Harriet Martineau

Ella Dzelzainis

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online March 2011 | | DOI:
Harriet Martineau

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In a career spanning over half a century, Harriet Martineau (b. 1802–d. 1876), the eminent woman of letters, assumed an astonishing number of literary guises. Writing in a breathtaking range of genres, she became a novelist, translator, reviewer, journalist, children’s author, personal correspondent, political campaigner, travel writer, pamphleteer, memoirist, and historian. The serial work that catapulted her into celebrity, Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834), is estimated to have sold ten thousand copies a month at its height—far outstripping the sales of such literary giants as Charles Dickens. But the innovative combination of literature and economics that made these tales so successful also offers the clue to her fall into relative obscurity until the recent upsurge in interest in her life and work. The rigid divisions within the modern academy have led to difficulty in classifying and evaluating her contribution to 19th-century letters and thought. Seeking a role as national instructor and keen to disseminate her radical-liberal and progressive ideas to as wide an audience as possible, she has been all too easily dismissed for being a popularizer rather than a specialist. However, events such as the turn to interdisciplinary work, her recognition as a foundational figure in sociology, the renewed interest in 19th-century liberal economics and politics, feminism, and discussions of race and empire have conspired to put her increasingly at center stage as a key Victorian thinker. Moreover, she wrote one of the most significant autobiographies of the 19th century, and her representation of her life as a progress from the “metaphysics” of Unitarianism to the serene heights of Comtean positivism and from childhood misery toward life as a fulfilled spinster—despite being deaf from the age of twelve and suffering for years from an ovarian tumor—confirms her as a rich subject for scholars across subjects and disciplines in the 21st century.

Article.  15053 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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