A century ago, Lytton Strachey suggested that the history of the Victorian Age would never be written simply because we know too much about it. To their successors, the Victorians left an unprecedented mass of data, shifting the primary task of the historian away from hermeneutics toward selective determination. Strachey’s response to this challenge was a turn to biography. After reading Deborah A. Logan’s new book, I am thinking it is just as well Strachey did not choose Harriet Martineau as one of his eminent Victorians, for otherwise he might never have gotten started.
As Logan reminds her reader, Martineau was a phenomenon, the author of over two-thousand periodical articles in addition to her fiction writing and her voluminous correspondence. Few scholars could be better positioned to engage this body of work than Logan, recently the editor not only of Martineau’s collected letters but also of her writings on history and on empire. Even so, and despite restricting its attention only to Martineau’s writing about Britain’s emerging empire, Logan’s study still requires seven chapters that, in their subjects, literally span the globe.
To combat against such sprawl, Logan helpfully frames her analysis in terms of questions and so we have, among others, chapters on Martineau’s response to The Irish Question, The India Question, and The Scramble for Africa Question. Each chapter is well organized and provides detailed accounts of particular colonial situations that will be valuable to scholars interested not merely in Martineau, but in Victorian imperialism more broadly. This in fact is one of Logan’s great achievements: to insist that those today who would claim to speak about Britain’s empire would do well to remember the authority and respect Martineau carried amongst her Victorian peers as a popular commentator on colonial affairs.
Martineau is presented here as a writer urgently committed to showing Victorian Britons the fullness of their relationship to the world. Sometimes, as in the Indian or Irish questions, Martineau wrote to correct what had become mistaken for a common knowledge. Her History of British Rule in India (1857), for example, proposed a new answer to the India question; its purpose being, argues Logan citing a letter from Martineau to her publisher, to challenge “people who will persist in talking of India as if he were the ruler of India” (123). At other times, as in her analysis of the 1833 tale Cinnamon and Pearls, Logan sees Martineau adopting a posture not unlike later cultural critics like Edward Said, when she writes simply to call her reader’s attention to colonial structures that have been deliberately obscured (105-111).
Given the habitual way Victorians euphemized the intractable problems of their political discourse in terms of questions (we might recall, among others, the Woman Question), Logan’s strategy has the added benefit of illuminating a good deal about her object, which is not to present definite answers but rather to articulate a problematic. In analyzing Martineau’s response to these questions, Logan suggests that there is a “compelling coherence to [Martineau’s] world view” (20). However, Logan’s choice to name that coherence as the “Civilizing Mission”—always and curiously in this study as a proper noun—lends it a programmatic character that neither Martineau’s writing nor Victorian public discourse more generally warrants. The phrase derives from the French mission civilizatrice, an explicit ideology of the French state which autoidentified with the universal principles of the Revolution. As scholars such as Lauren Goodlad have argued, such declarative statements were notoriously difficult to make in the emerging liberal hegemony of the British state. What the Victorians called betterment, improvement and progress certainly belong to the discourse of Whiggish and, later, liberal imperialism to which Martineau’s writing so often contributes; but speaking in terms of faith and mission seems to undermine Martineau’s scrupulous skepticism.
Logan defines Martineau’s Civilizing Mission as the “ethical imperative” of “Empire building…[which] carries with it a responsibility to improve, civilize, and modernize the dependencies on which the empire’s wealth depends” (21). This reminder that the field we now call economics originated as the study of the co-production of material and moral wealth is always welcome, but at the same time, Martineau’s writing defies this easy categorization. Logan’s analysis itself positions Martineau not as a zealous missionary of civilization, but as a “reluctant imperialist” (36), one who ardently believed that free trade liberalism could improve the material and moral lives of people everywhere but also one who was conscious of the rather illiberal tactics that necessarily would preface the implementation of the free trade regime. Logan’s reading of the 1845 tale Dawn Island in the third chapter represents this ambivalence perfectly, when the providential Captain announces that “the best kindness I can do for…the people of the island is to teach them to trade,—and honestly,” all the while holding in reserve the “thunderbolts” of an English warship should the Dawn Islanders refuse to listen to what’s good for them (99-103).
A similar ambivalence appears in the case of Ireland in the second chapter, where Logan confronts Martineau’s attempts to reconcile the fact of Ireland’s economic and social de-development since the 1801 Act of Union with her faith that union with England remained the best path for the increase of the Irish commonwealth. Martineau thus diagnoses Ireland as suffering not from imperialism but from what Logan calls “entrenched mismanagement” (49) of its land, its educational system, and its legal and religious institutions. Sympathetic to the complaints of the O’Connellite Repealers without endorsing their demands for self-determination, Martineau’s tortured logic puts her in line with a long tradition of British imperialists, from Edmund Burke to John Stuart Mill to E.M. Forster who all failed to realize that the Empire Question could be asked existentially as well as practically or ethically.
Throughout, Logan works hard to check against those critics who, perhaps over-enthused by developments in gender or postcolonial studies, have lately characterized Martineau as racist and anti-feminist. To be sure, Logan does not shy away from the uglier aspects of Martineau’s prose: the chauvinist representation of Australian Aborigines in Homes Abroad (1832) is rightfully critiqued. At the same time, though, Logan’s command of Martineau’s corpus allows her to present a more balanced view; she reminds us, for instance, that Homes Abroad was published the same year as Demerara (1832), the tale that “established Martineau’s reputation as an anti-slavery, human- and civil-rights advocate” (36). Later chapters on the Middle East and Africa likewise seek to place Martineau’s reliance on Orientalist discourse within her wider humanitarian campaign to emancipate and improve the lives of all. Logan, for example, notes that Martineau often saw England as having much to learn from the social policies in operation overseas. Impressed by the Muslim practice of sharing food, Martineau writes in Eastern Life, Past and Present (1848) that, “I have seen more emaciated and stunted and depressed men, women and children in a single walk in England, than I observed from end to end of the land of Egypt” (qtd. in Logan 202).
Putting to one side the panoptical fantasy operating in that claim, it is important not to forget that Martineau was remarkably mobile. If she did not quite traverse all of Egypt, she still covered an impressive amount of ground, especially for a white woman in the 1830s and ‘40s. Unlike, say, James Mill who unapologetically wrote his history of India without ever leaving Britain, Martineau visited many of her subject’s settings. She did this, it must be added, while coping with deafness. “She often set off on her own,” Logan writes of Martineau’s trip to Egypt, “equipped with maps, compass, and telescope, determined to locate sites by her own reckoning” (186). This is the lasting image of Logan’s Martineau, a woman writer capable of using the best instruments—in this case free trade liberalism—at her disposal to make sense of the facts and fictions of empire by her own reckoning. Martineau’s commitment to understanding contemporary political, economic and social developments in ethical terms, and to measure how, if at all, imperialism might advance or retard human progress, make her a formidable Victorian. Logan’s accomplished study calls out to scholars today, making a compelling case for her inclusion in our conversations about Victorian reactions to imperialism.
Eddy Kent is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.