“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.

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