Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Reginald Brimley Johnson
Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)
 
[Harriet Martineau was born at Norwich, 12th June 1802. Her family were Unitarians, and belonged to the literary coterie of William Taylor. Delicate and nervous as a child, she was left, by her father’s death in 1826, to a severe struggle for maintenance, and first attained a literary success in a series of stories illustrating the principles of political economy in 1832.  1
  She visited America (1834–1836), and on her return published Society in America (1837), Retrospect of Western Travel (1838), and Deerbrook, A Novel (1839). She also did some work for Charles Knight, but she broke down in 1841, and led the life of a confirmed invalid at Tynemouth for about two years, until cured by mesmerism.  2
  A journey through Egypt and Palestine, described in Eastern Life, Past and Present (1848), occupied the years 1846 and 1847, and on her return she completed a History of the Peace (1849), translated and condensed Comte’s Philosophie Positive (1853), and became an active contributor to the daily press. She died on 27th June 1876.]  3
 
TO many readers Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography is probably the most attractive of her numerous productions, and, in a sense, almost everything she wrote was intensely autobiographical. The charming Life in a Sick Room, despised as crude and morbid by its author in later life, Society in America, Retrospect of Western Travel, and Eastern Life, are practically journals, but even in works of fiction and history she reveals the stern common sense and the desire to be always reasonable, which in her were so strangely mingled with a tenderness for simple sentiment, and a feminine susceptibility to pose. Such was the effect upon a mind naturally fearless and independent of sudden popularity following a childhood of suppression. With generous and self-sacrificing instincts she believed herself to be the servant of humanity, and, in accordance with the tendencies of her age, endeavoured to save souls by the diffusion of a little knowledge.  4
  “After long and mature consideration,” she wrote, at the age of twenty-seven, “I have determined that my chief subordinate object in life shall be the cultivation of my intellectual powers, with a view to the instruction of others by my writings,” and the object assumed still higher importance when, from the teachings of Mr. Atkinson, she came to believe that “all moral evil, and much, and possibly all, physical evil arises from intellectual imperfection,—from ignorance and consequent error.”  5
  Her writings were naturally coloured by her varying religious opinions, which were most personal when she fancied them most philosophic, and never materially modified a strongly devotional nature for whom faith, either in God or man, was a necessity. She was brought up as a strict Unitarian, and in her school-days came under the influence of Lant Carpenter, and through him of Hartley and Priestley; but the great talks with her brother Dr. James Martineau on things spiritual, supplemented by travel and diligent study of the theologies, led her gradually, through necessarianism and a denial of revelation, to become a disciple of positive philosophy,—that is, of Mr. Henry G. Atkinson, “the only person of the multitude she had known who clearly apprehended the central truth, the grand conception, the inestimable recognition, that science (or the knowledge of fact, inducing the discovery of laws) is the sole and the eternal basis of wisdom,—and therefore of human morality and peace.” Under this influence she maintained that “the form of the constitution of the human mind requires the supposition of a First Cause,” and that it cannot “signify whether the one human faculty of consciousness of identity be preserved and carried forward” after death, “when all the rest of the organisation is gone to dust, or so changed as to be in no respect properly the same.” Mr. Atkinson, doubtless, was a clear-headed and thoroughly sincere thinker; but his philosophy, much influenced by that of Comte, was not particularly original or profound. His pupil was more sensitive to the magnetism of a strong and upright personality than to vigour of intellect, however remarkable.  6
  Miss Martineau was herself, indeed, in no sense of the word a scholar. In the strangely frank biography of herself, which she prepared for the Daily News, she confessed that “her original power was nothing more than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range. With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore nothing approaching to genius, she could see clearly what she did see, and give a clear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularise, while she could neither discover nor invent. She could sympathise with other people’s views, and was too facile in doing so; and she could obtain and keep a firm grasp of her own, and, moreover, she could make them understood.” Her talents were those of a first-class journalist and, without obtaining a thorough grasp or profound knowledge of any subject, she completely satisfied the demand for information at any price just then so prevalent.  7
  She could tell her readers what they ought to think and know without troubling them to go through any process of reasoning for themselves, and thus it was that philosophers welcomed her abstracts or illustrative tales, that politicians requested her to write up their projected measures, that newspaper editors continually “asked for more,” and that nations entreated her to justify them in the eyes of the English people. She had a phenomenal capacity for hard work, and a marvellous power of rapidly assimilating impressions; so that her most hasty digests have an air of lucidity and completeness. Her style is admirable of its kind, clear, rapid, and concise; the phrases pithy and suggestive, the sentences well modulated, the thoughts definite and sincere. Her facility increased with practice, and the Biographical Sketches have been justly called “masterpieces in the style of the vignette.” They are, indeed, telling portraits of character, but it must be admitted that, in manner at least, Miss Martineau’s judgments are sometimes over-confident and pugnacious, partly perhaps because she knew herself to be, as a woman, in advance of her contemporaries, and had suffered from the fact.  8
  The Hour and the Man is a clever historical romance, some of the characters in Deerbrook are well drawn, and all right-minded children must love the Playfellow scries, but, as she herself admits, “the artistic aim and qualifications were absent; she had no power of dramatic construction; nor the poetic inspiration on the one hand, nor critical calculation on the other, without which no work of the imagination can live … none of her novels or tales have, or ever had, in the eyes of good judges or in her own, any character of permanence.” Her gift to literature was for her own generation. She is the exponent of the infant century in many branches of thought:—its eager and sanguine philanthropy, its awakening interest in history and science, its rigid and prosaic philosophy.  9
  But her genuine humanity and real moral earnestness give a value to her more personal utterances, which do not lose their charm with the lapse of time. After stating that we have no right to crave for personal immortality, she adds:—“The real and justifiable and honourable subject of interest to human beings, living or dying, is the welfare of their fellows, surrounding them or surviving them. About this I do care and supremely.” Her care for men included a care for “faith, the noblest of human faculties.” However persistently she might run counter to the orthodoxies of her day, the most striking characteristic of that admirable book of travel, Eastern Life: Past and Present, for instance, is its reverence—its reverence for what has made men noble in the past, and is therefore, to her mind, permanently worthy of honour. Her hatred of slavery and of other social evils nearer home enabled her to join hands with some whom the world called fanatics, while her “own idea of an innocent and happy life was a home of her own among poor improvable neighbours, with young servants whom she might train and attach to herself.” The postman who scribbled “try Miss Martineau” on an envelope addressed to “The Queen of modern Philanthropists” was not deceived in his estimate.  10
  Her nature was, in fact, essentially affectionate, and the busy woman, whose independence of thought and action made her the victim alternately of pity and of abuse, enjoyed many pleasant memories of life-long friendships as she paced her favourite terrace in front of “The Knoll,” dreaming of “the magnificent coast of Massachusetts in autumn, the blue Nile, the brown Sinai, or the gorgeous Petra, the grand canal under a Venetian sunset, or Malta in the glow of noon,” and gazing in imagination upon “the imagery of the glorious hierarchy of the sciences.”  11
 
 
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