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On June 12th 1802, Harriet was born to Elizabeth Rankin and Thomas Martineau in Norwich, England. Her mother was a believer in gender roles so she did not deem it fit for Harriet to be going to school and instead her education came from the avid reading that she did while helping with the household.
This life experience proved to be seminal as she would later go on to become a staunch critic of the contemporary socio-political scenery and the political economics of the era. She anonymously authored her first written work On Female Education in 1821.
Harriet on society
Taking up writing after her father’s failed business, she championed feminism and the feminist theory alike. While working for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian publication, Harriet went beyond the horizons of the contemporary sociological perspective to elucidate on theories like the gender conflict theory, morals and manners theory, race conflict theory, and the social conflict theory.
She also critiqued on female education and slavery. Her theories and ideas were ones that not only questioned the roots of the society but compelled them to bring in amendments.
The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte
Comte might not have gained as much reverence as he has now had it not been for Harriet’s translation of his 1839 manuscript, Cours de Philosophie Positive, from French to English, that introduced him to the English-speaking crowd.
Available in two volumes as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte in 1853, the text was the first English translation of the Bible of sociology. It was highly appreciated for its simplistic approach so much so that Comte asked his students to follow Harriet’s version rather than his own.
Forced to take up writing as a career it did not take her long to reach the helm. Praised for her nimble and comprehensive writings on complicated issues, she was a champion for the women of the era.
Often incorporating real-world issues into stories, Harriet was well praised for these literary innuendos by the Victorians. Much before Marx and Engels, it was Harriet who raised her voice against the prevalent social issues with her articles. She pioneered the “back to the land” form of journalism with her writings about her garden in England’s Lake District.
A stout social reformer, it was through her journalism and the literary acumen that she held up issues for discussion. In her expansive career, Harriet wrote over 50 books and 2000 newspaper articles and columns.
She published her first commissioned volume Illustrations of Political Economy in 1832 while working for the Monthly Repository. These were a series of stories that chronicled the day to day political practices and proved to be her breakthrough work.
Her other writings include Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated, Illustrations of Taxation, Society in America, and Retrospect of Western Travel.
Visit in the US
Overwhelmed with the curiosity to know, Harriet travelled to the U.S. to learn about the political and economic structure of the developing nation. While getting acquainted with the abolitionists, she showed her support for the eradication of slavery and the empowering of women through freedom and education.
She wrote and published three books, about her learnings during her 2 years’ stay, namely Society in America (1837), Retrospect of Western Travel (1838), and How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), considered to be her first publication based on sociological research.
Visit North Africa and the Middle East
After being housebound between 1839 and 1845 due to a uterine tumor, in 1846, Harriet journeyed through Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in search of religious evolution.
It was during this time that she abandoned her personal belief in Unitarianism and declared her devotion to atheism. She documented her study in her book Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development, published in collaboration with Henry George Atkinson in 1851.
Her later works that advocated the likes of mesmerism, spiritualism, and atheism, caused a major rift in her relationship with her followers and friends.
Harriet, in her lifelong career as an author published over 50 books covering a wide range of subjects like sociology, education, classic economics, politics, women empowerment, feminism, slavery, religion, spiritualism, atheism, and many more.
Some of her published books include Society in America (1837), How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), Deerbrook (1839), The Hour and the Man (1841), Life in the Sickroom (1844), The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1853) and Household Education (1848). Harriet also popularised the schoolboy fiction with the Crofton Boys, published in 1841.
She also wrote an Autobiography which was published posthumously in 1877.
Interesting facts about Harriet Martineau
Harriet was pivotal to the early growth of sociology. She was the first to translate Auguste Comte’s works in 1852. She was lactose intolerant. Apart from her usual ambit of literature, Harriet was a very talented musician, loved arithmetic and bright colours too.
Harriet suffered from deafness most of her life due to which she often suffered from low morale. Happiness was something that was very alien to her since childhood. She had a fear of being buried alive.
After her fiancé went insane and died, Harriet decided to never marry and stayed single for the rest of her life.
Contribution to Sociology
According to Harriet, any society works on the foundations of its social laws. Her teachings included progressive principles, science as the harbinger of human intellectual advancement, and the importance of the natural environment and the dynamics of the general populace.
Her major influence on modern sociology was that she encapsulated the major points of focus under her writings – religious, social, and political.
Harriet Martineau died on June 27, 1876, near Ambleside, Westmorland, in England after suffering from prolonged illnesses and heart diseases. Thought she would die early, Harriet had already written her obituary 20 years earlier.