Today is the birthday of social theorist and writer Harriet Martineau (books by this author), born in Norwich, England (1802). She was mostly deaf and had no sense of taste or smell. Her mother was difficult to get along with and believed in strict gender roles, so of her eight children, only the boys received a formal education. But things turned around when Martineau was 16: she was sent to Bristol to live with her aunt for a year. “For the first time,” Martineau later wrote, “a human being whom I was not afraid of.” Her aunt was warm and loving, and Martineau also found inspiration in the Unitarian church. She began writing anonymous essays for The Monthly Repository, a Unitarian publication. She also took charge of her own education, studying Latin, French, and Italian, and practicing translation. She also read lots of poetry by William Wordsworth, and memorized most of it. She won awards for her essays, but eventually she became too radical, and parted ways with the church. “Oh, those were glorious days!” she wrote to a friend. Even when her father’s business failed in 1829, she counted it a blessing, because she could “truly live instead of vegetate,” as she later wrote in her Autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1877.
One of the subjects Martineau spent a great deal of time studying was political economic theory. She read works by Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and others, and felt that their concepts had direct relevance to ordinary people — but their writing was complicated and hard for most people to understand. She took the concepts laid out by the philosophers and wove them into 25 short stories, which she published as Illustrations of Political Economy. She had a hard time finding a publisher, and even when she did, he wasn’t very optimistic. He published her stories in serial form between 1832 and 1834, and they were wildly successful. At the peak of their popularity, they sold 10,000 copies a month — more than Charles Dickens’ novels.