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and such, the meat of the introduction deals with her adamant desire that her personal letters of correspondence not be published.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?