Monday, March 23, 2009

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Harriet Martineau!

(June 12, 1802 – June 27, 1876)

I'm taking a break from the usual garden/house material to celebrate International Ada Lovelace Day. A bunch of bloggers are getting together to celebrate women in technology in order to provide role models/inspiration for themselves and others. (Ada Lovelace was a Victorian mathematician who wrote "programs" for Charles Babbage's hypothetical computing machine.) I get the impression that most people will be writing about contemporary female role models in technology; but as a Victorianist, when I think "role models," I think nineteenth century.

Who She Was: Radicalism
So I'm massaging the definition of "technology" here to write about one of my very favorite Victorians, Harriet Martineau. Martineau was a completely independent mind, someone who tested ideas herself to come to her own conclusions, and who was never afraid to follow the evidence wherever it led her. She never married (writing, "The older I have grown, the more serious and irremediable have seemed to me the evils and disadvantages of married life, as it exists among us at the time," an astute observation in view of the legal disadvantages to 19c women of marrying and of the tyranny of Victorian divorce laws), earned a living as a writer and public sage, was an avowed atheist at a time when that belief was even less popular than it is today (she famously described herself as "a free rover on the bright, breezy common of the universe"), became a convert to mesmerism when it seemed to cure her of a cyst in her abdomen, and was a committed abolitionist, to pick some of the more outstanding examples of her iconoclasm (v1, p133; v1, p116).

Martineau was raised in a Unitarian family, which means that she ran in fairly progressive circles from an early age. Her parents took care to educate both their sons and daughters, exercising "every self-denial to bring us up qualified to take care of ourselves," a lesson of self-reliance that became a key theme of Martineau's life (all quotations are from her Autobiography; v1, p27).

One of the things I love about her is her absolute straightforwardness. She must have been a formidable dinner guest, given her compulsion to call spades, spades. Endearingly, though, she's as frank about her own foibles as about anyone else's, writing of her childhood, "Of course, my temper and habit of mind must have been excessively bad. I have no doubt I was an insufferable child for gloom, obstinacy, and crossness" (v1, p43).

A particularly virtuous outcome of this frank, decisive way of assessing the world was that when she saw a problem, she tried to fix it. I happened to read some letters from her to Florence Nightingale in the British Library some years ago. Nightingale had returned triumphant from the Crimea and set about initiating further reforms in the Army's medical system back in London. Despite her massive popularity, she ran into determined resistance from the military establishment. When Martineau heard about this, she wrote to Nightingale--a woman she barely knew--to offer her assistance as an experienced popularizer of science to write a book that would bring the necessary pressure to bear on the authorities. This sort of breathtaking and energetic generosity was entirely characteristic of Martineau, eminently pragmatic, committed to the public good.

The Political Economy Series
She began writing to support herself and more or less stumbled onto stories with an economic theme, these being surprisingly popular with her publisher's working class readers. When she came across a book called Conversations on Political Economy (available now via googlebooks, for the curious)--coincidentally by a woman, Jane Haldimand Marcet (who does not have a Wikipedia entry, sadly: fellow Ada Lovelacers?)--she realized that there was a more scientific basis for the themes she had been treating. This realization led to the foundational work of her career, her Political Economy series.

At the time, "political economy," the embryo that was to become modern economics, was the foundation for many political and policy decisions. It was also veiled in mystery for the average person. In George Eliot's Middlemarch, her passionate, reform-minded heroine, Dorothea Brooke, finds herself constantly thwarted in her efforts by men who airily cited political economy, "that never-explained science which was thrust as an extinguisher over all her lights." In other words, the fact that women and the working class could not speak the language of political economy prevented them from participating fully in the major economic debates of the day. Realizing that there was a need for this information, and discovering that, in fact, the working classes were thirsty for accessible material on the subject, she conceived of a series of novellas, each of which would illustrate one of the key principles of political economy.

They were a huge success with readers, despite her publisher's initial reservations. Ten days after publication, her publisher sent her a letter asking her to make any needed edits as quickly as possible so they could print another run of 2,000. "A postscript," Martineau says, "informed me that since he wrote the above, he had found that we should want three thousand. A second postscript proposed four thousand and a third five thousand." This early in her career, Martineau exhibited her customary fearlessness in the face of controversy: in "Weal and Woe in Garveloch," the sequel to popular favorite "Ella of Garveloch," she wrote about Malthusian understandings of population and the wisdom of practicing family planning (by implication, through abstinence--she doesn't address birth control). Various right-wing critics pilloried her for daring to discuss so indelicate an issue, and some families forbid their daughters from reading the book; nonetheless, Martineau's financial success from the series was sufficient to make her (modestly) financially secure for the rest of her life.

Other Works
She did not, however, rest on her laurels. From the proceeds of her political economy series, she traveled to America to write Society in America. She employed the principles she codified in How to Observe Morals and Manners, which became important in the field of sociology. Her expose of anti-abolitionist feeling in the U.S.--most surprising in progressive centers like the northeast--is particularly enlightening. She also traveled to Egypt and the Middle East to gather material for Eastern Life, a book about the religions of the region. All experiences were grist for her intellectual and analytical mill: when she became sick and bedridden, she used that and the experience of being deaf (she lost her hearing in her teen years) to write Life in the Sickroom, a series of essays on the effects of invalidism in the mind and spirit. When her pain was removed through mesmerism, she wrote about that experience. When she lost her faith, she chronicled the process in The Atkinson Letters. She remains one of the key translators of Comte, whose philosophy she admired.

Despite her iconoclastic beliefs, Martineau was widely (though not universally) revered. Her ability to absorb ideas and popularize them made her an authority figure that Parliamentarians, among others, habitually consulted. Her courageous honesty made her trusted and respected. She became an increasingly involved feminist over the years, participating in a petition to Parliament in favor of female suffrage, among other causes. Her own imperviousness to obstacles, however, sometimes blinded her to the difficulties faced by contemporary women who were not gifted with her stupendous intellect and clarion sense of duty. Alongside appreciations of women like Joanna Baillie and Florence Nightingale are some less charitable screeds against frivolous women whose vacuous behavior and anti-intellectualism reinforced Victorian sexism. Her strength of mind is enviable, even if it can be difficult to emulate.

I'm including Harriet Martineau in Ada Lovelace Day under the definition of technology as "use and knowledge of tools and crafts." Her life was dedicated to the spread of knowledge for the benefit of humankind. She had an Enlightenment faith in the ability of Reason to resolve all ills, paired with an urgent Victorian sense of social justice. For her, knowledge was a great lever for moving the world. I admire her energy, her commitment to social good, her insatiable curiosity, and her wonderful self-confidence.

Martineau's death mask from The Armitt Collection in Ambleside, UK

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