This post was written by AHMC cataloger Miranda Schwartz.
Harriet Martineau was a prolific English author and thinker. Born in 1802, Martineau was an avid, self-educated reader (as was common at the time, only the boys in the family were sent to university), and, after the failure of her father’s business textile mill in 1829, she succeeded in supporting herself and her family as a writer (a rare accomplishment for a Victorian woman). She wrote widely on political economic theory, sociology, societal issues, women’s issues, and education. She traveled to the United States in 1832, and to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in 1846. Martineau was also a correspondent for Charles Dickens’ Daily News and the Westminster Review. She did all this despite periods of chronic illness, a facet of her life which she fully explored in her 1844 work, Life in the Sick-Room: Essays by an Invalid. This book, written while Martineau was housebound for a few years in the early 1840s with a painful ovarian tumor, expressed Martineau’s lifelong intellectual and spiritual curiosity. The book elicited criticism from doctors for its idea that the invalid could exert control despite illness, and could use illness as a time of reflection. Martineau’s attribution of her recovery to mesmerism was also much derided.
The American Historical Manuscript Collection holds a 10-page letter written on February 25, 1844, from Martineau to her friend Mary Estlin, herself an active abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights; it is part of what must have been a lively intellectual exchange between the two thinkers and activists.
Though Martineau discusses a variety of topics with Estlin (local politics, her handbill in tribute to reformer Rowland Hill), the main thrust of her letter is the anonymously published Life in the Sick-Room. She writes: “How strange it is that, amidst the variety & abundance of human utterances, so many of the commonest experiences remain unexpressed! Old as sickness is, how astonishing it is that no such book as this shd. have been written before! I feel this, beyond others, — for the whole of it burst from me. My experience so burdened me that I was compelled to utter it. Why was it never so with others? And see how it was needed!” She speaks proudly of the book’s selling “all over the Kingdom” and continues: “If we cd. get the plain truth spoken about all our spiritual experiences, what an advance might we make in faith, hope & charity! It wd. melt your heart to see the letters of consultation, of confession, of enquiry, of confidence about spiritual troubles that this book has brought to me.”
Martineau was undaunted by the criticism directed at her and wrote and traveled until her death in 1876.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.