted Non-Profit Resource” titled “Attachment Issues and Reacitve Attachment Disorder,” Melinda Smith, Joanna Saisan, and Jeanne Segal provide an account of the causes, symptoms, and treatments of attachment disorders. They explain that children with an attachment disorder suffer from “a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control.” The result is that these children “fee[l] unsafe and alone.” Attachment disorders “occur when children have been unable to consistently connect with a parent or primary caregiver”—for instance, when a child is hungry or not receiving proper attention. Symptoms of attachment disorders include inconsolable crying, keen awareness of or reactions too sensory stimuli, intense desire to be in control, and emotional withdrawal or detachment.

Very good. But what, you ask, has this to do with Harriet Martineau?

In her 1855 Autobiography, Martineau gives an account of the difficulties that she faced as a child, which difficulties are remarkably similar to the symptoms of attachment disorders described in Smith, Saisan and Segal’s article. Martineau explains that her mother always ascribed her daughter’s poor health in childhood and youth to the fact she “was all but starved” for the first three months of her life by her poor wetnurse, who was “holding on to her good place after her milk was going or gone” (39). This event, however unintentional, could doubtless be classed as one of those improper attentions that cause attachment disorders described above.

Martineau goes on to explain the physical and mental complaints that she suffered during her early years: “never was poor mortal cursed with a more beggarly nervous system” (40); “I could never cross the yard to the garden without flying and panting, and fearing to look behind, because a wild beast was after me” (40); “my panics were really unaccountable” (43); “I was always in a state of shame about something or other” (43); “I had no self-respect, and an unbounded need for approbation and affection” (46). Perhaps most telling is Martineau’s assertion that “[m]y fear of persons was as great as any other” (40). Each of these statements points to that condition described by Smith, Saisan and Segal.

In reading Martineau’s account of her early childhood, one cannot help but be moved by her portrayal of the fear that she faced at every turn. However, this account becomes even more remarkable when one considers the fact that this child whose “moral discernment was almost wholly obscured by fear and mortification” (47) became the astute and sympathetic author of How to Observe Morals and Manners. What brought about this transformation?

According to Martineau herself, it was her religion that allowed her to overcome the fears of her childhood. She writes, “the only support and pleasure I remember having from a very early age was from [religion]” (44), explaining that “[w]hile I was afraid of everybody I saw, I was not in the least afraid of God” (45). In some way, Martineau’s belief in God and reliance upon the structures provided by her faith enabled her to move beyond her intense anxiety and become a functioning and influential adult.

This connection, though by no means fully established here, between attachment disorders and Martineau’s account of her childhood terrors and of how her religious beliefs enabled the radical change that she experienced merits further consideration, both by those interested in Martineau and by those who seek to help troubled and traumatized children.

Martineau’s “Authorial Spectacles”

WHAT is the difference between a travel writer and a philosophical observer? Martineau would doubtless answer that there is no difference, yet in her autobiography, she describes periods where she traveled without her “authorial spectacles.”

Obviously, Martineau’s How to Observe Morals and Manners argues that flippant judgments based on prejudiced morals and hasty generalization should be tempered by philosophical preparation. That is, bad reporters should consider that they don’t really understand even their own home town. Hence, an “unprepared” traveler, is contrasted to a “philosophical” one – one who judges not by their own specific morals and manners, but by universal ones. Martineau laments that the current travel writers are generally unprepared, and urges them to be more philosophical observers.  So much is nice and clear.

But in her biography, she notes that when she went travelling, she meant to leave her pen behind her. She claims to travel for “rest and recreation” and not to write.  She then asserts, “I am sure that no traveler seeing things through author spectacles, can see them as they are.” But is not the authorial gaze and philosophical observation basically the same thing?  Martineau thinks not.  And so I ask, what is the difference?

It would seem that the difference is partly in the order.  Philosophizing comes before travel.  It consists in (very simplistically) discovering what the universal morals are, and then in acknowledging that manners are changing symbols.  In Martineau’s own travels, she began writing this opinion on the ship to America, so just as she urges for her reader, a philosophical distance from her own culture was a necessary prerequisite.

The observation part is apparently what Martineau considers “rest[ful] and relax[ing].”  She did not stop observing the world, only writing books abotu it. This apparently means not judging the cultures she visited, but it does not mean that she did not hold opinions about their ideas.  In her autobiography, she notes that  “my opinions on slavery were candidly held, and … they offered no obstacle to the most friendly intercourse with friends.” I assume from context that the term “candid” is meant in the older connotation of a kindly, nonabrasive,  honesty.  In fact, this kind of candor about her opinions seems to have added to the enjoyment.  Her next statement implies too, that observation is another element of that enjoyment. “I should never succeed in seeing the Americans as they were, if my road was paved for me from one society to another.”  Though it is difficult for the modern culture of cruise vacations and beach resorts to understand, Martineau wanted the challenge, and wanted to study another culture – that was the fun of it.

The authorial gaze comes after the return from the trip and seems to produce the judging voice.   Martineau’s Society in America, though nicely tempered, certainly holds no punches in its condemnation of the slave trade (and more). In her introduction, she claims not to judge the American people and she urges other travel writers to do the same.  This must mean something other than judging actions and opinions, however, for list of anecdotes describing the deadened sensibilities of Southern culture toward the slave trade is not sparing. Her voice in this travel narrative returns to the philosophical and the critical, however kind and liberal that ultimate critique of the society might be.  She is shocked at the inconsistencies in their thinking even though she noted how difficult it is to see one’s own culture clearly, quipping that such observations “reveal more of the mind of the observer than the observed.”  But it is interesting that Martineau’s own observations do reveal a great deal of her own mind. Perhaps, though the division between observation and critique is necessary for both to be done well, that distinction is easier in theory than in practice.