See biography by V. Wheatley (1957); study by R. K. Webb (1960).
In 1826 her father died, leaving a bare maintenance to his wife and daughters. His death had been preceded by that of his eldest son, and was shortly followed by that of a man to whom Harriet was engaged. Mrs Martineau and her daughters soon after lost all their means by the failure of the house where their money was placed. Harriet had to earn her living, and, being precluded by deafness from teaching, took up authorship in earnest. Besides reviewing for the Repository she wrote stories (afterwards collected as Traditions of Palestine), gained in one year (1830) three essay-prizes of the Unitarian Association, and eked out her income by needlework. In 1831 she was seeking a publisher for a series of tales designed as Illustrations of Political Economy. After many failures she accepted disadvantageous terms from Charles Fox, to whom she was introduced by his brother, the editor of the Repository. The sale of the first of the series was immediate and enormous, the demand increased with each new number, and from that time her literary success was secured.
Until 1834 she continued to be occupied with her political economy series and with a supplemental series of Illustrations of Taxation. Four stories supporting the Whig Poor Law reforms came out about the same time. These tales, direct, lucid, written without any appearance of effort, and yet practically effective, display the characteristics of their author's style. Tory paternalists reacted by calling her a Malthusian "who deprecates charity and provision for the poor", while Radicals were equally opposed to her. She was fêted by Whig high society. In May 1834 Charles Darwin got a letter from his sisters telling him that Martineau was "a great Lion in London" and recommending Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated in pamphlet sized parts. They added that "Erasmus knows her & is a very great admirer & every body reads her little books & if you have a dull hour you can, and then throw them overboard, that they may not take up your precious room."
In 1834, when the series was complete, Harriet Martineau paid a long visit to the United States. Here her open adhesion to the Abolitionist party, then small and very unpopular, gave great offence, which was deepened by the publication, soon after her return, of Theory and Practice of Society in America (1837) and a Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). An article in the Westminster Review, "The Martyr Age of the United States", introduced English readers to the struggles of the Abolitionists.
After the Voyage of the Beagle Charles went in October 1836 to stay with his brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin in London, and found Erasmus spending his days "driving out Miss Martineau". The Darwins shared her Unitarian background and Whig politics, but their father Robert was concerned that as a potential daughter-in-law, her politics were too extreme. He was upset by a piece he read in the Westminster Review calling for the radicals to break with the Whigs and give working men the vote "before he knew it was not hers, and wasted a good deal of indignation, and even now can hardly believe it is not hers."
Charles Darwin called on Martineau and remarked that "she was very agreeable, and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects, considering the limited time", which included the social and natural worlds she was then writing about in her book Society in America, including the "grandeur and beauty" of the "process of world making" she had seen at Niagara Falls. He added that "I was astonished to find how ugly she is" and "she is overwhelmed with her own projects, her own thoughts and abilities", though "Erasmus palliated all this, by maintaining one ought not to look at her as a woman." For her part, Martineau described Darwin as "simple, childlike, painstaking, effective". After a later meeting when he was struggling with his own writing and she was starting Deerbrook he expressed astonishment at the ease with which she wrote such fluent prose, and "never has occasion to correct a single word she writes", though she was "not a complete Amazonian, & knows the feeling of exhaustion from thinking too much."
The American books were followed by a three volume novel, Deerbrook (1839)–a story of middle class country life with a surgeon hero. To the same period belong a few little handbooks, forming parts of a Guide to Service. The veracity of her Maid of All Work led to a widespread belief, which she regarded with some complacency, that she had once been a maid of all work herself.
Harriet had expected to remain an invalid for the rest of her life and delighted in the freedom her telescope allowed. Across the Tyne was the sandy beach 'where there are frequent wrecks - too interesting to an invalid... and above the rocks, a spreading heath, where I watch troops of boys flying their kites; lovers and friends taking their breezy walks on Sundays...' She also gives a lyrical picture of Tynemouth:
When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glistening snow, while the myrtle-green sea tumbles... there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes... and at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!'
The busybody Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House is probably based on Harriet Martineau, who nevertheless retained her high regard for Charles Dickens. During her illness she for a second time declined a pension on the civil list, fearing to compromise her political independence. Her letter on the subject was published, and some of her friends raised a small annuity for her soon after.
In 1845 she published three volumes of Forest and Game Law Tales. In 1846 she made a tour with some friends in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and on her return published Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). This travelogue showed that as humanity passed through one after another of the world's historic religions, the conception of the Deity and of Divine government became at each step more and more abstract and indefinite. The ultimate goal Harriet Martineau believed to be philosophic atheism, but this belief she did not expressly declare. It described ancient tombs, "the black pall of oblivion" set against the paschal "puppet show" in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the message that Christian beliefs in reward and punishment were based on heathen superstitions. Describing an ancient Egyptian tomb, she wrote "How like ours were his life and death!.. Compare him with a retired naval officer made country gentleman in our day, and in how much less do they differ than agree!" The book's "infidel tendency" was too much for the publisher John Murray, who rejected it.
She published at about this time Household Education, expounding the theory that freedom and rationality, rather than command and obedience, are the most effectual instruments of education. Her interest in schemes of instruction led her to start a series of lectures, addressed at first to the school children of Ambleside, but afterwards extended, at their own desire, to their elders. The subjects were sanitary principles and practice, the histories of England and North America, and the scenes of her Eastern travels. At the request of Charles Knight she wrote, in 1849, The History of the Thirty Years' Peace, 1816–1846 – an excellent popular history written from the point of view of a "philosophical Radical", completed in twelve months.
She contributed regularly to the Daily News from 1852 to 1866, writing sometimes six leaders a week. Her Letters from Ireland, written during a visit to that country in the summer of 1852, appeared in that paper. She was for many years a contributor to the Westminster Review, and was one of the little band of supporters whose pecuniary assistance in 1854 prevented its extinction or forced sale.
In the early part of 1855 Harriet Martineau found herself suffering from heart disease. She now began to write her autobiography, but her life, which she supposed to be so near its close, was prolonged for twenty years. Her two-volume autobiography was published posthumously in 1877.
She cultivated a tiny farm at Ambleside with success, and her poorer neighbours owed much to her. Her busy life bore the consistent impress of two leading characteristics – industry and sincerity.
When Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species was published in 1859, Erasmus Alvey Darwin sent a copy to his old flame Harriet Martineau, who at 58 was still reviewing from her home in the Lake District. From her "snow landscape" Martineau sent her thanks, adding that she had previously praised "the quality & conduct of your brother's mind, but it is an unspeakable satisfaction to see here the full manifestation of its earnestness & simplicity, its sagacity, its industry, & the patient power by which it has collected such a mass of facts, to transmute them by such sagacious treatment into such portentous knowledge. I should much like to know how large a proportion of our scientific men believe he has found a sound road." She wrote to her fellow Malthusian (and atheist) George Holyoake enthusing "What a book it is! – overthrowing (if true) revealed Religion on the one hand, & Natural (as far as Final Causes & Design are concerned) on the other. The range & mass of knowledge take away one's breath." To Fanny Wedgwood she wrote "I rather regret that C.D. went out of his way two or three times to speak of "The Creator" in the popular sense of the First Cause.... His subject is the "Origin of Species" & not the origin of Organisation; & it seems a needless mischief to have opened the latter speculation at all – There now! I have delivered my mind."
Martineau's reflections on Society in America published in 1837 are prime examples of her approach to the area later known as sociological methods. Her ideas in this field were set out in her 1838 book How to Observe Morals and Manners. Her belief was that the life of any society is influenced by some very general social laws, including the principle of progress, the emergence of science as the most advanced product of human intellectual endeavor, and the significance of population dynamics and the natural physical environment.
Auguste Comte coined the name sociology and published a rambling exposition under the title of 'Cours de Philosophie Positive' in 1839. Martineau undertook a translation that was published in two volumes in 1853 as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau). It was a remarkable and difficult achievement, but a successful one. Comte himself recommended these volumes to his students instead of his own. Some writers regard Martineau herself as "the first woman sociologist". Her introduction of Comte to the English-speaking world and the elements of sociological perspective that may be found in her original writings argue for her recognition as a kindred spirit, if not a significant contributor.
Harriet Martineau died at "The Knoll" on 27 June 1876. The verdict which she recorded on herself in the autobiographical sketch left to be published by the Daily News has been endorsed by posterity. She wrote "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 dear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent."