Lana L. Dalley, “On Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy, 1832-34″


Harriet Martineau’s conception of fictional and economic discourses as compatible, her confidence that a woman could effectively and authoritatively write about political economy, and Illustrations’ resonance throughout the period mark Illustrations of Political Economy‘s conception, publication, and reception as important events in the history of nineteenth-century literature and culture.

Portrait of Martineau

Figure 1: Portrait of Harriet Martineau

To call the publication of Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy an “event” may be something of a stretch. Published in twenty-five parts over the course of two years (1832-1834), its publication history alone calls the moniker “event” into question. Moreover, despite the Illustrations‘ impressive popularity in its own time, the tales received little pedagogical or critical attention throughout most of the twentieth century. The didactic nature of the tales is, undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for such a lengthy critical disinterest; although didactic works may serve a particular purpose in their own time, often making them quite popular, the didacticism can tie the text to its historical moment in a way that undermines its literary longevity.[1] In addition to this, though, it seems that scholars and teachers do not quite know what to do with Martineau’s fusion of literary and economic narratives. Literary scholars are quick to catalogue the Illustrations‘ shortcomings at the levels of plot, characterization, and form, while economists challenge the accuracy and legitimacy of the tales as “illustrations” of economic principles. Limited by the constraints of disciplinarity, literary scholars overlooked, until very recently, the way the Illustrations rethinks genre and legitimizes women as economic writers and agents. The cultural significance of the Illustrations lies in its resistance to generic classification; Martineau’s conception of fictional and economic discourses as compatible, her confidence that a woman could effectively and authoritatively write about political economy, and the Illustrations‘ resonance throughout the nineteenth century mark its conception, publication, and reception as important events in the history of nineteenth-century literature and culture.

It is widely acknowledged that the publication of the Illustrations made Harriet Martineau a household name. The commercial success of the series granted Martineau not only national celebrity as a writer and supporter of political economy, but also the means to support herself financially; in her own words, from the “hour” she learned of the series’ success, she “never had any other anxiety about employment than what to choose, nor any real care about money” (Martineau, Autobiography 135). Financial independence was necessary after the collapse of the Martineau family business, a collapse she later regarded as “one of the best things that ever happened” to her because it allowed her to “truly live[] instead of vegetate[]”(108).  In her Autobiography, Martineau fondly recalls this as a time when she had “liberty to do my own work in my own way” and draws upon what were, by then, standard proto-feminist arguments about the lack of useful employment for women. She also implicitly challenges the dominant economic narratives that equate fiscal success with happiness, and bankruptcy with misery. In the midst of these lifestyle changes—when confronted with the relationship of her own domestic economy to larger-scale economics—Martineau conceived her unlikely project of turning the principles of political economy into fictional tales. The project fulfilled Martineau’s dual desire to be useful and to earn money because she believed the tales to be not only important, but also “craved by the popular mind” (Autobiography 122). Publishers, however, were less convinced that the series would be a commercial success, arguing that the social unrest of the early 1830s—caused by the impending enactment of the Reform Bills, the cholera epidemic spreading through London, as well as lingering fears about the French Revolution and Peterloo Massacre—made it an inopportune time to publish a work of this nature. (On the cholera epidemic, see Pamela Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England.”)

The overwhelming popularity of the series seems to have confirmed Martineau’s instinct about the public’s desire, though; Elaine Freedgood points out that “[b]y 1834, the monthly sales . . . had reached 10,000, several times that of many Dickens’s novels, which at 2,000 or 3,000 per month were considered highly successful” (Freedgood, “Banishing Panic” 213).[2]  Contrary to the warnings of publishers, the time appeared to be just right for the publication of the tales. Indeed, the popularity of the Illustrations was the catalyst for Martineau’s prolific career as a writer, initiating the publication of over 100 separately printed titles, “scores of periodical articles,” and 1,642 newspaper editorials (Yates 4). Martineau was even commissioned for a sequel, Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (1833-34).[3] The popularity of the Illustrations also initiated, I would argue, a more widespread engagement with the theories of political economy, or at least Martineau’s imagining of them, in Victorian Britain. Although many writers, such as Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thomas DeQuincey, treated aspects of political economy in their works throughout the period, the unique nature of Martineau’s project gave it greater visibility as a fictional text written by a woman and devoted to political economy.[4] In the 1830s, the Illustrations were a key source of knowledge about political economy for much of the Victorian population—a fact substantiated by its vast popularity and the attention it received in the periodical press.

In the preface to the Illustrations, Martineau offers to give her readers “the science in a familiar, practical form. They [political economists] give us its history; they give us its philosophy; but we want its picture” (xi). Glossing over Jane Marcet’s earlier work, Conversations on Political Economy (1824), Martineau stresses the originality of her own project arguing that “[t]his method of teaching Political Economy has never yet been tried, except in the instances of a short story or separate passage here and there” (Illustrations xii).[5] Her reference to a “separate passage here and there” gestures towards the inclusion of fictional examples within political economy itself and, more importantly, lays the foundation for our modern critical understanding that “if language consists of economies, so also economics is a language” (Osteen and Woodmansee 22). Arranging the tales conceptually around four principles—Production, Distribution, Exchange, and Consumption—Martineau set out to “embody each leading principle in a character: and the mutual operation of these embodied principles supplied the action of the story” (Autobiography 147).[6] The stories covered a wide range of subjects, from free trade in “The Loom and the Lugger” to moral restraint in “Weal and Woe in Garveloch,” from debt in “The Farrers of Budge Row” to rent in “Ella of Garveloch,” and from banking in “Berkeley the Banker” to unionism in “A Manchester Strike.” Although admitting it was sometimes “necessary” to add fictional “accessories” to the story, Martineau remained confident that such accessories were “rendered subordinate” to the economic plotting. Forcing readers to rethink the emerging boundaries between economic and humanistic discourses, the tales illustrate not only the principles of political economy, but also the ways in which systems of representation (like political economy and fiction) share a vocabulary for representing human behavior.[7]

At the time of the series’ publication, most nineteenth-century readers assumed that fictional and economic discourses were separate and distinct forms of knowledge that resisted linguistic amalgamation; fiction claimed authority over emotional knowledge, while economics claimed authority over empirical knowledge (Poovey 132-133). Indeed, James Mill warned Charles Fox against publishing the Illustrations because he thought that Martineau’s “method of exemplification . . . could not possibly succeed” (Autobiography 129) and insisted that, instead of narrative, she pursue the didactic form.[8] Martineau’s publisher echoed the popular attitudes about fiction and economics when he initially wanted to leave the term political economy out of her series’ title; Martineau refused, later stating, “I knew that science could not be smuggled in anonymously” (Autobiography 124). Forty years later, when Millicent Garrett Fawcett published Tales in Political Economy (1874), she characterized Martineau’s project as an attempt at “hiding the powder, Political Economy, in the raspberry jam of the story” (i). Interestingly, though, Martineau had no desire to camouflage the language of political economy within fictional pleasantries; rather, she perceived it as a science whose principles were so natural and far-reaching (and, as such, tied to empathy and felt human experience) that they were ideal fictional material.  In her preface she states, “[t]he reason why we choose the form of narrative is, that we really think it the best in which Political Economy can be taught, as we should say of nearly every kind of moral science” (xii). Martineau’s desire to “domesticate” political economy—to personalize its abstract principles by illustrating their relevance to everyday life—required her to situate the tales at the nexus of liberal economic discourse and Victorian domestic discourse.

When introducing the tales Martineau appeals to the empathetic and emotional dimensions of storytelling: “the great principle of freedom of Trade may be perfectly established by a very dry argument; but a tale of the troubles, and difficulties, and changes of good and evil fortune in a manufacturer and his operatives, or in the body of a manufacturing population, will display the same principle, and may be made very interesting besides; to say nothing of the excuse that these subjects cannot be understood” (xiv).  At a time when political economy was increasingly perceived as an unfeeling and impersonal science, Martineau engages and illuminates those aspects of political economy that are tied to felt human experience by shifting the focus to individual stories, rather than abstract principles. Most critical readings of Martineau’s tales have theorized the political potential of the domestic sphere as only realized when domestic values are inscribed onto the public sphere, rather than vice versa.[9] As I have argued elsewhere,[10] Martineau defines the public and the domestic as analogous and argues that they are in a reciprocal relationship, shaping one another, rather than simply inscribing the public sphere with the values of the private sphere—which suggests that the two are inherently different and separate.

By bringing the topic of domestic economy to bear on political economy, Martineau places women more centrally within economic theory and practice. In this context, women—as readers of the Illustrations and as characters within the tales—are not only rendered a part of larger-scale economics but also (because of their participation) encouraged to learn the principles of political economy.  For example, in “A Manchester Strike” it becomes clear that the female characters “hate a turn-out” because it impedes their domestic management and disables their domestic economy. Within the tale, women have a clearly demarcated economic role and domestic harmony is contingent upon their ability to perform their economic duties. This point is reinforced at the end of the strike when the narrator observes the “larger proportion than usual of ragged women and crying babies” (128). The stress of the strike is felt most acutely in the domestic sphere, and women and children act as a register for this suffering. In the Garveloch tales, the economy of the private sphere and the economy of the public sphere are similarly presented as obviously and inextricably interconnected, and the willful mismanagement of domestic resources has large-scale economic repercussions. The domestic mismanagement so prevalent in Garveloch mirrors the town’s larger-scale economic mismanagement (which is at odds with the principles of political economy) and, tellingly, Martineau sets up a chicken and egg scenario where it is unclear which economic mismanagement—household or national—came first. Of course, this is not to suggest that her treatment of domesticity is unproblematic or that her representation of gender is not, at times, puzzling and ambiguous, but rather to suggest that, simply by identifying British homes as the stage for political economy and portraying women as its agents, Martineau opened up a space for women within economics and helped shape the cultural meaning of political economy in Victorian Britain.

The publication of the Illustrations, then, I would argue, forced its readers more fully to consider women’s potential as economists, both inside and outside of the home. Even a cursory examination of the contemporary reviews reveals readers’ intense preoccupation with Martineau’s gender and its bearing on her ability to convey economic knowledge. Despite the proclamation, in an 1832 review of the Illustrations, that “[t]he ladies seem determined to make the science of Political Economy their own,” gendered assumptions about economics permeate the responses to Martineau’s literary economic project (“Miss Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy” 612). For example, the writer above evokes the separate spheres model of gender relations when he suggests that “there is something in the female mind which peculiarly fits it for elucidating, in a familiar manner, the intricacies of political economy. The economy of empires is only the economy of families and neighbours on a larger scale” (612-13). And yet another reviewer argues that “as scientific instruction and the entertainment afforded by fiction, require a different state of mind in the reader, and a different character of mind in the author, we do not think it a desirable thing that any attempt should be made to unite them in the same work” (Rev. of Illustrations of Political Economy 557). So, according to this reviewer, political economy is not appropriate fictional material not only because of differences in form but also because the intellectual “character” of the respective writers and readers are different.[11] This same sentiment is echoed in Edward Bulwer Lytton’s review when he states: “She has taken the facts of Political Economy, woven a series of tales, of great and familiar interest, illustrative of the broader and more useful of its doctrines. It is as a writer of fiction, however that we only regard her. . . . As a political economist, then, we do not consider Miss Martineau entitled to high estimation” (428). In what is otherwise a positive review of the fictional tales, Bulwer-Lytton is quick to note that he is regarding Martineau as a fiction writer, not an economist. Presumably, fiction writers do not possess the scientific mind required by political economists, and vice versa. Although there was an increasing range of writing produced by women since the early eighteenth century, the Illustrations are a good example of how the cultural gendering of discourse that sanctioned women’s domestic writing, but discouraged their capacity for “serious” subjects, persisted well into the nineteenth century. While men and women both contributed to the genre of conduct books and domestic novels, men could move between and across discourses more freely than women writers, whose discursive activity was more closely scrutinized. Martineau’s Illustrations demonstrates how the gendering of discourse—and, more specifically, the scrutiny of women’s discursive activities—was fundamental to the gendering of economic theory and practice.

In the last decade, there has been a renewed interest in Harriet Martineau’s body of work, including the Illustrations of Political Economy. In 2004, Broadview Press published four of the Illustrations, along with a valuable critical introduction by Deborah Logan, making the tales available to a wider audience. This resurgence in critical interest coincides with recent trends in economic literary criticism, specifically the treatment of economics as “a language comprised of tropes, tales and other rhetorical devices that are literary and rhetorical rather than scientific or natural” (Osteen and Woodmansee 22). Martineau’s economic fiction is an early register of such thematic and formal overlaps, and of the historically fraught relationship between women within economics. By reading the Illustrations through this lens, we open a space for imagining the ways in which women shape and are shaped by economic forces and for envisioning a new way of reading the relationship between private and public spheres, women and economics, and literary and economic language in the nineteenth century.

Lana L. Dalley, Associate Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton, has published articles and reviews in Victorian Poetry, Victorian Literature and Culture, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Victorian Review, Victorian Institute Journal (forthcoming), and Harriet Martineau: Authorship, Society, and Empire. Recently she co-edited an essay collection with Jill Rappoport (University of Kentucky) entitled Economic Women: Essays on Desire and Dispossession in Victorian Culture, and she’s working on a book about the economics of Victorian motherhood.


Dalley, Lana L. “On Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy, 1832-34.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. “On Moral Fictions. Miss Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy.” Logan, Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations 427-429. Print.

Dalley, Lana L. “Domesticating Political Economy: Language, Gender, and Economics in Illustrations of Political Economy.” Dzelzainis and Kaplan 103-117. Print.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. London: Macmillan, 1987. Print.

Dzelzainis, Ella. “Feminism, Speculation and Agency in Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy.” Dzelzainis and Kaplan 118-137. Print.

Dzelzainis, Ella and Cora Kaplan, eds. Harriet Martineau: Authorship, Society and Empire. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. Print.

Freedgood, Elaine. “Banishing Panic: Harriet Martineau and the Popularization of Political Economy.” The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics. Ed. Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen. New York: Routledge, 1999. 210-228. Print.

—. Victorian Writing about Risk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.

Hobart, Ann. “Harriet Martineau’s Political Economy of Everyday Life.” Victorian Studies 37 (1994): 223-51. Print.

Logan, Deborah. The Hour and the Woman: Harriet Martineau’s ‘Somewhat Remarkable’ Life. Dekalb: Northern Illinois UP, 2002. Print.

—. Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy. Ontario: Broadview, 2004. Print.

Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography. Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1877. Print.

—. Illustrations of Political Economy. London: C. Fox, 1834. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. 1873. London: Penguin, 1989. Print.

Millicent, Garrett Fawcett. Tales in Political Economy. London: Macmillan and Co., 1874. Print.

“Miss Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy.” Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine 1 (1832): 612-18. Print.

Osteen, Mark and Martha Woodmansee. “Taking Account of the New Economic Criticism: An Historical Introduction.” The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics. Ed. Osteen and Woodmansee. New York: Routledge, 1999. 3-44. Print.

Poovey, Mary. Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation 1830-1864. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. Print.

Rev. of Illustrations of Political Economy, by Harriet Martineau. Dublin University Magazine 6 (1835): 557-66. Print.

Scholl, Lesa. Translation, Authorship, and the Victorian Professional Woman. Burlington: Ashgate, 2011. Print.

Webb, R. K.. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. New York: Columbia UP, 1960. Print.

Yates, Gayle Graham ed. Harriet Martineau on Women. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1985. Print.


[1] For an interesting analysis of the place of the Illustrations in literary history, see Logan, The Hour and the Woman, esp. 18-19.

[2] For further details on the publication of the Illustrations, see also Freedgood, Victorian Writing about Risk, ch.2; Webb, Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian, 113-114; and Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, 122-137.

[3] This series reflects Martineau’s support, like T. R. Malthus’s and J.S. Mill’s, of the New Poor Law of 1834.

[4]> Martineau’s confidence in writing about political economy stands in stark contrast to Elizabeth Gaskell’s (gendered) self-consciousness in writing about it—a self-consciousness that, notably, did not prevent her from returning to the theme again and again—when, in the preface to Mary Barton (1848), she professes her ignorance about political economy while simultaneously offering her readers a volume meant to engage the workings thereof.

[5] For Martineau’s account of reading Marcet, see the Autobiography, 105-106. Although readers have often focused on the similarities between Marcet and Martineau’s projects because they were both women writers aiming to educate readers about political economy, Lesa Scholl notes that there were important differences between the projects: “While it is true that Martineau was following in the footsteps of Jane Marcet, Marcet wrote textbooks to educate school-children. In contrast, Martineau’s intended readership extended to members of parliament, monarchs and heads of State on an international stage” (106-107).

[6] Ella Dzelzainis explains that the “series follows the structure of James Mills’ Elements of Political Economy (1826)” (134). For more on Martineau’s “method of preparation,” see the Autobiography, 147-149.

[7] Although the distinction between the scientific and humanistic discourses does not fully materialize until later in the nineteenth century, Mary Poovey notes that “[l]argely because of the eighteenth-century disaggregation of moral philosophy into political economy and aesthetics, the ways of knowing epitomized by these discourses had become gendered by the early nineteenth century: the abstract reasoning of political economy was considered a masculine epistemology, while the aesthetic appreciation of concrete particulars and imaginative excursions was considered feminine” (133).

[8] Ultimately, Mill’s warning prompted Fox to change the terms of Martineau’s publishing contract, such that the subscription was even more difficult for her to meet. In her Autobiography, Martineau recounts meeting James Mill years later when he “made the frankest possible acknowledgement of his mistake in saying what had so critically and mischievously alarmed Mr. Fox;—that political economy could not be conveyed in fiction, and that the public would not receive it in any but the didactic form” (329).

[9] For example, see Nancy Armstrong, Deirdre David, and Ann Hobart.

[10] Lana L. Dalley, “Domesticating Political Economy.”

[11] The point about women’s “softening” influence on political economy is made in J.S. Mill’s Autobiography (1873) when he recalls writing Principles of Political Economy: “What was abstract and purely scientific was generally mine; the properly human element came from her [Harriet Taylor]” (187-88).