Nineteenth-Century Prose

Home » Vol 47.2 (Fall 2020)

Vol 47.2 (Fall 2020)

Special Issue on Harriet Martineau, edited by Deborah A. Logan


Deborah A. Logan, “Harriet Martineau: Introduction” (1-10)

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) enjoyed enormous popularity during her life. Over a half-century career, hers was an authoritative voice in the literary world. Although by the mid-1840s she had exchanged London’s intellectual center for the bucolic peace of the Lake District, Martineau’s influence continued through the 1870s, with renewed interest generated by the posthumous publication of her Autobiography (1877). Subsequently, Martineau all but disappeared from literary history, until a compelling revival of interest—stimulated by second-wave-feminist criticism—illustrated once again that this writer, far from anachronistic, was not only ahead of her time but, in some respects, ours as well. This collection presents new scholarship on various aspects of Martineau’s work, ranging from comparative theology to her sociology of charity; from the political economy of environmentalism and financial speculation to private and public health; and from Irish critics’ lively reception history to her portrayal of white women in the Antebellum South.

Lesa Scholl, “Exploring the Holy Land: Harriet Martineau’s Comparative Theology” (11-38)

Scholarship on Harriet Martineau’s prolific career as a public intellectual, journalist, and economist often overlooks her engagement with comparative theology. This neglect is due to the narrow scope of theological studies in the nineteenth century that excludes women from public engagement on the topic, rather than recognizing the ways in which they contributed to understanding across a range of religions and denominations. Martineau’s interdisciplinary work meant that she was unusually well-placed to promote comparative theology. This essay examines Martineau’s approach to comparative theology from her earliest prize-winning essays written to promote Unitarianism to those of the Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic faiths, through to her more complex engagement with the history of theological development in Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848).

Kristen Pond, “Harriet Martineau’s Sociology of Charity” (39-60)

This paper explores Harriet Martineau’s perspectives on charity as seen in Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated, a series written for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and aimed at educating the public about the New Poor Laws. These perspectives reveal compelling analogies with one of the era’s most common charitable activities: the home visit. The sociological methods Martineau develops in her writing share with home visiting guides the recognition that effective observation leads to greater knowledge, and that the basis for effective observation is a balance between distance and sympathy. Analyzing the narrative form of Martineau’s stories in the context of home visits highlights her narrative realism, here rooted not in romance or gothicism, but in public debate. Martineau’s fiction shows that to reform the current charity system would require both sympathetic and impartial action.

Rebecca Richardson, “Environmental and Economic Systems in

Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy” (61-88)

Although Harriet Martineau aimed to “illustrate” applied political economy in the Illustrations of Political Economy, she alsocontributed her own theories. This essay argues that Martineau contributed to economic thinking by imagining how economies depend on the environment. While classical political economy was not always attentive to links with the natural world, Martineau emphasizes how economic activity engages with both local and global ecosystems. Across the tales, she suggests how these ecosystems undergird economic activity while also acting in ways that supersede human control, seen in her characters’ struggles with such natural disasters as famines, floods, and hurricanes.

Iain Crawford, “Harriet Martineau, White Women, and Slavery in the Antebellum South” (89-116)

This essay brings together two threads in the critical discussion of Harriet Martineau to examine a previously unrecognized element of her representation of slavery. A striking anomaly, given the context of her dedication to the abolitionist cause, is her erasure of the normative role of white women in the South’s slave-based economy. While her American books embody her profound commitment to abolitionism, her concomitant advocacy for the freedom of the press, and her lifelong dedication to women’s agency, they also reveal a largely invisible tension between her wide ranging accounts of a slave-based economy and her almost complete erasure of white women’s engagement in actively managing both it and the cultural episteme it created. Exploring her representation or the lack illuminates not only Martineau’s own complexities but also those of the wider culture in which she lived and worked.

Julie Donovan, “Defending Ireland or Attacking Woman? The Irish Riposte to Harriet Martineau” (117-142)

This essay examines challenges by three nineteenth-century Irish writers—Thomas Moore, William Maginn, and John Wilson Croker—to Harriet Martineau’s prescriptions for their country. While these critics expressed legitimate concerns about Martineau’s support for Malthusian ideas and her criticism of the Poor Laws, their concerns were overshadowed by male indignation at an alarmingly successful and transgressive woman writer. The Irish riposte against Martineau demonstrated not only the multifaceted nature of Irish writing in the nineteenth century, but also the misogyny attached to its eloquence and wit. Ultimately, Martineau bore the brunt of a cynical treatment that ridiculed her sex as a means to air Irish grievances.

Shu-Fang Lai, “‘A Family History’: Harriet Martineau’s Victorian Fantasy of the South Sea Bubble” (143-164)

This article explores Harriet Martineau’s historiette, “A Family History,” published serially in Once a Week and dramatizing the 1720 South Sea Bubble. Politician James Craggs and his family fall victim to the South Sea Bubble scheme and to a subsequent epidemic. These events reflect the speculation mania and economic bubbles of Martineau’s time, creating financial turbulence she personally experienced. The story addresses economic issues such as speculation and global investment; it reveals her moral concerns about the desire for fame and wealth; and it illustrates her feminist viewpoints about woman’s intrinsic nature and autonomy. The work, rich in historical and cultural contexts, demonstrates Martineau’s mature writing skills during the last period of her life.

Deborah A. Logan, “‘The honor of being your nurse, though I am myself laid low’: Harriet Martineau and Health” (165-192)

One of Harriet Martineau’s most enduring interests is health—personal and communal, national and global. This discussion considers the theme of health from three perspectives: personal—Martineau’s self-writing about health and illness in her memoir, Life in the Sickroom; sociocultural—her periodicals writing addressing communal and national health; and global—her promotion of military sanitary reforms as a matter of imperial consequence to both colonized and colonizers. Collectively, this writing exhibits how thoroughly health matters permeated Martineau’s worldview.

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