Harriet Martineau: Does she Philosophize or Womanize?

In the elusive and abstract world called academia, sweeping generalizations are a grave faux pas, tantamount to standing on a chair in a five star restaurant and belting out “Friday” by Rebecca Black. Nonetheless, I believe I can safely claim that Harriet Martineau was an exceptional woman. Not only did she step out of the approved domestic sphere by becoming a published author, but she also voiced progressive opinions about the inherent equality of women to men. She loudly declaims against the abuses of women in Society in America, and in her Autobiography, she celebrates her escape from the traditional role as a wife and mother, responsible for a husband’s happiness. With these liberating professions reverberating in my mind, I eagerly began reading Martineau’s novel, Deerbrook. I expected to find the same views Martineau expresses in her nonfiction work reflected in the lives and characters of her novel, but the correlation wasn’t nearly so exact. Do the egalitarian ideals expressed in her nonfiction manifest in her novel or does the novel proliferate the subjugation of women in the nineteenth century? Does Martineau philosophize ideally but womanize in reality?

In her Autobiography, Martineau clearly expresses the fulfillment she has found in her life as a single woman: “My business in life has been to think and learn, and to speak out with absolute freedom what I have thought and learned. The freedom is itself a positive and never-failing enjoyment to me, after the bondage of my early life” (120).  This conviction that her life has been full with thinking and learning apart from any domestic roles indicates Martineau’s belief in the broad range of spheres women are capable of entering. In Society in America, she declares that only women have the right to decide which duties they are capable or incapable of performing: “Some . . . oppose representation [of women], on the ground that political duties would be incompatible with the other duties which women have to discharge. . . . God has given time and power for the discharge of all duties; and, if he had not, it would be for women to decide which they would take, and which they would leave” (“Political Non-existence of Women” 1.3.7).  Martineau could not make a clearer case for the equal intelligence and equal right to choose a role for women.

I did not expect to find an exact duplication of Martineau’s unorthodox lifestyle in Deerbrook, but I anticipated a stronger push for women’s rights within her characters. The closest any woman comes in Deerbrook to enjoying the same intellectual freedoms as Martineau does is depicted in the life of Maria Young. Maria lives in the privileged singleness Martineau trumpets, but she does so by necessity rather than desire. The narrator’s comments on Maria’s existence lack the contentment Martineau expresses about her own position: “. . .but to Maria, liberty and peace were holiday, and her mind was not otherwise than peaceful. She was serious, but not sad. . . . She had been so long and so far banished from ordinary happiness, that her own quiet speculations were material enough for cheerfulness” (“The Meadows” 17).  A few pages later Margaret states Maria would be called “philosophical” if she were a man (“The Meadows” 23). A few chapters later as the narrator comments upon the unsurpassable happiness of true love, the life of a philosopher is diminished in comparison to the life of a person in love: “. . .but this philosopher, solitary seraph, as he may be regarded, amidst a myriad of men, knows at such a moment no emotions so divine as those of the spirit becoming conscious that it is beloved” (“A Turn in the Shrubbery” 58). In light of these thoughts, Maria’s single existence is in no manner as desirable as the life awaiting Hester and Margaret in their respective marriages.

The contrast between Martineau’s views of women’s rights expressed in her nonfiction and fiction seems to render her inconsistent at best and a womanizer at worst. But I wonder if Martineau tempered her views in Deerbrook because of the genre she was working in and the expectations her audience might have for that genre. Martineau was certainly not the first to write a social realism novel, and that genre carried expectations for plot and character. Perhaps Martineau took a softer approach to advocacy in Deerbrook because her audience was more receptive to a subtler call for change within that genre. I do not think that tactic compromises Martineau’s integrity, but rather it might demonstrate her authorial sophistication.

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