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Harriet Martineau (1802–1876), from Unitarianism to Agnosticism

Odile Boucher-Rivalain
p. 27-43


Harriet Martineau is best known for her journalistic contributions on a vast number of controversial issues that agitated the early and mid-Victorian period. Her many radical stances on such issues as education, women’s rights or the abolition of slavery, reflect the evolution of her ideas, from her early career as a contributor to the Unitarian magazine The Monthly Repository to her later philosophical enquiry into the progress of the world and man’s individual and social responsibilities. Far from denying that the universe was ruled by a First Cause, she moved away from her Christian faith to the belief of the universe being ruled by the universal laws of nature which only science could attain. This philosophical position was highlighted by her joint publication with Henry Atkinson of Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development in 1851, as well as her translation and condensation of Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy in 1853. Her belief in the world being the result of evolution and not of divine creation was the source of her lifelong intellectual commitment. This article examines Harriet Martineau’s evolution from the Unitarian heritage of her family’s education to the free thinking of her mature age, religious doubt having been a source, not of anxiety, but of a keenly desired independence and liberty of action.

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1As Harriet Martineau was convinced that her death could well be imminent after years of illness, she wrote her autobiography in 1855 and entrusted its posthumous publication to her friend Maria Weston Chapman, stating her full confidence in the march of progress that governed the world to which her own work had contributed:

  • 1 Harriet Martineau, Autobiography with Memorials by Maria Weston Chapman, London, Smith, Elder & Co, (...)

My life has been a full and vivid one—so that I consider myself a very old woman indeed, and am abundantly satisfied with my share in the universe (even if that were of any real consequence). I have not the slightest anxiety about dying,—the slightest reluctance to it. I enjoy looking on, and seeing our world under the operation of a law of progress.1

  • 2 “Letter to Charlotte Brontë”, Autobiography, III, 291.

2On what grounds could she optimistically maintain that the world was under such a rule, a view that she had progressively come to embrace after rejecting the Christian faith that her Unitarian family had transmitted to her? Her breach from the religious beliefs that had nourished her mind during childhood and youth had been widely commented on and severely condemned by relatives and friends, as well as many public figures of the 1850’s as testifies the famous sarcastic remark by Douglas Jerrold “There is no God and Harriet Martineau is his prophet.” She defended herself forcefully against being categorized as an atheist, repeatedly stating her views: “I am not an atheist according to the settled meaning of the term. I cannot conceive the absence of a First Cause.”2 Thus, Harriet Martineau’s evolution in her thinking during the first half of the nineteenth century provides one interesting case among other illustrious manifestations of the changing beliefs of the Victorians in an age of advancing scientific progress.

Harriet Martineau and her Unitarian Background

  • 3 See John Ruskin, Praeterita (1889; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1978) 17.

3Born in 1802 in Norwich, the sixth child to parents who were descendants to Huguenot émigrés, she was brought up on strict educational principles, entrusted to a nurse as was fitting for a middle-class child, described in Martineau’s Autobiography as “a Methodist or Calvinist of some sort” (I,12). The young Harriet found refuge in her readings of the Bible to compensate for the absence of family affection: this early immersion in Biblical readings is very reminiscent of young John Ruskin’s religious education under the control of a strict Calvinist mother,3 both children becoming precocious preachers readily exhorting their entourage to “be good” or to place “dooty fust, and pleasure afterwards” (I, 12). For Harriet, a loving God was a substitute to overpowering parents and elder brothers and yet, her yearning for love and justice was left unsatisfied by the sermons she heard at the Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Norwich, which nourished a sense of frustration leading her to question the Unitarian message:

My passion for justice was baulked there, as much as anywhere. The duties preached were those of inferiors to superiors, while the per contra was not insisted on with any equality of treatment at all. Parents were to bring up their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and to pay servants due wages; but not a word was ever preached about the justice from the stronger to the weaker. (I, 21)

  • 4 Robert Kiefer Webb, Harriet Martineau: a Radical Victorian (London, Heineman, 1960) 65.
  • 5 See R. K. Webb, “The Unitarian background” in Barbara Smith (ed.), Truth, Liberty, Religion. Essays (...)

4In his remarkable biographical account of Harriet Martineau’s life and career, Webb strongly insists on the way Martineau’s mind and career were shaped by her Unitarian education: “She had a tough mind, too tough eventually for her religion, yet fundamentally formed and toughened by it.”4 To Webb’s undeniable argument that without her Unitarian background, Martineau would not have become the writer that she turned out to be, I would add that the Unitarian religion had a complex effect on her, based on the attraction/repulsion principle: she was under the attraction of the values of liberty and truth5 praised by Unitarianism while she deplored the lax intellectual attitude she met with among Unitarian theologians and intellectuals, far from her own intellectual self-discipline: “ . . . the shallow scholarship of the Unitarians made its own choice what to receive and what to reject, without perceiving that such a process was incompatible with the conception of the Scriptures being the record of a divine revelation at all” (I, 38).

5The attraction/repulsion force at work in Martineau’s mind was commented on by Maria Weston Chapman in her memorial account of her life-long friend: as a Unitarian herself she could understand what had been the complexity of such a response and the positive outcome of childhood uncertainties:

The circumscriptions of the English Unitarianism of that period were thus met by so strong a counter-acting force as to make them an unmingled benefit. She was not, indeed, one that could be imprisoned in the ordinary Sunday-school routine of its Scripture commentaries, Gospel harmonies, sacred geographies, or Biblical lessons; but all these were fused by her active mind to a sort of basis on which her devotional feelings and her poetical conceptions, alternately wrought; and where by means of scientific investigation and philosophical study she was continually adding, rejecting, and rectifying as years went on. (III, 18)

  • 6 R. K. Webb, “Harriet Martineau”, Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, v (...)

6Martineau’s intellectually active mind was particularly appreciative of Unitarianism’s refusal of Christian dogmas inherited from the earliest days of the Church and of the Unitarians’ faith which allowed continuous reflection and questioning with the stimulating prospect of answers to come. Her elder brother James, who would become the eminent Unitarian minister and professor of theology at Manchester College, York, perfected her religious education, convincing her that the answer to her many questions lay in the doctrine of necessarianism, the universe being ruled not by God’s intervention but by universal laws. (I, 111) Necessarianism denied free will, “arguing that every seemingly voluntary act was inexorably determined by prior motives formed by association from external impressions.”6 The denial of divine intervention in human affairs at the core of necessarianism laid the responsibility of human actions on each individual whose external impressions could be controlled and motives changed. Even though free will was denied in the necessarian doctrine, it admitted that each individual was fully responsible for his decisions. This doctrine allowed Martineau to combine her Unitarian faith with a rational foundation from which to judge human acts. Thus her brother’s clearing her mind from a difficulty on which she had meditated since childhood certainly encouraged her in the following years (1819–1822) to read Hartley, namely his Observations on Man (1749), abridged by Joseph Priestley under the title of Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind on the Principle of Association of Ideas (1775). Both Hartley and Priestley had forged the discipline of Mental Philosophy based on the premise that body and mind were interrelated, external impressions determining motives through associations. Caroline Roberts rightly points out the connexion between Priestley’s philosophy and the Unitarian doctrine:

  • 7 C. Roberts, The Woman and the Hour. Harriet Martineau and Victorian Ideologies (Toronto & London: T (...)

Priestley’s materialism logically entailed a necessarian doctrine. . . . For Priestley, whose scientific achievements bolstered his role as a leader of Unitarianism, physiological psychology and the Scriptures were mutually enlightening, and he advised that the two be studied concurrently by rational Christians.7

7With her mind at rest on this fundamental metaphysical question, she moved from the Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Bristol, whose Sunday services the Martineau family attended, to a Unitarian chapel in Bristol when, in 1818, at the age of 16, she was sent to stay for several months at her uncle and aunt’s home for health reasons, with the hope that a change of air would do her good. There she fell under the influence of the sermons preached by the Reverend Lant Carpenter whom she then regarded with passionate devotion. This admiration she was later to deny when, in 1854–55, she was writing her Autobiography, looking back on the years she had lived with her Unitarian faith to guide her. She had by then renounced her faith, which makes it difficult to consider her reminiscences of her religious mentor as being objective. The frustration she was under for having adhered to a faith whose doctrine she renounced as untenable certainly explains the highly critical terms with which she describes Carpenter:

There was a great furor among the Bristol Unitarians at that time about Dr Carpenter who had recently become their pastor. He was a very devoted Minister and a very earnest pietist: superficial in his knowledge, scanty in ability, narrow in his conceptions, and thoroughly priestly in his temper. He was exactly the dissenter minister to be worshipped by his people, (and especially by the young) and to be spoiled by that worship. He was worshipped by the young, and by none more than by me; and his power was unbounded while his pupils continued young: but, as his instructions and his scholars were not bound together by any bond of essential Christian doctrine, every thing fell to pieces as soon as the merely personal influence was withdrawn. . . . As for me, his devout and devoted Catechumen, he made me desperately superstitious,—living wholly in and for religion and fiercely fanatical about it. (I, 95)

8According to Mitzi Meyers’ evocation of Unitarianism at that period, Martineau’s severe judgment on Lant Carpenter is undeniably one strongly marked by her renunciation to her former faith, failing in objectivity as to the merits of those who ministered to the spiritual needs of their communities:

  • 8 Mitzi Meyers, “Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography: The Making of a Female Philosopher”, in Women’s A (...)

Lax on doctrine and heavy on social activism, Unitarianism was less a set of tenets than a model for the virtuous self’s interaction with the world. A denomination of practical philosophers at once idealistic and scientific in the gradual perfectibility of man through rational reform with a rigorously intellectual approach to the examination of factual evidence. They were given to investigation of everything, from biblical miracles to the inequities in contemporary society. Dedicated to freedom, intellectual and political, they were vigorously individualistic, yet forever concerned with the good of the whole. They were temperamentally radical and devoted to education as the vehicle of social change.8

9What is certain is that from Martineau’s adherence to necessarianism at the age of twenty sprang her lifelong motivation for intellectual commitment, as she herself acknowledges in her Autobiography:

My life has been (whatever else) a very busy one; and this conviction, of the invariable action of fixed laws, has certainly been the main spring of my activity. When it is considered that, according the Necessarian doctrine, no action fails to produce effects, and no effort can be lost, there seems every reason for the conclusion which I have no doubt is the fact, that true Necessarians must be the most diligent and confident of all workers. (I, 111–112)

  • 9 See Francis E. Mineka, The Dissidence of Dissent: The Monthly Repository, 1806–1839 (Chapel Hill, U (...)

10Her career in writing seems then to have begun under fair auspices: a clear mind, a vast range of readings and cultural references ready for use, a fierce attachment to independence and an acute sense of the mission she was called for: enlightening the minds of her fellow men and women. Embracing writing as a career was a bold step for any woman in those days but she was sustained by a firm belief in her “duty,” a recurring word in Martineau’s discourse. The period of her early womanhood, from 1822 to 1831, was devoted to the writing of essays, book reviews, tales, and poetry occasionally, all published in the Unitarian periodical The Monthly Repository and later published in Boston for her American readers under the title of Miscellanies (1836). She had by that time become internationally known as the author of Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834). It was her brother James who encouraged her to submit her first text to the Unitarian magazine. The then director of the Repository, Robert Aspland accepted what became her first contribution and encouraged her to produce more texts. The following contributions to the magazine were favoured by the next editor William Johnson Fox,9 who published a private letter sent by Martineau in 1833 to a M. B. Maurice, the French translator of some of her tales, giving some particulars of her early career:

  • 10 See Monthly Repository, August 1833, 613–614, with a list of her contributions.

The first work that I published was a little volume entitled “Devotional Exercises”, for the use of young persons. It appeared in 1822, and its success encouraged me to let it be followed soon by another of the same description, entitled “Addresses, with Prayers and Hymns”, for the use of families and schools. . . . I was constantly writing on different subjects; I was besides employed in reviewing works on metaphysics and theology in the Monthly Repository, a periodical, the editor of which, the Rev. W. J. Fox, is, after my brother James, the steadiest friend and the best guide that I have ever had in literature and philosophy.10

11The Preface to the American edition of Miscellanies published in Boston in 1836 contains in essence a number of points she was to develop in her Autobiography, insisting on the evolution of her thinking. She suggests that a more meaningful title than Miscellanies could have been Liese: or The Progress of Worship. Indeed, her view is that the religious feelings of a person develop in successive stages, hence the notion of “progress”. In childhood, Martineau explains, religious feeling can be experienced as a burden as it does not rest on any certainty that the mind is capable of attaining:

The religious sentiment, in its early periods, maybe weak or strong, steady or wavering; but its operation is, in each case, imperfect. Not having gone through the process of tribulation, experience and hope, it cannot have so much love in it as to make it what it may afterwards become, the perpetual feast of the spirit. It has so much fear as to induce it to bind itself strictly to forms; and it alternates with other sentiments, instead of intermingling with them all. God is then the object of intermitting regards. Religion is then a yoke. (Preface, iv)

Then comes the time of experience and certainty when trust in God’s Providence replaces doubt:

The worshipper next proceeds to a higher labour. . . . he arrives at the conviction that there is nothing immutable but God. . . . In order to discover, by a study of Providence, the principles which constitute the language by which God speaks to man. . . . Providence being benignant, the love of the worshipper kindles as often as the light of God’s countenance reaches him from behind some dark cloud of circumstance. His burden of consciousness is loosened. The voice of conscience becomes more clear and sweet as the din of selfish fears and questioning subsides. The religious sentiment is now exalted almost into a condition of repose. (vi–vii)

The final stage is when trusts reposes in God and no longer in the self: the other is then perceived as God’s messenger, hence a sense of fellowship with the human community entailing, for the philosopher or the philanthropist, a sense of duty in the form of intellectual or social commitment:

In this consciousness,—no longer of the self,—but of God, it is, that philosophers and philanthropists go forth through Nature and Society, to sound the processes of one, and to test the institutions of the other. (vii)

  • 11 See W. J. Mander & A. Sell, (ed.), Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Philosophers (Bristol, Thoemmes (...)
  • 12 Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Philosophers, 752.

12Such was Martineau’s position on how religious faith leads the enlightened mind to some form of action, intellectual action mostly among the Unitarians.11 Hence, Martineau’s career, based on the conviction of a mission to be carried out, is intimately bound to the Unitarian tradition of liberal thinking and intellectual commitment. She strongly believed in “the interrelation of moral and intellectual purpose, in the responsible and independent individual, in fidelity to principle and duty as reflected in her essays in The Monthly Repository”.12 Her successful series of didactic tales, Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834) was her response to the call for public commitment resulting from her attachment to the Unitarian heritage. She struggled to have her message diffused as broadly as possible and agreed to receive only a minimum of income from the sale of the series from her publisher Charles Fox for the sake of a low-price diffusion of her tales to a wide range of readers, working-class readers in particular.

  • 13 Gillian Thomas, Harriet Martineau (Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1985) 55.

13Meanwhile, she kept reflecting on quite a different set of questions, namely the reliability of the Scriptures as a religious text, a question she had begun to tackle in her Traditions of Palestine (1830) exploring the historical context of the Bible, showing how, through successive stages in history, the Christian faith had adapted itself and integrated specific cultural phenomena, concluding on the limited reliability of the Scriptures, moulded by the cultural context. From 1830 onwards, she consequently opened her mind to a very liberal approach to religious belief but held on to her Unitarian faith. In 1846 she had another opportunity to put the Biblical texts in their geographical context when she went on a journey to the East as the guest of Mr and Mrs Richard Yates, members of a Liverpool Unitarian Chapel. On her return from a twelve months’ trip through Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, she wrote Eastern Life, Past and Present, published in 1848, whose title suggests the historical and sociological nature of a travel book. The travelling conditions, riding thorough the Sinaï desert on camel-back were particularly conducive to meditation, “I had never before had better opportunity for quiet meditation,” she wrote (II, 277), so that her account goes well beyond the typical narrative of a travelogue to encompass key questions on religious faith and Christianity. Her broad-minded appreciation of foreign cultures and non-Christian religions made her conclude that “human history as a whole, rather than scriptural text, is truly the Word of God.”13 This experience confirmed her definitive renunciation to Christianity. She was soon ready to place her new faith in positive philosophy having access to truth based on scientific observations and the application of immutable laws. She had assumed her position she had gradually come to with both fortitude and a sense of newly-found freedom. From the time she saw herself in 1821 as “a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe” (I, 116), after renouncing her belief in divine revelation, until her official severance in 1831 from the Unitarians, acknowledging that “[she] had already ceased to be a Unitarian in the technical sense” as there was “nothing in common between their theology and [her] philosophy,” (I, 158), she had rejected what her mind could not accept, the Christian “myths” that only feeble minds could trust as a source of mental comfort.

Harriet Martineau’s Agnosticism

  • 14 See Rosemary Ashton, 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London (London, Jonathan Cape, 2007 (...)
  • 15 See Gillian Thomas, 21–24.
  • 16 Robert K. Webb, Harriet Martineau. A Radical Victorian, 226–253.

14Martineau’s acceptance of mesmeric treatment urged upon her by various friends, after years of inefficacious medical treatment, was another decision which shed further light on the irreconcilable character of tradition with scientific progress. Martineau had resorted to mesmerism not only as the only hope left to be cured, but also out of full confidence in the validity of a method whose efficiency had been proved by John Elliotson, Professor of Medicine at University College, London, in the 1830s.14 After her mesmeric cure had been declared in 1844, she published a personal testimony vindicating mesmerism as an effective method of treatment, Letters on Mesmerism (1845). In the 1840s the induction of hypnotic trances as a form of medical treatment was still considered as charlatanism with no sound scientific basis.15 R. K. Webb points out Martineau’s decision to publish her testimony in The Athenaeum, November and December 1844, a widely read weekly publication, rather than The Zoist, a specialized journal which was an adept of mesmerism, to enlarge the circle of readers who might be convinced of the positive effect of such a practice. She saw this as another opportunity of carrying out her duty of diffusing the truth, the scientific truth being the faith for which she was ready to dedicate the rest of her life and career.16 What the mesmeric experience had revealed to Martineau was that it allowed the patient access to a superior sense of consciousness which was inaccessible in ordinary conditions, and was as such a means of access to the inner self, and beyond the inner self, to otherwise inaccessible truths. To her, mesmerism, and more broadly speaking science, was to replace religion as a means to have access to truth.

  • 17 Gillian Thomas, 25.
  • 18 Robin Gilmour, The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1830–1890 (Harlow, Long (...)

15Among the mesmeric proponents in the 1840s was Henry George Atkinson described by Gillian Thomas as “a scientific and philosophical dilettante [who] had dabbled a good deal in mesmerism and phrenology. . . . Atkinson claimed to be able to place the significance of mesmerism within a grander philosophical scale”.17 They had exchanged letters on the subject of mesmerism and phrenology, the new science consisting in “the locating of intellectual and moral qualities in different areas of the skull”,18 and beyond, on the role of science as the only sound basis of progress.

  • 19 See R. Ashton, 116–118.
  • 20 On James Martineau, see Mircea Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion (New-York, Macmillan, 198 (...)

16To Martineau’ suggestion, these letters were published by John Chapman in 1851 under the title of Letters on the Laws and Nature of Man’s Development. This publication caused an immediate reaction of incomprehension and blame among many of her close connections, including the radical intellectuals of the period, George Henry Lewes, Marian Evans among others, even though it raised the very questions of religion and science, belief and unbelief they all wrote about.19 James Martineau immediately published a review of the Letters in the Unitarian Prospective Review, (vol. 26, 1851, 224–262) under a title whose meaning could not be more explicit, “Mesmeric Atheism”,20 a scathing rebuke of the book’s illogical arguments put forward by Atkinson and supported by his co-author: “Mr Atkinson freely rambles between the two [power or will and necessity], quite unconscious of self-contradiction,” (240) or, “Were it possible for the authors of these Letters to adhere consistently to their system of negations, it would present itself under an aspect too repulsive for their own endurance,” (258) or again, “Mr Atkinson might have spared the memory of Lord Bacon the degradation of serving as his referee” (259). Such a public attack was unacceptable to Harriet Martineau who wrote a self-defence in the form of both an “Autobiographic Memoir” and her Autobiography, both intended to be published posthumously. She also entrusted her friend Maria Chapman with the duty of diffusing a letter written in 1856 to all her friends after her death, stating her own philosophical position, insisting on a clear distinction between atheism and disbelief in a First Cause:

If disbelieving in the popular theology, therefore, is atheism, then we are atheists, but not in the philosophical and only permanent sense of the term “disbelief in a First Cause”. . . . The form or constitution of the human mind requires the supposition of a First Cause. To go further than the supposition is to give an extension to Fetishism which the nineteenth century might be ashamed of, in its grown and educated men. . . . What is knowable about a First Cause is simply this—as any disciple of positive philosophy is fully aware—that our mental constitution compels us to suppose a First Cause, and that First Cause cannot be the God of theology. (III, 326–7)

17Thus, to Martineau and the disciples of positive philosophy, believing in God as the First Cause and in everlasting life has become a form of superstition considering that Traditional Christian faith had now been proved by science to rely on myth and not on scientifically justified truth. In her 1856 letter, she uses the strongest possible terms to clarify her position:

I need not say how puerile, and irreverent appear to us the “views” of Christian Fetishism in their whole extent, comprising that conception of a future life which is fetish in being a transference of our present experience to other conditions. It is not “another life” that people desire and expect, but the same life in another place. The belief was no doubt of use in its proper day, like every general belief, but its proper date is past; that which was a substantial faith (as when the early Christians looked for the Millenium) is now (whenever it goes beyond a limited dogma) a personal fancy, a bastard conception of unchastened imagination, and a sentimental egotism.
(III, 327)

  • 21 “Mesmeric Atheism”, Prospective Review, vol. 26 (1851) 224–262; 256.

18Taking up her brother’s argument that atheism implies immorality inasmuch as the sense of religious duty no longer exists to guide the human mind towards good, she opposes the view that man is guided by the irreversible law of progress, guiding him inevitably to make the right choices. The free mind that is no longer dominated by “fetishism” is at leisure to invent a new social system based on the liberal ideas of justice and equality. Whereas James Martineau’s position was that “only a higher philosophy limiting the pretensions of physical investigation”21 will allow man to see that “nature and life are astir and breathe with the hidden thought of God”, Harriet Martineau’s trust lay in the universal laws of nature which alone provided a sound basis for a positive view of life and justified the irreversible march towards progress. She concluded her testimony on a resolutely optimistic note, which contrasted sharply with the destructive terms of her brother’s attack, thus showing her full confidence in a philosophy that inspired her unrelenting intellectual activity for years to come:

As for the sense of general health, intellectual and moral, the full and joyous liberty under the everlasting laws of nature, and the disappearance of incongruity, perplexity, and moral disturbance such as every theory of the government of the universe must cause to thoughtful minds, we can only enjoy these blessings in sympathy with our fellow- disciples. . . . We are healthier in mind, higher in views and conduct, and happier in life and the prospect of death, than we were before. (III, 328)

  • 22 See R. Ashton, 138–146. See also Terence Wright, The Religion of Humanity. The Impact of Comtean Ph (...)

19Such a sense of liberation from previous intellectual fetters, already enjoyed after her mesmeric cure, was to be further reinforced while she was working on her translation of Comte’s Cours de Philosophie Positive (1832–1842). Convinced as she was of Comte’s consistent views in considering social evolution as a direct effect of physical evolution, she realized the urgent need for an abridged version in English to promote Comte’s philosophy among English readers, politicians and political thinkers being uppermost in her mind as the targeted readers. She started to work, not only on the translation, but also on the condensation of Comte’s six volumes into a selection of his lectures in two volumes, published by John Chapman in 1853 under the explicit title of The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Freely Translated and Condensed by Harriet Martineau.22 In the motivation lying beyond yet another provocative publication is to be found Martineau’s unfailing sense of duty to contribute to the diffusion of the truth and stick to her mission as a popular educator. Translating Comte’s six volumes was a challenge in itself, although she modestly enough refers in her Preface to “a year or two of humble work” (viii), an assertion which she corrects further down admitting “the amount of labour and pecuniary sacrifice that I have devoted to my task” (xi), yet a challenge that she was determined to take up, undaunted by the language difficulties and the occasional differences between Comtean philosophy and her own views, hence her fairly free adaptation of the original text:

My strongest inducement to this enterprise was my deep conviction of our need of this book in my own country, in a form which renders it accessible to the highest number of intelligent readers. We are living in a remarkable time, when the conflict of opinions renders a firm foundation of knowledge indispensable, not only to our intellectual moral, and social progress, but to our holding such ground as we have gained from former ages. (vii)

20Martineau’s purpose in educating the English reading public to Comte’s positive philosophy is to save them from drifting to a void, having no replacement available for the traditional religious faith. Her conviction is very clearly voiced in her Preface. To her, positivism is the modern form of belief allowing a new vision of human life, restoring to individual minds a sense of certainty and direction towards the ultimate goal of happiness for all men:

The supreme dread of every one who cares for the good of the nation or race is that men should be adrift for want of an anchorage for their convictions. I believe that no one questions that a very large proportion of our people are now so adrift. With pain and fear we see that a multitude, who might and should be among the wisest and best of our citizens, are alienated for ever from the kind of faith which sufficed for all in an organic period which has passed away, and they cannot obtain for themselves, any ground of conviction as firm and clear as that which sufficed for our fathers in their day. The moral dangers of such a state of fluctuation as has thus arisen are fearful in the extreme, whether the transition stage from one order of convictions to another be long or short. The work of M. Comte is unquestionably the greatest single effort that has been made to obviate this kind of danger; and my deep conviction is that it will be found to retrieve a vast amount of wandering, of unsound speculation, of listless or reckless doubt, and of moral uncertainty and depression. (viii)

  • 23 See Lesa Scholl, “Provocative agendas: Martineau’s translation of Comte,” E. Dzelnainis and C. Kapl (...)

21Moreover, Martineau meant to overcome the prejudice among English readers who had heard about Comte’s philosophy and had misunderstood the meaning of the French adjective “positive” which “in popular English we make the equivalent of ‘dogmatical’ or ‘unreasonably peremptory’ while in French it would be defined as what can be rigorously demonstrated from and sustained by facts” (III, 308). In her enterprise, Martineau’s motivation was stronger than the fear of the risks she took in publicly endorsing Comte’s philosophical position. After having faced the storm of abuse following the publication of The Letters on the Laws and Nature of Man’s Development she was willing to go even further, not only by endorsing Comte’s views on the law of the three stages in the development of civilization, from the theological stage to a philosophical or metaphysical stage and ultimately the scientific stage, but also by making amendments to his text, to adapt it more closely to what she thought was needed in England with its Protestant tradition, so different from Comte addressing himself to French readers with a Catholic heritage:23

The theological world cannot but hate a book which treats of theological belief as a transient state of the human mind. . . . M. Comte treats of theology and metaphysics as defined to pass away, theologians and metaphysicians must necessarily abhor, dread and despise his work. (xiii)

22The perception of the universe as an organic whole ruled by invariable laws meant putting an end to the sense of arbitrariness and instability that men had lived under in previous ages. Henceforth, evolution could be seen as an endless movement, opening the way to political and social reforms based on sound, scientifically justified grounds. Man could now see himself as one in a long chain of creatures, as part of an organic whole, in which permanent evolution conveyed a sense of continuity and progress as a never-ending process. Comte’s positive philosophy was the fresh air that Martineau was now breathing that would propel her for another twenty years into busy intellectual activity:

The aspect in which it presents Man is as favourable to his moral discipline, as it is fresh and stimulating to his intellectual taste. We find ourselves living, not under capricious and arbitrary conditions, unconnected with the constitution and movements of the whole, but under great, invariable laws which operate on us as a part of the whole. (xiv)

  • 24 See T. Wright 65, and R. Ashton, 141–2.
  • 25 Qtd. T. Wright, 67.

23Martineau’s new faith infusing the Preface to her translation makes her text sound as a sermon preached, not to believers, but to the unbelievers she wants to convert to her new religion. In the wake of John Stuart Mill’s, George Henry Lewes’ and George Eliot’s faith in Comte’s “religion of humanity”, she saw man in his entirety being the focus of political social and intellectual preoccupations, man standing as the new God. It was her connexion with John Chapman’s circle prior to his taking over the editorship of the Westminster Review in 1852 that had given her the opportunity of publishing both Letters on the Laws and Nature of Man’s Development and then her translation of Comte. Even if Marian Evans had advised Chapman against Martineau doing the translation since she saw her as a popular writer, but one whose calibre of mind was suspect,24 circumstances made her desire of being Comte’s translator come true. As had been expected, Chapman’s publication of Martineau’s translation and condensed version of Comte’s Positive Philosophy was followed by a majority of hostile reviews for propagating atheist views. Only the radical intellectuals welcomed the work, George Holyoake praising Martineau’s work in highly laudatory terms: “Not being a Comtist, she did more than any other of his disciples here.”25

24Considering Harriet Martineau’s strong attachment to her Unitarian origins, her denial of the Christian faith as the end result of a gradual process of reflection and development can be considered as a sign of the times, in an age of philosophical questioning and scientific advances. Like other Victorian women, Marian Evans in particular, she was ready to bear the consequences of adopting unconventional views, being estranged from her brother for the rest of her life after the publication of The Letters on Man’s Nature and Development and then from many of her friends after her translation of Comte’s lectures. But unlike many Victorians, she did not experience a painful crisis of faith, but rather a boundless enthusiasm over her new condition as an agnostic. As she wrote in her testimony to those of her friends who felt estranged from one they considered as an atheist, she said:

There must be thinking and educated men in all your cities, who could not tell my friends that positive philosophy is not at the opposite pole to scepticism, that it issues in the most affirmative (and not dogmatical faith in the world and excludes unbelief as absolutely as mathematical principles do, that there is no “darkness” in it, but all clear light up to the well-defined line which separates knowledge from ignorance; that positive philosophy is, in short, the brightest, clearest, strongest, and only irrefragable state of conviction that the human mind has ever attained. (III, 323–324)

25Although Harriet Martineau still stood as a minor figure in the history of ideas in the Victorian period until the nineteen seventies, she has since then been acclaimed as the first British woman sociologist for her impressive journalistic contributions which resulted from her keen sense of observation and deeply-felt concern for her fellow beings. Her importance has now been acknowledged as a significant Victorian woman writer whose bold positions in public life make the comparison with Marian Evans’ similar audacity at the same period inevitable. The parallel must stop here. Martineau considered herself as a journalist and popular educator only, never claiming to be a successful novelist or philosopher. Her audacity and rash enthusiasm sometimes led her to transgress her own limits. In spite of the occasional exaggerations and contradictions which her radical discourse had caused her to be liable to, she contributed to the enlargement of the views held by many Victorians over more than forty years.

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Ashton Rosemary, 142 Strand. A Radical Address in Victorian London [2006], London, Vintage Books, 2008.

Dzelnainis Ella & Cora Kaplan (ed.), Harriet Martineau. Authorship, Society and Empire, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010.

Martineau Harriet, Autobiography with Memorials by Maria Weston Chapman, 3 vol., London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1877; rpt. London, Virago Press, 1983.

Mineka Francis, The Dissidence of Dissent: The Monthly Repository, 1806–1839, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

Roberts Caroline, The Woman and the Hour: Harriet Martineau and Victorian Ideologies, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Thomas Gillian, Harriet Martineau, Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Webb Robert Kiefer], Harriet Martineau: a Radical Victorian, London, Heinemann, 1960.

Wright Terence, The Religion of Humanity. The Impact of Comtean Philosophy on Victorian Britain, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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1 Harriet Martineau, Autobiography with Memorials by Maria Weston Chapman, London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1877; reprint. London, Virago Press, 1983, III, 2–3. All references will be made to this edition.

2 “Letter to Charlotte Brontë”, Autobiography, III, 291.

3 See John Ruskin, Praeterita (1889; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1978) 17.

4 Robert Kiefer Webb, Harriet Martineau: a Radical Victorian (London, Heineman, 1960) 65.

5 See R. K. Webb, “The Unitarian background” in Barbara Smith (ed.), Truth, Liberty, Religion. Essays Celebrating Two Hundred Years of Manchester College (Oxford, Manchester College, 1986) 1–30.

6 R. K. Webb, “Harriet Martineau”, Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, vol. 37) 13–19; 14.

7 C. Roberts, The Woman and the Hour. Harriet Martineau and Victorian Ideologies (Toronto & London: Toronto University Press, 2002) 174. See also R. K. Webb’s insistence on the influence of Hartley’s philosophy in England until the mid-nineteenth century in Harriet Martineau. A Radical Victorian (London: Heinemann, 1960) 79.

8 Mitzi Meyers, “Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography: The Making of a Female Philosopher”, in Women’s Autobiography. Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle Jelinek (Bloomington, Indiana, Bloomington University Press, 1980) 53–70; 65.

9 See Francis E. Mineka, The Dissidence of Dissent: The Monthly Repository, 1806–1839 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1944) 234–246; for identification of Martineau’s contributions, 414–417.

10 See Monthly Repository, August 1833, 613–614, with a list of her contributions.

11 See W. J. Mander & A. Sell, (ed.), Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Philosophers (Bristol, Thoemmes Press, 2002, vol. 2) 751–756.

12 Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Philosophers, 752.

13 Gillian Thomas, Harriet Martineau (Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1985) 55.

14 See Rosemary Ashton, 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London (London, Jonathan Cape, 2007) 21–22.

15 See Gillian Thomas, 21–24.

16 Robert K. Webb, Harriet Martineau. A Radical Victorian, 226–253.

17 Gillian Thomas, 25.

18 Robin Gilmour, The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1830–1890 (Harlow, Longman, 1993) 139.

19 See R. Ashton, 116–118.

20 On James Martineau, see Mircea Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion (New-York, Macmillan, 1987, vol. 9) 229–230.

21 “Mesmeric Atheism”, Prospective Review, vol. 26 (1851) 224–262; 256.

22 See R. Ashton, 138–146. See also Terence Wright, The Religion of Humanity. The Impact of Comtean Philosophy on Victorian Britain (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986) 61–67.

23 See Lesa Scholl, “Provocative agendas: Martineau’s translation of Comte,” E. Dzelnainis and C. Kaplan, (ed.), Harriet Martineau: Authorship, Society and Empire (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010) 88–97.

24 See T. Wright 65, and R. Ashton, 141–2.

25 Qtd. T. Wright, 67.

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Odile Boucher-Rivalain

Université de Cergy-Pontoise
Odile Boucher-Rivalain is Professor in English Studies at the University of Cergy-Pontoise. Her publications include an anthology of reviews from Victorian periodicals, articles on the critical reception of Victorian novels (Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot) as well as articles on Victorian architectural criticism (Pugin, W.H. Leeds, Ruskin).

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