Roberts, Caroline. The Woman and the Hour: Harriet Martineau and Victorian Ideologies.
Harriet Martineau (1802-76) published a variety of influential texts on women's issues during the Victorian era. Yet Martineau has long held a controversial place in the history of feminism. Some scholars view Martineau as a proto-feminist thinker who instigated and shaped public debates over women's social and political rights. Others argue that Martineau assumed a position of subservience within male intellectual culture.
The Woman and the Hour enters forcefully into this debate, making a compelling argument in favor of Martineau's feminism. Caroline Roberts provides a context for understanding and reevaluating Martineau's most important texts: Illustrations of Political Economy (1834), Society in America (1837), Deerbook (1839), The Hour and the Man (1841), Life in the Sickroom (1844), Letters on Mesmerism (1844), Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848), and Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development (1851). Through insightful cultural-historical analysis, Roberts demonstrates ways that Martineau confronted the sexism of Victorian culture by dismantling the logic of discriminatory arguments on a linguistic level and undermining patriarchal narratives that placed women in a position of political and social passivity.
In her chapter on Illustrations of Political Economy, for example, Roberts argues persuasively against the view that Martineau simply appropriated and endorsed masculine rhetoric in her work. She instead highlights ways that Martineau used narrative to clarify the principles of political economy while at the same time revealing "tensions and contradictions" within patriarchal systems of knowledge (25). Likewise, in her chapter on Deerbrook, Roberts demonstrates ways that Martineau worked both within and against masculine discourses. For example, Martineau employs a scientific, objective narrative voice while at the same time emphasizing ways that women are disempowered by medical discourses and domestic ideology.
In addition to making a compelling argument for Martineau's complexity and importance as a feminist thinker, Roberts provides a well-researched overview of a variety of historical controversies that establish an effective context for reevaluating Martineau's overall achievement. Especially impressive is Roberts' exploration of the connection between Martineau's work and the history of Victorian medicine. In her discussions of Deerbrook, Life in the Sickroom, and Letters on Mesmerism, for example, Roberts sheds light on the ways that Martineau both shaped and responded to contemporary debates over hysteria, anatomical research, mesmerism, and the professionalization of medicine. In chapters on The Hour and the Man and Eastern Life, Roberts effectively explores intersections between Martineau's work and Victorian debates over the reliability of historical truth and the validity of Christian doctrine. Especially fascinating is Roberts' analysis of Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, where she examines Martineau's engagement with the discourse on phrenology, her endorsement of the rise of secularism, and her argument for the indeterminacy of individual identity.
Though the scope of The Woman and the Hour is admirable, at times the book seems to strain under the competing claims of reception analysis, cultural-historical research, and biographical narrative. While some chapters, such as the chapter on The Hour and the Man, have clearly articulated arguments, others, such as the chapter on Society in America, are less focused. Nevertheless, every chapter of the book demonstrates considerable erudition and makes a significant contribution to feminist scholarship. Roberts establishes Martineau as a central figure in key cultural controversies during the Victorian era. In the process, she introduces scholars to a variety of literary texts that have too long been neglected in the history of British literature. Perhaps most importantly, she makes a compelling argument for Martineau's importance as an early feminist writer and thinker.
The Woman and the Hour: Harriet Martineau and Victorian Ideologies is available from the University of Toronto Press for $53.00 hardcover, ISBN # 0802035965.
Reviewer Alexis Easley is an assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast
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|Publication:||Women and Language|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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