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58e Congrès de la SAES, atelier de la SFEVE, Utopia(s) and Revolution(s)

Gender Revolution in a Malthusian Utopia: Harriet Martineau’s world of Garveloch

Révolution des normes genrées dans une utopie malthusienne : Harriet Martineau et l’univers de Garveloch
Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman


Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), sociologue, historienne et romancière, était aussi une vulgarisatrice de talent. Dans Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-1834), elle entreprend de rendre les théories de Malthus et Ricardo accessibles à tous, sous forme de fiction. Deux des vingt-cinq histoires se déroulent à Garveloch, une île écossaise isolée qui sert de terrain d’expérimentation socio-démographique. L’article montre comment Martineau parvient à créer une utopie malthusienne haute en couleurs, tout en bouleversant les normes de genre traditionnelles. Dans son Autobiographie, elle dit avoir calculé la prise de risque, ce qui ne l’empêcha pas d’encourir les foudres de la presse conservatrice. En particulier, la représentation de personnages féminins forts, capables de débattre du contrôle des naissances et de se prononcer contre le mariage, n’était pas en adéquation avec les valeurs victoriennes. Ignorant ses détracteurs, Martineau poursuivit sa trajectoire de pionnière et de militante.

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1Illustrations of Political Economy, by Harriet Martineau, was a Victorian best-seller. It made her famous overnight, and paved the way for the development of the social novel genre. Following its publication between 1832 and 1834, numerous famous politicians and thinkers wanted to meet Martineau—notably Thomas Malthus, Robert Owen, Thomas Carlyle, James and John Stuart Mill. The future Queen Victoria waited eagerly for each monthly instalment (Martineau 2010, I 388–89), and invited Martineau to her coronation.

2The excitement came partly from the original format of the Illustrations. They consisted of 25 tales, published individually, one per month, by Charles Fox in London. The format of each tale is that of a novella, approximately 150 small pages. The publisher sold 10,000 copies monthly; given the contemporary habit of lending and circulating publications, this meant about 144,000 readers (Logan 2004, 34)—an incredible number at the time. 1832 was a pivotal year; an eager reading community kept growing, and the circulation of existing publications was extremely well-organised, pending the development of cheap family periodicals in the wake of the Great Reform Act (Altick 331). Beyond British borders, some tales were almost immediately translated into French (Ella de Garveloch – La Mer Enchantée, 1834). The collected Illustrations were eventually published together, bound into 9 volumes.

3But becoming famous, or even ‘lionised’, was not Harriet Martineau’s aim. She aspired, above all, to popularise the theories of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. According to Thomas Malthus, population will grow faster than food resources: ‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio’ (Malthus 634). The mathematical discrepancy between the two will eventually lead to a period of scarcity and distress for the poorer part of the population. The population growth is then stalled, due to higher mortality and later marriages. The food production can then catch up, and a season of comparative prosperity ensues. The cycle is unavoidable, and the best one may hope for is that the ‘preventive check’ to population increase will occur sooner rather than later. According to Malthus, helping the poor would only make problems worse, as they would keep having more children, increasing the natural gap between population and resources, making everyone poorer in the long run. In his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), David Ricardo agreed with the notion of prosperity cycles and the principle of non-intervention. In particular, he advocated free trade, free competition, and the non-regulation of wages.

4In 1832, the issue of State intervention was more topical than ever. A Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was set up in February. Its conclusions, published in the following year, eventually led to the 1834 New Poor Law (replacing the outdated Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601). Harriet Martineau was interested in the debate and took the issue to heart. She was concerned that the poor suffered through their failure to understand the laws regulating society. She ‘believed that indiscriminate child-bearing was the primary factor contributing to the perpetuation of poverty among the lower classes’ (Logan 2004, 56). While her views tended to be representative of the Whig middle-class, it was the poorer part of the population she sought to reach and teach. In order to fulfil this self-appointed philanthropic mission, Martineau created fictional characters and narratives illustrating the great liberal economic principles of her time.

5The didactic nature of the tales is rather obvious, but her readers really bought into the stories. At a time when Dickens was still young and largely unpublished, the tales appealed to the national readership. They now offer us an insight into the history of ideas of the time, as they are representative of socio-economic beliefs that were widely held, especially among the new wealthy middle class. They also often departed from established gender norms, and caused no small amount of disruption on that account alone.

6Tales 5 and 6, Ella of Garveloch and its sequel Weals and Woe in Garveloch, were especially remarkable for their breach of traditional gender roles. Both tales featured strong and resourceful female protagonists, empowered as breadwinners, householders, but also socio-economic thinkers—clearly not in keeping with the Victorian ideal of womanhood. This departure from contemporary norms caused no end of trouble for Martineau. Although the attacks did not diminish her popularity, she was weary of the constant criticism, and all the prouder to report, in her Autobiography, that Queen Victoria’s favourite tale, out of the 24, was Ella of Garveloch (Martineau 2010, I 388–89).

7In the following, the tales of Garveloch will firstly be analysed as a didactic Malthusian utopia that revisits the norms of contemporary fiction and romance. Then, the extent of the norm breaking will be seen to reach gender issues, especially through the representation of unconventional female characters who dare broach the topic of birth control. Finally, the focus will shift onto the critical reception of the tales in relation to gender issues, and how Martineau made it a personal affair to uphold her convictions and continue as a champion of women’s rights.

A Didactic Utopia That Revisits the Norms of Fiction

8A utopia has been defined as the imaginary representation of a society, offering suggestions as to how specific problems can be solved (Elias 35–36). It may involve changes that are feared or hoped for. This is exactly what Martineau sought to achieve. In the first Garveloch tale, she focused on how farmers and fishermen should aspire to make a living in a free market economy, in agreement with Ricardo’s principles. In the second tale, she addressed the issue of demographic increase and poverty. She imagined a period of famine and scarcity, with the belief and the conclusion that it could be solved—at least in part—by thrifty habits, careful management and Malthusian ‘preventive checks’ limiting the birth rate. Her choice of title, Illustrations of Political Economy, is very apt. As her narrative unfolds, Garveloch comes to illustrate Ricardian principles and Malthusian cycles. A closed, isolated, fairly implausible universe, it serves as a kind of laboratory experiment, an investigation in which these theories are tried and tested for the edification of the readers.

9The choice of Garveloch is strategic as well as picturesque. An unknown island off the west coast of Scotland, it is only documented in two pages of a book published in 1819 (MacCulloch, II 156–57). The name is given both to a group of islands, and to the main island in this group. The tiny archipelago is located between the isle of Islay (to the south) and the isle of Mull (to the north). The combined length of the islands is only three miles, and their isolation is such that ‘[n]othing could be conceived better adapted for the solitude of a hermit’ (MacCulloch, II 157). No one lived there at the time, except for one farm on the central island. Votive crosses and carvings about warriors supposedly remained, from a mysterious and somewhat romanticised past. Given the size of the islands, and the fact that they are composed mostly of rocks, Martineau’s storyline about a fishing community is rather implausible, especially in the second tale, when the community has expanded significantly.

10In her autobiography, Martineau confesses she finally saw the Garveloch Isles for the first time in July 1852, twenty years after writing her stories (Martineau 2010, I 405). So why choose Garveloch? The name may have been deemed to sound both ancient and picturesque (especially pronounced with a Scottish accent), lending a touch of exoticism as well as ancestral wisdom. The unfamiliar name also added linguistic—besides geographical—distance. The social group represented in a utopia also provides information about the target audience meant to be informed or educated (Elias 39). A Scottish fishing community with its inner social hierarchy may have seemed suitably close to the English industrial world—though not too close for comfort.

11Further distance is achieved through the time frame of the tales, which is similarly vague. The period is represented as fairly primitive; the ‘habits and manners’ of the inhabitants are described as ‘uncivilized’ (Martineau 1832a, 4). Ten years elapse between the two tales; the second one suggests early industrialisation and capitalism, as a fishery was set up by a private company, but no date is ever mentioned. The fish-preserving techniques described in the tale—curing herrings and layering them with salt in large barrels—do not imprint a precise time stamp either. The timelessness is reinforced by the fairy-tale formulation of the narrative: ‘there was once a laird’ (Martineau 1832a, 3). A character returning after a five-year absence exclaims: ‘I do believe the fairies are in Garveloch’. When he questions the locals, they don’t even know who is King of England—they venture to say King George, but don’t know which one (Martineau 1832a, 68–69). This puts the story probably under George III or IV—a wide time bracket indeed (1760–1830).

12From the comfort of her English home, Martineau imagined a fishing and farming utopia with only a vague geographical and historical plausibility. The main objective was to have a ‘laboratory’ of sorts to study Malthusian cycles in situ. Yet, despite this utopian dimension, she was praised for her sense of ‘social realism’. In the Garveloch tales, she provides readers with many details on the inhabitants of the island, their various levels of poverty and the nature of their occupations, between agriculture and fishing. It is well known that Martineau lost all sense of taste and smell in her childhood, and began to go deaf as a teenager, but she still—rather remarkably—gives a full sensory account of the island. The smells of gutted fish, kelp fires and manure are described very vividly. When a party of Englishmen is entertained in one of the islanders’ cottages, they find that ‘everything had a smack of the sea. The cream was fishy, the cheese was fishy, and the barley bannock themselves had a salt and bitter flavour as if they had been dipped in sea-water’ (Martineau 1832a, 23). The evocations of sounds are also very realistic, from the songs and music of the village to the din of the fishery, or the ‘booming drum and the shrill fife’ of a military recruiting party (Martineau 1832b, 125–27).

  • 1 Ella and Angus are the ‘good farmers’, like Dan Archer. The lazy and improvident Murdochs act as a (...)

13This colourful reading experience partly explains the great popularity of Martineau’s writings, at a time when twenty-year old Dickens had yet to publish his realistic pieces. It is only four years later, in 1836, that the readers’ demand would be met with Sketches by Boz and the Pickwick Papers. However, Harriet Martineau believed in educating the masses as well as entertaining them. Her fictitious Scottish island community is only a means to an end: to illustrate Malthusian principles. A very binary divide is effected between the good and the bad fishermen and farmers. Improvident and lazy families, like the Murdochs, stand in stark contrast with the provident and hard-working Ella and her entourage. The ‘giddy’—to use one of Martineau’s favoured adjectives—serve as a foil for the wise. A contemporary audience may even find striking parallels with the BBC’s longest-running radio series The Archers.1

14The didactic aspects are all the more obvious as both tales end with a theoretical summary of the great principles illustrated. Socratic dialogues (about Ricardo’s theory of rent, in particular) are lengthy and recurrent. The public put up with those sections because Harriet Martineau knew how to meet their other expectations. She later ended up writing more journalism than fiction, but she had been an avid reader of Jane Austen throughout her youth. Her principal character, Ella, is an orphaned heroine, without a mother to guide her, as in most Jane Austen novels. The first tale features the return of a loved one, one wedding and a funeral (again, Jane Austen’s novels tend to feature a funeral, often with positive results, for example when Frank Churchill inherits his aunt’s fortune in Emma). The title of the second tale, Weals and Woe, mimics the classic Jane Austen alliterative doublets (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility).

15Despite the Austenian undertones, one might find fault with Martineau for being at best perfunctory in her handling of romance. There is hardly any physical description of any character, except for some rare, largely unflattering mentions of Ella’s coarse clothing, ‘stern demeanour and masculine gait’ (Martineau 1832a, 11). The reunion of old flames—Ella and Angus—bears no resemblance to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Malthusian hardships tend to get in the way of romance. Returning after his five-year absence, Angus found Ella ‘less comely’ than before, because she had starved herself during a famine, in order to help the rest of her family (Martineau 1832b, 77). The marriage proposal takes up half a page, in the third person, with some indirect speech. The future bride does not say yes, she has ‘nothing to say’, shedding ‘tears as if she had been broken-hearted’ (Martineau 1832a, 79). Either growing impatient or minimalist, Martineau clearly did not want romance to drown out the educational content. The pages of liveliest dialogue are spent theorising about rents and the law of supply and demand. The wedding is delayed until ‘Ella acknowledged that no duty remained to prevent her fulfilling all her promises’. The description of the ceremony is dispensed with in a dozen words: ‘She accompanied him, the next week, to Oban, and returned his wife’ (Martineau 1832a, 142). This terse conclusion is followed by three full pages summarising the great economic principles illustrated by the tale.

16Another departure from convention is that, whereas Jane Austen’s narratives end as soon as weddings occur, the whole second Garveloch tale takes place post-wedding. In the ten-year gap between the two stories, Ella had nine children. She gives birth to a tenth in the course of Weals and Woe, with no mention of pregnancy, confinement or birth. A roundabout announcement is made, when the reader finds that Ella’s eldest son ‘came to attend the christening of a little brother and two cousins’ (Martineau 1832b, 67). Later on, Ella acts as an auxiliary in the developing relationship between her brother Ronald and her best friend Katie. But her matchmaking career is cut woefully short by the fact that, in a season of dearth, getting married would go against Malthusian principles of demographic regulation. This is clearly explained and theorised in a conversation between Ella and Katie. In the end, Ronald and Katie never marry each other—or anyone else. Martineau’s Ella thus bears little resemblance with Jane Austen’s would-be matchmaker Emma, except maybe when it comes to pride and determination.

  • 2 ‘[H]ow wealth has more and more increased, and at the same time gathered itself more and more into (...)

17Martineau’s didactic transparency, and her willingness to engage so openly with political economy in the course of fiction was rather unique. A few years before, in his landmark essay ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829), the Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle had expressed concern about the growing social inequalities, describing them as ‘a question for Political Economists’.2 In Past and Present (1843), he told the story of a 12th century community of monks—perhaps the closest he got to a utopia in his writings—‘in hope of perhaps illustrating our own poor Century thereby’ (Carlyle 1843, 43). But his illustration falls deliberately short of promoting solutions; calling himself an ‘editor’, he declined to issue guidelines: ‘What is to be done, How that alarming problem of the Working classes can be managed? Editors are not here, foremost of all, to say How. . . . An Editor’s stipulated work is to apprise thee that it must be done’ (Carlyle 1843, 264).

  • 3 A typical example was the participation of British women in the campaigns for the abolition of slav (...)

18As for the ‘Condition of England’ novels—a term coined by Carlyle in 1839—their goal often seems to have been denunciation rather than solution. Elizabeth Gaskell, who knew Harriet Martineau’s work quite well, drew on one of the Illustrations, ‘A Manchester Strike’, for her novel Mary Barton, published in 1848 (Uglow 191–92). But she took care of steering clear of political economy, stating in her short preface to the book: ‘I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade. I have tried to write truthfully; and if my accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional’. (Gaskell 1996a, 4) This disclaimer may also have been due to her being a woman, at a time when the female part of the population was not expected to engage in debates in the public sphere, unless the contribution was based on morals and compassion rather than on hard facts such as the economy.3 Not only did Harriet Martineau dare tread the unwomanly grounds of political economy—as they were perceived then—but she also took the opportunity to reshape gender roles and perceptions in the process.

Questioning Gender Roles through Plot and Characterisation: Breadwinning and Politicking

  • 4 It may be argued that Archie stands for Harriet Martineau’s own disabilities. Certainly, Ella only (...)

19Ella is a perfect example of the empowered heroine. The first tale opens with the burial of her father, her only remaining parent, whose health had been declining. As the eldest child, Ella is left in charge of three younger brothers, Ronald, Fergus and Archie. Their mother died giving birth to Archie, who is mentally handicapped and innocent of the ways of the world.4 Ella’s first appearance shows her eager to negotiate with the landowner, the ‘laird’, in order to obtain the lease for an abandoned seaside cottage that she has set her heart upon. When the laird meets her for the first time, his expectations are high. He imagines ‘a woman of extraordinary energy’, deserving ‘respect and love’ (Martineau 1832a, 8). He has been given an ‘elevated idea . . . of her character’, and so their meeting is a bit of an anticlimax:

[I]t was with some disappointment that he looked upon her for the first time. She appeared as much older than she really was, as Archie looked younger. She might have been taken for his mother, though she was, in fact, no more than five-and-twenty. Tall and gaunt in person, and thinking as little of adornment in dress as her country women in general, on ordinary occasions, there was nothing at first sight to attract a stranger. Her feet were bare, according to the universal custom; her hair, unconfined by any cap, hanging down from under the plaid which she had drawn over her bead, the plaid itself strapped round her in preparation for rowing her boat home, she looked so unlike the maidens of a civilized country, that the laird, well as he knew his own tenantry, was startled. (Martineau 1832a, 9)

20This departure from norms and expectations is mitigated by the fact that Ella had to face more hardships than average. At the time, it was considered socially acceptable for middle-class women to work, and even pursue writing careers, if they were rendered penniless by their family situation (losing a father like Harriet Martineau, or becoming a widow like Margaret Oliphant). And of course, working-class women were frequently employed in the developing industry, out of financial need rather than inclination—women and children made up two-thirds of the workforce in textile factories in 1833 (Evans 156). Here, a similar sort of argument is formulated, but transposed to a poor fishing community. The narrative continues, accounting for Ella’s lack of ‘softness’:

When [the laird] looked again, however, and observed the strong expression of her eye, and of her weather-stained features, when he remembered what toils she had undergone, and that her heart was now troubled and striving with natural grief, he felt that he was wrong in expecting softness where it was not to be found. (Martineau 1832a, 9)

21Ella is determined to follow her plan: she will fish while the two eldest of her brothers cultivate the land and gather seaweed. The youngest brother will remain close to the shore, gathering the eggs and feathers of the sea birds he loves. The laird has many objections, firstly to the dilapidated cottage: ‘It is a wretched place, Ella . . . surely you had better settle in a more sheltered situation’ (Martineau 1832a, 10–11). He also objects to fishing as a proper occupation for a woman, to which Ella has a ready reply, respectful but firm:

‘That is scarcely a women’s business, Ella, it brings toil and hardship to the strongest men’.
‘It is my business, your honour; and it is not the blackest night, nor the stormiest day, that can weary me thanks to Him that gives strength where it is wanted. Would you be pleased to grant me what I ask, and let me know with your own lips, what the rent shall be?’ (Martineau 1832a, 11)

  • 5 The Married Women’s Property Act was only passed in 1870. Also, the 1832 Reform Act (passed on the (...)

22She then negotiates the fee for the cottage and land in accordance with Ricardo’s theory of rent. A reasonable businesswoman and entrepreneur, she is the negotiator as well as the official lease holder, at a time when property rights for women were not a given, especially for married women.5 A little before their wedding, Ella’s future husband says he will have enough to do with ‘Ella’s farm’, without wanting to take up one of his own.

23Ella is also regularly credited for her brothers’ education, business sense and successful careers. Even Callum, the laird’s steward, who does not like her, grudgingly says to Fergus: ‘your sister has made you a sensible lad’ (Martineau 1832a, 130). Ella manages her family as a skilful matriarch: she shows endless patience with her handicapped brother, but will send her other brothers away if they threaten to lose their tempers with their hierarchical superiors (Martineau 1832a, 11–12, 58). She cheers up her husband when they fall upon hard times and lose their youngest child. Criticised for being proud and haughty, she is called the ‘princess of fishwomen’ by passing sailors to whom she sells her modest barrels of fish. While the sailors use the nickname in a derogatory way, her future husband considers it to be a badge of distinction (Martineau 1832a, 54).

24In the second tale, Katie, a widow who supports her four children by making fishing nets, also plays a very significant part. Just as Ella was the ‘princess of fishwomen’, Katie is the ‘lady of the island’, because she is both ‘better educated’ and more worldly than most islanders (Martineau 1832b, 6). Both women are ‘model[s] of frugality and thrift’ (Logan 2004, 56), who never complain, work themselves to exhaustion and starve themselves so their children might be spared. They are respected matrons, at the top of the island’s intricate social hierarchy (while all inhabitants are farmers or fishermen, subtle criteria, such as the ownership of a boat, give them different statuses).

25Martineau concludes the second tale by stating that Ella ‘had, from childhood, filled a position of authority, and had never abused her power, but made it the means of living for others. Her power increased with every year of her life’ (Martineau 1832b, 139). The matriarchal nature of the society depicted may be part of Martineau’s brand of utopia. Ella even uses her authority to play law enforcer. When her brother’s fishing nets are destroyed by a jealous neighbour, Rob Murdoch, she kidnaps the culprit in her boat, interrogates him and cows him into providing compensation (Martineau 1832b, 34–37). Rob Murdoch is not the first man to fear Ella as if she were some sort of a witch, and Ella is fully aware of it: ‘“I believe the man thinks,” said Ella to herself, “as Mr Callum used to do, that I am a witch, for he flees me as a fowl flees the hawk . . .”’ (Martineau 1832b, 31).

26While Martineau reflects on men’s supposed fears of women they fail to understand, she also appears to validate some more conventional gender stereotypes. Sometimes fondly describing large families, she sketches a romanticised vision of motherhood. Ella is pictured salting herrings with her numerous brood. Her eldest daughter conscientiously helps her, while the younger children unobtrusively play among the barrels. While the aim may simply provide an example of sensible and thrifty management, some sentimentality does come across. When the widow Katie, the epitome of the perfect wife and mother, stays up late making fishing nets, she watches over her precious brood and remembers her late husband with emotion:

As often as a little hand stirred above the coverlid, or a rosy cheek was turned upon its pillow, the anxious mother gazed and watched, and as often as the gust swept past, or a larger billow broke upon the shingle, her heart throbbed as if she was still awaiting the return of him who should never more return. (Martineau 1832b, 17)

  • 6 Mrs Murdoch, and also Noreen, the beaten Irish wife who always seems to hold her babies dangerously (...)

27There is a binary distinction between provident mothers who teach their children well, and other hopeless ones, also portrayed in the tale,6 whose children rarely make it beyond infancy.

28As was the case in Victorian Britain, Martineau’s female protagonists do not work for their own fulfilment, but for the survival of their children. In the second tale, a gender-based division of labour occurs, further validating stereotypes. Women specialise in net-making and herring-curing. The men go to sea; their wives anxiously await their safe return. Yet those gender-oriented roles are reversible. Ella can put her former old fisherwoman’s mantel back on at any point—for instance when she rows out vigorously to meet her husband’s boat following its unexpectedly early return.

29Conversely, male characters also frequently display qualities traditionally ascribed to women. In fact, the greater the man, the more in touch he seems to be with his ‘feminine side’. Ella praises her brother Ronald in those terms: ‘It is always a happy time when uncle Ronald comes. The same man that the officers respect above all who are under them is as much beloved by the little ones as if he were a soft-hearted girl’. (Martineau 1832b, 25)

30Similarly, Ella’s husband Angus was always sensitive to Archie’s special needs, and ready to play childish games with him. Fergus, Ella’s other brother, is more conflicted with what he deems to be female tasks: ‘Fergus waited upon both of them with all the quiet heedfulness of a girl, while his manly spirit was eager to be busy upon the tossing sea’. (Martineau 1832a, 133)

31Perhaps not coincidentally, though he can be as ‘heedful’ as a girl, Fergus of the chafing ‘manly spirit’ is ultimately less prosperous than either Angus or Ronald.

32Just as stereotypical gender roles are largely interchangeable, both men and women are shown as entitled and able to discuss topics of political economy. In the first tale, Ella and her brothers, whom she has educated, have long discussions about rents with the laird and his deputy. In the second tale, Ella’s husband Angus becomes a useful partner in the debates, partly because he lived in America for a few years. Thus, when Ella’s questioning prompts Mr Mackenzie (a magistrate who has replaced the ‘laird’ as a local figure of authority) to discuss other countries, Angus has a ready answer:

‘There has never been an age or country known’, replied Mr. Mackenzie, ‘where at once the people have been so intelligent, their manners so pure, and their resources so abundant, as to give the principle of increase an unobstructed trial . . . .’
‘A new colony of free and intelligent people in a fertile country affords the nearest approach to a fair trial’, observed Angus. ‘In some of the best settlements I saw in America, the increase of capital and of people went on at a rate that would scarcely be believed in an old country’. (Martineau 1832b, 48–49)

33Between them, Angus and Ella bring the discussion to resemble closely the texts of Thomas Malthus. For instance, the passage quoted above is reminiscent of the First Essay on Population (1798):

In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer, than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years. (Malthus 634)

34Thus Martineau, a middle-class English woman, manages to get working-class Scots—indifferently men or women—who supposedly lived decades before herself, to endorse and expose her liberal economic beliefs. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, highly sensitive discussions about birth control are conducted between the two main female protagonists. The most controversial scene—at the time—consisted of a dialogue between Ella and Katie, where the two women reflect on Malthusian demographics. After a long discussion (over the course of which they broach the subject of Chinese infanticide), they conclude that Katie should not marry Ella’s brother—who has loved her for years—because any additional children would be an unwelcome burden on their community at a time of scarcity. Under the term ‘preventive checks’ to population, what they really discuss is how to control reproduction through sexual abstinence. Ella concludes:

‘We have not the power of increasing food as fast as our numbers may increase; but we have the power of limiting our numbers to agree with the supply of food. This is the gentle check which is put into our own hands; and if we will not use it, we must not repine if harsher checks follow’. (Martineau 1832b, 97)

35The notion that women could take a higher degree of responsibility and control over the destiny of the community by declining marriage and childbearing clashed with the dominant ethos of the times. Ella is considered as ‘a compelling feminist prototype’ by Deborah Logan, who further comments: ‘Although [Harriet Martineau] simply suggests that abstinence could easily improve the economic status of the poor, she was praised by some for addressing this difficult topic as she was condemned by others for what was regarded a direct affront to the period’s revered maternal ideology’ (Logan 2004, 55). And tellingly indeed, Harriet Martineau fell prey to vicious attacks from the Tory Establishment.

Controversial Reception of the Garveloch Tales and Continuation of Women’s Rights Advocacy

36Martineau challenged gender norms in more ways than one. Besides picturing women discussing reproduction, she was herself an unmarried woman, exposed to public scrutiny. She always published under her own name, unlike Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. Her popular Illustrations of Political Economy, though meant—in theory—to educate the working class, landed monthly on the tables of young middle-class women, potentially influencing negatively their disposition towards marriage. This triggered a strong reaction in the conservative press, notably the following Tory periodicals. The Quarterly Review condemned her ‘unfeminine and mischievous doctrines’, sparing no exclamation points: ‘A woman who thinks child-bearing a crime against society! An unmarried woman who declaims against marriage!’. Fraser’s Magazine, launched in 1830, denounced ‘a tissue of reasonings, which would disgrace the third class of any ladies’ boarding school of decent character’. Cobbett’s Magazine went as far as to suggest that ‘a very considerable part of her economic vagaries have been prepared for the press by persons of the other sex’ and that she did not have ‘any hand in concocting them’ (Huzel 75–76).

37One remarkable depiction of Martineau as a marginal, offensive and dangerous character in the eyes of the defenders of established society and its norms is a caricature by Daniel Maclise from 1833. He represents her as a kind of a witch, holding a cauldron by the fireside, with a promiscuous cat rubbing itself against her back and face. It is one of eight portraits of her that can be found at the National Portrait Gallery today. In her Autobiography, Martineau claimed she was aware of taking a risk with the passage on demographic control in Weal and Woe in Garveloch:

When the course of my exposition brought me to the Population subject, I, with my youthful and provincial mode of thought and feeling,—brought up too amidst the prudery which is found in its great force in our middle class,—could not but be sensible that I risked much in writing and publishing on a subject which was not universally treated in the pure, benevolent, and scientific spirit of Malthus himself. . . . I was aware that some evil associations had gathered about it,—though I did not know what they were. While writing ‘Weal and Woe in Garveloch’, the perspiration many a time streamed down my face, though I knew there was not a line in it which might not be read aloud in any family. The misery arose from my seeing how the simplest statements and reasoning might and probably would be perverted. (Martineau 2010, 140)

38Before publication, Martineau did test-read Weal and Woe to her mother and aunt, whose ‘keen sense of propriety’, reassuringly, was not alerted. After the stormy reception of Weal and Woe, Martineau resolved to shift her ear trumpet away from her detractors, considering herself lucky that the nasty reviews did not affect the sales of the already popular Illustrated Tales (Martineau 2010, 141–42).

39What may have made the attacks especially personal and hurtful was that the Garveloch tales present a certain autobiographical dimension. Martineau wrote spontaneously, rarely changing or editing her first draft. Well before the age of Freudian psychoanalysis, she was possibly blissfully unaware of how much she revealed through her creations. She had a lot in common with Ella and Katie. Much like them, she became the main breadwinner of her household after the death of a male relative. Her father originally owned a bombazine factory, which manufactured black material used for mourning clothes. He went bankrupt and died shortly afterwards. Martineau ended up earning a living for herself, her mother and her seven siblings, who were mostly older than she was. She first made money through her expert needlework—an activity that can be compared with Katie’s long nights weaving fishing nets. Martineau then wrote increasingly, mostly journalism, but also fiction and contemporary history. Her need to make a living after her father’s death rendered her writing more palatable to the respectable middle- and upper-class society. In addition, gender norms tended to shift to accommodate more women into the world of journalism from the 1830s onwards.

40Not unlike her Garveloch female characters, Martineau’s appearance could be masculine and unsophisticated. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who met her later in life, described her as ‘large, robust . . ., very coarse of aspect, and plainly dressed; but withal, so kind, cheerful, and intelligent a face, that she is pleasanter to look at than most beauties’. He also humorously likened her ear trumpet to ‘the feelers of some insect’ (Hawthorne 115–16). Martineau was undeterred by either her hearing impediment or the attacks levelled at her. After writing Illustrated Tales of Political Economy, she went on to travel extensively and alone, visiting the USA for two years, later riding camels in Egypt and roaming through the Middle East. Her free spirit would not be constrained by social constructs of gender roles. As early as 1920, Oliver Elton, in his Survey of English Literature, made this insightful statement:

Miss Martineau herself, being much more of a woman than she would have us believe, has abundant ‘sympathy with the suffering’; but her special mark, no doubt, is a high hard intellectual courage which in her day was rarely possible to women. ‘My business in life,’ she says, ‘has been to think and learn, and to speak out with absolute freedom what I have thought and learned’. (Elton I, 313–14)

41Martineau did use her courage and freedom to support many causes that she deemed worth defending, from the abolition of slavery to female education. She embraced any topic over which she thought she might make a positive difference, becoming ‘a prominent voice in public discourse on contemporary issues and events for over fifty years’ (Logan 2016, 245).

42Women’s rights, including the right for them to dispose of their own bodies, remained one of her constant preoccupations. Thirty years after writing Katie and Ella’s discussion about birth control, Martineau supported Josephine Butler’s campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act (a law which allowed the police to perform an internal examination of suspected prostitutes, and led to much abuse). Martineau was also a staunch advocate of careers for women, notably in How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), a pioneering treatise of sociology that she wrote after her visit to the United States. She was especially frustrated by the lack of acceptable professional options open to middle-class women—much like the famous nurse and health administrator Florence Nightingale. She corresponded with the latter, who communicated reports to her in secret. That way, Martineau could, without citing her source, use their contents in daily newspaper columns that would, hopefully, contribute to social progress (Bostridge 342; Martineau 1990, 166–67).

43Harriet Martineau’s popularity dwindled in the last decades of her life and after her death, so that many authors she influenced are better remembered than she is today. This may be seen as a revenge of the male establishment, but Martineau also contributed unwittingly to her own dismissal. She wrote her own obituary, modestly—almost self-deprecatingly—stating about herself: ‘she could popularise while she could neither discover nor invent’ (Elton I, 312). Perhaps as a result, the Garveloch tales have now sunk into oblivion, and are rarely to be found together (only the second is reprinted in the latest edition of selected tales by D. Logan). Yet they provide a valuable insight into a specific junction in the history of ideas. The study of past utopias offers an interesting opportunity to reconstruct the issues and concerns of past generations (Elias 36), and this is exactly the case with the world of Garveloch. Malthusian theories were still part of the leading ideology, at a time when the New Poor Law confirmed the importance of self-help in the collective mindset. Simultaneously, an increasingly urban and literate population was eagerly awaiting the latest journalistic productions and cheap publications. Both genre and gender boundaries were becoming more porous: utopian tales of political economy could become bestsellers, and female authors such as Harriet Martineau could gain recognition from writing them.

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1 Ella and Angus are the ‘good farmers’, like Dan Archer. The lazy and improvident Murdochs act as a foil, much like Walter Gabriel in the radio series. Martineau’s tone can be regarded as exceedingly moralising: ‘in this society, as in all, some were wise and some were foolish; some provided for a time of darkness, and some did not. None were more provident than Angus and Ella’ (Martineau 1832b, 52).

2 ‘[H]ow wealth has more and more increased, and at the same time gathered itself more and more into masses, strangely altering the old relations, and increasing the distance between the rich and the poor, will be a question for Political Economists, and a much more complex and important one than any they have yet engaged with’ (Carlyle 1888, 233–34)

3 A typical example was the participation of British women in the campaigns for the abolition of slavery. They were able to become active in the abolitionist movement once the debate had shifted from economic to moral ground, as shown in Clare Midgley’s Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780–1870. As late as the 1850s and 1860s, Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill complained that women were relegated to a kind of ‘sentimental priesthood’ (Taylor Mill 21).

4 It may be argued that Archie stands for Harriet Martineau’s own disabilities. Certainly, Ella only agrees to marry Angus because he has sworn to look after Archie and care for him as much as he does for her. The death of innocent Archie on the eve of his sister’s planned wedding may also be seen as symbolical.

5 The Married Women’s Property Act was only passed in 1870. Also, the 1832 Reform Act (passed on the year of publication of Martineau’s text) increased the number of voters but introduced, for the first time, a clause explicitly banning women from the suffrage.

6 Mrs Murdoch, and also Noreen, the beaten Irish wife who always seems to hold her babies dangerously clumsily.

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Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman, « Gender Revolution in a Malthusian Utopia: Harriet Martineau’s world of Garveloch », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.5526

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Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman

Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman is a senior lecturer at the Université de Reims. She wrote her doctorate thesis and a dozen academic articles on Thomas Carlyle, as well as a culinary biography of Winston Churchill. She specialises in Victorian history of ideas, in particular French-British relations, social thought, and women’s rights.
Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman est Maître de conférences à l’Université de Reims. Elle est l’auteure d’une thèse de doctorat et d’une douzaine d’articles universitaires sur Thomas Carlyle, ainsi que d’une biographie culinaire de Winston Churchill. Elle se spécialise dans l’histoire des idées à l’époque victorienne, notamment les relations franco-britanniques, la pensée sociale et les droits des femmes.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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