Paul Johnson

Lady of Letters

The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau

By

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Harriet Martineau (1802–76) is clearly an important figure, being the first Englishwoman to write systematically and powerfully on economics and politics. Her output in books, newspapers and magazine articles was enormous, and she won the respect of a vast range of figures, from Dickens and Carlyle to Melbourne and Gladstone. But she is a difficult figure for us to appreciate and sympathise with. What she published in her lifetime is largely inaccessible and unreadable. She lacked charm, or at any rate the ability to convey it in words. As Wellington said of Peel, she had no small talk, very little interest in people as men or women (as opposed to public figures), no evident sense of humour and no self-doubt. She was direct, relentless and brusque, and could be dismissive and contemptuous. It would be unjust to call her quarrelsome. But she had many disagreements, some of which ended in estrangements (her beloved brother James being one such victim). Nervous people like J S Mill must have found her terrifying, and we know that Sydney Smith once had a nightmare in which he found himself locked up in a madhouse with her. 

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