History's HEROES? 1802 - 1876

Harriet Martineau

Who was she?

Things you may not know about Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau's family were of French Huguenot (Protestant) descent. More
She was born in the same house as the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. More
Harriet had a milk intolerance. More
She loved bright colours. More
Harriet was a talented musician. More
She loved arithmetic. More
She was an unhappy child, prone to worry. More
She did not feel loved as a child: she described her mother as a domestic tyrant. More
Before entering her teens, she could quote widely from Shakespeare and Milton. More
Harriet was encouraged to read and to question what she read; this, she said, gave her moral strength and great enjoyment. More
By the age of 12, her hearing had begun to fail and in adult life she had to use an ear trumpet. More
At 19, she began writing for periodicals (a bit like magazines). More
Harriet had no sense of smell. More
Her fiance went insane and died; after this she was determined to remain single. More
Harriet Martineau felt that the poverty she experienced after her father's death was one of the best things that happened to her. More
She wrote her works rapidly and never altered a word. More
She used her books to discuss many issues important to her: she was fearless in expressing her opinions. More
Harriet enjoyed using a telescope. More
One of the characters in Bleak House is probably based on her. More
She only had five hours sleep each night. More
She was popular in America until she spoke out against slavery. More
Harriet rode on a camel in Egypt. More
Harriet Martineau could write about a staggering amount of topics. More
She started her autobiography thinking that she was dying but lived another 20 years. More
She had a fear of being buried alive. More

Harriet Martineau in brief

You had better live your best and act your best and think your best today; for today is the sure preparation for tomorrow and all the other tomorrows that follow.

Harriet Martineau was a social reformer, novelist and children's author, writing over 50 books. She was an abolitionist, feminist and sociologist (before the terms had been invented). More importantly she was one of the first women journalists and had published, nearly 2,000 articles and columns for newspapers. She strove to give women a voice. For most of her life Harriet was also deaf.

She was forced to take up writing as a career in order to earn a living. However, her clear and simple style and her ability to explain complicated issues in ways which ordinary people could understand, gave her a wide readership - and made her a wealthy woman.

She developed advanced ideas for her time, championing the rights of women, arguing for less discipline and more rationality in education, arguing against religious belief and slavery. She also pioneered ways of analysing society which were taken up by modern sociologists. These involved looking at society as a whole and seeing all its aspects in relation to the big picture. Her influence in her own time was extensive, but her work has tended not to be acknowledged since.

She presented many of her ideas in the form of stories. This was very well received by the Victorians (who had no radio or TV to distract them) and this approach helped popularise her ideas. She thus helped to introduce new ways of thinking to many people, and played an important part in bringing about the modern world.


Harriet Martineau Picture Gallery


Source documents

Newspaper extract
Statue of Harriet Martineau
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