Under Difficulties

Harriet Martineau considers the relationship between ambitious work and physical health.

By Rebecca Richardson

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Convalescent, by Annie Louisa Swynnerton, c. 1887. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

In December 1833 Harriet Martineau fell ill. Although she had suffered from bouts of illness since childhood, she blamed this particular episode on the anxiety and overwork associated with her most recent writing projects. She had just traveled to Newcastle, paying visits and gathering information for a new project, which included firsthand research into a hot and drafty coal pit. She also blamed the “toil and anxiety” of seeking publication for the twenty-five-part Illustrations of Political Economy that she was currently wrapping up, a process that had “disordered” her liver and compromised her health ever since. Believing that all this work had finally caught up with her, she wrote to the publisher and printer to notify them that she needed to take a break from her work on the final installment.

The printer responded with bad news. In preparation for the proofs, he had wetted paper—amounting to sixteen guineas—that had to be used now or never. Even more unfortunately, the proofs involved complicated mathematical tables that Martineau had to correct herself. But to do this work while ill required the assistance of others. Martineau remembers this scene vividly in her Autobiography: “So, I set to work, with dizzy eyes and a quivering brain; propped up with pillows, and my mother and the maid alternately sitting by me with sal volatile, when I believed I could work a little.” This anecdote was apparently repeated and circulated, contributing to Martineau’s reputation for overly ambitious work. As she writes, “I was amused to hear, long afterwards, that it was reported to be my practice to work in this delightful style, ‘when exhausted, to be supported in bed by her mother and her maid.’ ” The way this anecdote traveled—and even, perhaps, overwrote the reality—suggests just how pervasive these tropes about hard work proved to be. Martineau’s example of physicalized intellectual work “under difficulties” was later included in self-help texts and collections of exemplary biography, from Catherine J. Hamilton’s series Women Writers: Their Works and Ways (1893) to W.A. Davenport Adams’ Woman’s Work and Worth in Girlhood, Maidenhood, and Wifehood (1880). Such anecdotes focus our attention on the successful individual who disciplines and overcomes her body; as Adams puts it, “There was true courage in the calmness with which she persevered in her literary work while suffering from a dangerous illness.”

Unlike these inspirational anecdotes, Martineau sought to tell a much fuller and more nuanced story about the relationship between work and health. She returned to these issues over and over across her writing career, from her Life in the Sick-Room—which has been read as a sort of self-help guide for those living with a chronic illness or disability—to the series she wrote for the magazine Once a Week on different careers and their impacts on people’s health, with topics such as “the maid of all work” and “the policeman.” And this attention to the body is apparent across her Autobiography, which starts with her earliest memories—memories of illness. Her later poor health and deafness were blamed on malnutrition as a baby, which was attributed to a poor wet nurse but might also have been related to Martineau’s apparent milk allergy. Whatever the cause, Martineau recalls, “My health certainly was very bad till I was nearer thirty than twenty.” And she continued to suffer various ailments in later life. In 1839 she was taken seriously ill with a uterine condition and lived as an invalid (her term) for five years. As a last resort, she experimented with mesmerism and made a miraculous recovery (although this led to a distressingly public debate over the exact nature of her condition). Later in her life she was diagnosed with a heart condition, but here, too, the threat of death proved a slow-moving one; she lived with the condition for twenty-one years.

As a result, throughout Martineau’s Autobiography—a text that was itself written out of a fear that she would die before completing what she considered “one of the duties of [her] life”—she is attentive to when her body prevented her work; enabled a different sort of work, such as her writing on illness and deafness; or became the subject of others’ work.

Harriet Martineau, by Richard Evans, c. 1834.

Martineau was thus uniquely positioned to describe the relationship between ambitious work and physical health. In comparison to the self-help genre’s tropes about the successful individual overcoming difficulties, and setting the body at defiance to do so, Martineau painted a richer picture borne of living with chronic conditions. And, importantly, she wrote in similar genres, framing both her autobiography and her work on illness as sources of advice for readers. In explaining her motivation for writing the Autobiography, she records how she had “always enjoyed, and derived profit from, reading [the biographies] of other persons,” and she repeatedly offered her experiences as lessons for others, particularly in Life in the Sick-Room. These texts thus overlap with the nascent self-help genre, with its interest in inspiring readers to learn from examples. They also speak back to the self-help ethos—and its “fantasy of limitless individual autonomy.”

Martineau imagines her illnesses in nuanced and sometimes even counterintuitive ways, with her conditions allowing as well as preventing certain types of work—particularly as these conditions intersected with her gendered position. As a result, across her Autobiography and Life in the Sick-Room, Martineau conceptualizes her illnesses and disability through careful attention to her agency as well as the systems of dependence she negotiates as a woman writer.

All this is complicated by another major branch of Martineau’s writing career, particularly the series that paved the way for that career. Her Illustrations of Political Economy was a popular and influential series, selling approximately ten thousand copies per number and reaching a total readership estimated at 144,000. Martineau’s work sold better than many of Charles Dickens’ novels, which, as literary scholar Elaine Freedgood reminds us for comparison, were considered “highly successful” at two or three thousand per month. The series also attracted the press’s attention. As the Spectator observed, “The first day of each month is marked by no publication of more importance than Miss Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy.” Martineau’s didactic narratives about how to navigate the economy put the onus on individuals, who must act first if they want change from nations and governments.

As Martineau argues in the preface to her Illustrations, “Unless the people will take the pains to learn what it is that goes wrong, and how it should be rectified, they cannot petition intelligently or effectually, and government will regard their complaints as unreasonable and their afflictions as past help.” As much as Martineau stresses the importance of understanding economic principles in order to be both self-reliant and a good citizen, these lessons are frequently at odds with the realities her characters face, given the wider systems of an increasingly global economy and environment.


In her Autobiography, Martineau remembers the especially difficult time before the success of her Illustrations:

My own heart was often very near sinking, as were my bodily forces; and with reason. During the daylight hours of that winter, I was poring over fine fancywork, by which alone I earned any money; and after tea, I went upstairs to my room, for my day’s literary labor. The quantity I wrote, at prodigious expenditure of nerve, surprises me now, after my long breaking-in to hard work. Every night that winter, I believe, I was writing till two or even three in the morning, obeying always the rule of the house, of being present at the breakfast table as the clock struck eight. Many a time I was in such a state of nervous exhaustion and distress that I was obliged to walk to and fro in the room before I could put on paper the last line of a page, or the last half sentence of an essay or review.

These passages could easily have appeared as the stuff of an inspirational biography in a self-help book, posing one’s body and exhaustion as obstacles to overcome. Even after intense bouts of writing, Martineau describes keeping to a strict schedule of disciplined work. She records that “it has always been my practice to devote my best strength to my work; and the morning hours have therefore been sacred to it, from the beginning.” In London, she recalls, she would boil coffee at seven or seven-thirty, and then work till two, followed by time for visitors. The obituary Martineau wrote for herself for the Daily News (and that her friend Maria Weston Chapman edited) recounts this schedule with yet more emphasis on her work: “It was at that time that she formed the habit which she continued for the rest of her life, of sitting up late, while going on to rise early. She took, on an average, five hours or five and a half of sleep, going to bed at one in the morning, and being at her breakfast at half past seven, to save the precious morning hours for her most serious business. Such was her practice, with few intervals, to the date of her last illness.”

Such schedules seemed made to be broken. Across her Autobiography, Martineau observes when this productivity veered, even by her standards, into excess. For example, recalling the year 1849, Martineau notes she “found that [she] had been overworking”; a few pages later, she remembers that, despite an already busy schedule, the project of her three-volume History “could not be delayed.” When Dickens wrote inviting her to contribute to Household Words, Martineau accepted because its “wide circulation” was too tempting to pass up. Later, Martineau again admits she had “too many irons in the fire”; a couple dozen pages later she “fancied [she] was going to do what [she] pleased.” But in July 1854 the invitation to write a “Complete Guide to the Lakes” proved an “irresistible appeal,” and she was back to a busy writing schedule. One has the sense that Martineau had trouble saying no to a new project, which is perhaps one reason that writer Hartley Coleridge reportedly claimed “she was a monomaniac about everything.”

Martineau worried that all this work took a toll on her health and even caused her second major illness. Around the time of the above-mentioned projects, she recalls some early warning signs, including “odd sensations at the heart” and “hurried and difficult breathing.” If she had been “duly attentive” to such signs, she “might have become aware already that there was something wrong.” The thin line Martineau encounters here between self-reliant work and self-harming overwork was the subject of much wider debate in the period, including, for example, new regulations on women’s and children’s work, the factory workweek, and workplace safety. As noted above, Martineau wrote a series of articles meditating on health in different professions. Taking a similarly focused view on the literary worker as a class, Martineau remembers in her Autobiography that she was “always aware of the strong probability that my life would end as the lives of hard literary workers usually end, in paralysis, with months or years of imbecility.” Authors who relied on stimulants were particularly at risk. Martineau recalls hearing that “there was no author or authoress who was free from the habit of taking some pernicious stimulant, either strong green tea, or strong coffee at night, or wine or spirits or laudanum.”


Although Martineau was successful early in her career, she was still concerned about her ability to support herself in the long run, against the vicissitudes of readers’ interests and the publishing industry. And so, even with her success, she was determined to live within her means and save money against the future.

The example of Sir Walter Scott particularly haunted her:

It was my fixed resolution never to mortgage my brains. Scott’s recent death impressed upon me an awful lesson about that. Such an effort as that of producing my Series was one which could never be repeated. Such a strain was quite enough for one lifetime. I did not receive anything like what I ought for the Series, owing to the hard terms under which it was published. I had found much to do with my first gains from it; and I was bound in conscience to lay by for a time of sickness or adversity, and for means of recreation, when my task should be done. I therefore steadily refused to countenance any scheme of ambition, or to alter a plan of life which had been settled with deliberation, and with the sanction of the family.

Looking back in her Autobiography, she writes, “Yet here am I now, on the borders of the grave, at the end of a busy life, confident that this same deafness is about the best thing that ever happened to me; the best, in a selfish view, as the grandest impulse to self-mastery; and the best in a higher view, as my most peculiar opportunity of helping others, who suffer the same misfortune.”

Martineau’s attention to such nuances—of how disabilities or illnesses might sometimes limit, complicate, or enable certain types of work—is also apparent in Life in the Sick-Room, where she details her experiences of living as, in her terms, an invalid. Most important for Martineau’s understanding of work and ambition are the passages where she speaks to the special “insight” that comes with illness:

We see the whole system of human life rising and rising into a higher region and a purer light…While we use our new insight to show us how things are done—and gravely smile to see that it is by every man’s overrating the issues of his immediate pursuit, in order that he may devote all his energies to it (without which nothing would ever be done), we smile with another feeling presently, on perceiving how an industry and care from above are compensating to every man his mistake by giving him collateral benefits when he misses the direct good he sought—by giving him and his helpers a wealth of ideas, as often as their schemes turn out, in their professed objects, profitless.

These lines interestingly fuse Christian imagery with ways of imagining self-interest in early economic thought—the way the individual privileges her particular “immediate pursuit” and how, even if she is unable to see the whole, this pursuit somehow works according to a larger scheme for the greater good. Building on this logic, Martineau emphasizes compensations or “collateral benefits”—the idea that failure or disadvantages (of illness, wealth, gender, etc.) somehow open a different door. Martineau’s Life in the Sick-Room teaches the reader that, from her perspective of the sickroom, she can see “the folly of the pursuit of wealth” and “the emptiness of ambition.”


Excerpted from Material Ambitions: Self-Help and Victorian Literature by Rebecca Richardson, used with permission from Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright © 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press.