Striking Similarities: Harriet Martineau’s Autobiographical Novel

By Richard Evans (died 1871) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Evans (died 1871) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“…Creating a plot is a task above human faculties…. The only thing to be done, therefore, is to derive the plot from actual life, where the work is achieved for us: and, accordingly, it seems that every perfect plot in fiction is taken bodily from real life.” – Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, p. 189

Reading Deerbrook alongside Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography highlights just how much she followed her own advice, drawing her plots from her everyday life. In fact, each of the main female characters in Deerbrook pick up pieces of Martineau’s own life story and personality. Of course, all characters are inextricably tied to the character and life experiences of their authors, since they are products of the author’s mind. However, Martineau seems to take this idea a step further, fracturing aspects of her identity into the characters of Margaret, Hester, and Maria. These “identity-fragments” persist, even when they go against the character’s own nature, and can only be explained when compared to the Autobiography.

Margaret’s case is the most striking. At the beginning of the story, she is the mature one; her sister Hester is the one given to fear, jealousy, and mood swings. Hope describes her wisdom, stability, “without question, without introspection, without hesitation or consiousness,” unselfish, with “not a morbid tendency…to be discerned” (37). Yet, merely halfway through the story, we get a different picture of Margaret:

“Her mind sank back into what it had been in her childhood…. when, to get rid of a life of contradiction, she had had serious thoughts of cutting her throat, had gone to the kitchen door to get the carving-knife, and had been much disappointed to find the servants at dinner, and the knife-tray out of reach. This spirit, so long ago driven out by the genial influences of family love… now came back to inhabit the purified bosom” (104).

This passage does not seem to fit with what we already know about Margaret’s character. However, it could have easily been lifted from Martineau’s own suicide story in the Autobiography:

“No doubt, there was much vindictiveness in it. I gloated over the thought that I would make somebody care about me… One day I went to the kitchen to get the great carving knife, to cut my throat; but the servants were at dinner, and this put it off for that time… My temper might have been early made a thoroughly good one, by the slightest indulgence shown to my natural affections” (45).

The similarity of the anecdotes is telling, as is the final part of the passage: while Margaret had the “influences of family love,” Martineau apparently did not. One wonders if the adult Margaret’s predilection to suicide after losing Enderby bears any resemblance to the adult Martineau, dealing with the sudden insanity and death of her own love.

Miss Young, too, bears similarities to Martineau’s own personality. Hampered by disability, single, and not wealthy, Miss Young turns to teaching instead of writing, but bits of Martineau’s personality peek through. “What is it to be alone, and to be let alone, as I am?” Miss Young speculates to herself. “It is to be put into a post of observation on others: but the knowledge so gained is anything but a good if it stops at mere knowledge, — if it does not make me feel and act… Without daring to meddle, one may stand clear-sighted, ready to act” (Deerbrook 16). Such a passage could easily have been lifted from How to Observe Morals and Manners, and one could picture Harriet Martineau speaking them on her American journey.

Martineau’s experience also parallels Hester’s struggles with irrational fear, her “sick heart”: “I thought I had got over it,” she tells Hope just before the wedding (67). Yet her change is gradual, not immediate; it is finally the intrusion of poverty that begins to change her character. One wonders if this is what Martineau desired to achieve from her own poverty and trials. However, she is cut short in this achievement. Unlike Hester, she does not have her Hope: “Just when I was growing happy, surmounting my fears and doubts, and enjoying his attachment, the consequences of his long struggle and suspense overtook him. He became suddenly insane; and after months of illness of body and mind, he died” (Autobiography, 119).

Each of the characters in Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook appear to bear an idealized fragment of their author’s identity. Even their names– Hester, Maria, and Margaret– each start with and include letters in common with Harriet Martineau’s name. Margaret is what she might have been in a loving family; Hester is what she imagined herself without the death of the man she loved. Miss Young, perhaps, is closest to the actual Harriet in all but occupation; perhaps this is who she might have been if she possessed a more longsuffering peace with the world.

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