Celebrating the spirit of Norwich writer and radical thinker Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau

Novelist Kate Mosse will present the second annual Harriet Martineau Lecture at Norwich Playhouse on Thursday. Ahead of the event, Stuart Hobday reflects on the life of the 19th century radical thinker and writer from Norwich.

NNF14 - author Kate Mosse.

NNF14 - author Kate Mosse. - Credit: submitted

The idea for an annual lecture in Harriet Martineau's name came about during the application process for UNESCO City of Literature led by Writer's Centre Norwich. I had been researching Martineau's life for over ten years and had been continually amazed by her writing, life and influence. More amazing was that she was so little known in her home city of Norwich.

Chris Gribble of WCN recognised how Harriet's story fitted in with the non-conformist theme of the UNESCO bid. We agreed quickly that an annual lecture would be a fitting way to remember Martineau.

It's very appropriate that the lecture should be included in the Norfolk and Norwich Festival as it was Harriet's uncle, the surgeon Philip Meadows Martineau who was the driving force behind the establishment of a classical music festival as a fundraiser for the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in the 1780s. It was agreed that the lecture should be in the 'spirit' of Harriet Martineau but what is that and why should it be celebrated?

Harriet was born in 1802 and shares the same birthplace, Gurney Court on Magdalen Street, as Elizabeth Fry. As a teenager she became increasingly deaf and inhibited by shyness and illness. To compensate she educated herself through reading encouraged by a free thinking Unitarian family and community around the Octagon Chapel on Colegate. In her 20s she began to write.

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The failure of her father's textile business and his subsequent death affected her greatly not least in leaving her having to make a living through her writing and embroidery.

She had also seen firsthand how economics affects people's lives and in the late 1820s she began to write fictional tales illustrating economic and political factors. Within two years these tales were widely read and influential.

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It's difficult for us now to recognise the early nineteenth century when there was a huge gap between politicians and the lives of ordinary people. Martineau was helping to fill that gap to such an extent that soon progressive Chancellor Lord Brougham wrote that 'there is at Norwich a deaf girl who is doing more good than any man in the country.'

Her economic creed as outlined in the tales was one that would resonate today. She favoured free markets but with responsibility and wrote of the benefits of mutualism, cooperatives and was vehemently outspoken against injustice particularly slavery.

In 1830 she moved to London and her large readership meant that politicians courted her favour and writers and artists sought her company. She quickly became known for her ear trumpet which helped her overcome her deafness and to hold regular meetings with the great and the good.

In 1834, at the height of her fame, she embarked on an intrepid tour of America. She was well known there for her anti-slavery writings but at first she kept quiet on the issue. The sight of the slave system in action abhorred her though and eventually, at a meeting in Boston, she spoke out against the still entrenched system. This made her a great ally of the abolitionist movement and the friends she made in the US were to inform her journalism in the lead up to the American Civil War.

On her return she wrote several influential books. 'Society in America' was one of the first books to closely analyse a society and its structures and was outspoken in its ridicule of religious dogma. She openly condemned the sexual motivations of slave owners and the chapter entitled 'The Political Non-Existence of Women' applied equally to Britain as the US. The book was widely reviewed in Britain and America and was widely condemned for its insolence.

In London she was feted as a 'literary lion' and developed a great circle of acquaintances. Among them was Charles Darwin's elder brother Erasmus and when the younger Darwin returned from voyaging on the Beagle he saw a lot of the outspoken and famous Martineau. The recent Darwin biography 'Darwin's Sacred Cause' gave Harriet much credit for radicalising the young susceptible Darwin towards his own heretical views.

It wasn't just Darwin that she influenced; she was a free spirited, radical influence on Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte amongst others blazing a trail that they followed. In later years she became a strategic journalistic partner for Florence Nightingale's campaign for cleaner, better hospitals and training for nurses.

Martineau used the written word for causes. These causes included education, health, women's rights, anti-slavery and anti religious dogma.

In 1851 she published a series of letters entitled 'Man's Place in Nature' expounding the human mind as part of nature, ridiculing religious ideas and propounding a nature based atheism. Darwin biographer Adrian Desmond has called this 'many people's first encounter with the unimaginable.'

The text scandalised the literary world and many previous acquaintances distanced themselves. This was undoubtedly a turning point in her reputation as the establishment turned against her. Her lack of fame in her home city of Norwich can surely be traced to her incendiary ideas which the world was not ready for.

In recent years her reputation has been on something of a renaissance. Much of it driven from America where she retained a reputation from her travels. Hailed now as a first wave feminist, she was the first retained female journalist in the world; her work had great influencing in the founding of the social sciences.

There have been conferences dedicated to her at universities in London and Dublin and several in the States. There is a growing Martineau Society which meets annually in different locations.

The first annual Harriet Martineau Lecture at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival was delivered by Ali Smith who was revelatory in discovering the life and work of this indomitable 19th century spirit. This year's lecture is being delivered by the author Kate Mosse who is responding to the challenge of the 'Spirit of Harriet Martineau.'

So how do we sum up that spirit? Principally – think for yourself. Make your mind up and seek evidence to back up your case. Moreover in Martineau's life and work there is a constant urgency that the world can be better than it is and that the written word can be powerful towards this end.

• The second annual Harriet Martineau Lecture will be delivered by Kate Mosse as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival on Thursday at 7.30pm at Norwich Playhouse.

The lecture is part of the UNESCO City of Literature programme presented by the festival in association with Writers' Centre Norwich.

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