The EQ of Harriet Martineau


One of the aspects of Martineau’s writing that made me go “hmmm…” was my initial perception of major difference between the voice and content of Deerbrook, as compared with her nonfiction and journalistic writing. How to Observe Morals and Manners and Society in America demonstrate a concern with the appropriate methodology of interacting with cultures unfamiliar to our own, based on a theoretical basis of philosophy and moral awareness, recognizing, as Martineau points out in How to Observe, an individual’s inability to rightly judge and understand the “morals and manners of any hamlet” of even our own home country (8). This text emphasizes the important of distance, rationality, and charitability in our interactions with others, because, really, we are doomed to fail in our judgments, so we might as well be nice about it. Deerbrook, on the other hand, is all about the emotional involvement of two sisters within an almost incestuously close neighborhood that doesn’t seem to have a proper understanding of personal space. Rational or emotional, charitable or judgmental—the works seem at first to be directly contradictory.

Martineau’s critique of Dickens, as depicted by Crawford in “Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and the Rise of the Victorian Woman of Letters,” clarifies the perceived dichotomy somewhat, while illuminating Martineau’s position within Victorian society. Her critique of Dickens falls primarily on his role as an “unrealiable agent of public instruction,” due to what Martineau believed to be overly manipulative emotional rhetoric (478). Martineau feels that Dickens fails in his attempts to educate, supplying “half educated readers” instead with “mischief” and “sentiment” (Martineau qtd. in Crawford 456). Crawford implies, however, that it is this “brilliant emotional range” that Martineau admires in Dickens’s novels (478). This distinction suggests that while Maritneau felt journalistic and theoretical writing should be dispassionate and detatched, she considered emotion and its attendant rhetoric important in fiction.

What, then, does this observation regarding the differing roles of journalism and fiction, then, mean for the differences between How to Observe and Deerbrook, and for Martineau herself?

Beyond clearly utilizing emotion more in Deerbrook than her earlier treatise, both works ultimately argue the same fundamental point: It is impossible to wholly know another. Just as we are challenged in How to Observe regarding our true understanding of our own neighborhoods, so Deerbrook delves into the inability to even fully understand a beloved sibling. In addition to this, both provide a suggestion that we should also treat each other more charitably because of this; How to Observe emphasizes the need to judge a community based on their own terms and merits, while Deerbrook illustrates how wrong judgments have very material effects on the individuals subjected to them. The differing texts, then, are not antithetical regarding their content, and the differences of tone can be attributed to genre.

The differences, however, could also affirm Martineau’s role as a woman in the highly competitve field 19th century journalism required her to break stereotypical gendered boundaries. She has to be detatched and almost overly rational in her journalistic and theoretical prose, as many of her era would view her as having the handicap of being female and thus overly sensitive and emotional (whereas Dickens, being a man, could be as emotional as he wanted, pretty much), but also because her role as tutrix to the masses demanded an even-handed, unemotional, unbiased portrayal of the issues she presented. The Victorian press required her to “unsex” herself, in some senses. Fiction, though, provides an outlet not only culturally more acceptable for a woman and thus more free for Martineau, but also an outlet in which she can use the emotional rhetoric she challenged in Dickens’s journalism to provoke reader response.

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