Tuesday, November 15, 2022

A hasty sketch of England's female Sociologist.

Whilst there's no online database as comprehensive as the Darwin Correspondence Project for Richard Owen's letters, the Temple university's Owen collection serves as a good starting point.

An interesting feature, particularly of the letters to Owen's wife (Caroline Amelia Clift/Owen) is the occasional drawing. This one caught my attention.

Letter of 1838 August 18

Mostly due to its crude nature, which made me laugh. I assumed it had to be someone specific but there wasn’t any clear attempt to get a good likeness. 

Luckily, the letter presented an answer. 

"The ocean arrived with her cargo of Philosophy, and I ought to add Literature for Harriet Martineau was on board (see the other side) about 3 p. m. "

So, it was Harriet Martineau. And whatever she was holding in her hand which is now lost to time, unless someone else can identify what that is. 

Martineau is regarded as England’s first woman journalist and her books helped form a foundation for modern Sociology. 

As her health declined in 1838, she moved to Newcastle in order to see her brother in law who was a well regarded doctor. 

The letter in which we find this picture is dated to the 18th of August 1838 and the location Owen provides is “Gateshead Rectory near Newcastle”. 

I’m not sure where the boat was coming from, and I don’t have enough resources on Martineau to cite whether or not the dates match up to when she would’ve been travelling, but nonetheless it’s an interesting tidbit. 

Another such item of interest is that Owen and Martineau shared a common acquaintance in Charles Darwin. Although Martineau was more familiar with Erasmus Alvey Darwin (Older brother to Charles) where there were some romantic prospects between them (Be aware racial slurs are used in the passage provided on Wikipedia.), though ultimately nothing came of it. 

Martineau was also impressed with Darwin’s 1859 work “On the Origin of Species” but seems to think his subsequent addition of “the creator” as an entity in the text was a mistake. 

"I rather regret that C.D. went out of his way two or three times to speak of "The Creator" in the popular sense of the First Cause.... His subject is the "Origin of Species" & not the origin of Organisation; & it seems a needless mischief to have opened the latter speculation at all – There now! I have delivered my mind." 


To me it seems as though her support of “On the Origin of Species” may have stemmed primarily from her desire to push more radical ideas into society. Though I consider that fair as Martineau had no particular focus on Natural History that I’m aware of. 

“I should much like to know how large a proportion of our scientific men believe he has found a sound road.”


Although 1838 was 21 years before the publication of “On the Origin” the differing views on the book between Owen and Martineau are interesting to note even if their relevance to one another was brief. 

I ended up learning a great deal that I otherwise might not have from the inclusion of this doodle in a letter 184 years ago. 


Addendum 16/08/2023     

I must amend an error, or at least an oversight on my part, in this post with regard to the curious item Martineau is holding. 
As it turns out, the answer was in a fairly obvious place: Owen's 1894 biography, written by his grandson, "The Life of Richard Owen", directly references this letter, and the author states after quoting the "Harriet Martineau, see other side", part: "(a sketch which represents that lady holding up a huge ear-trumpet) (Owen, 1894)."

So, there's that. I have read this biography before, but it was at the beginning of my prospective studies two years ago and clearly did not stay in my mind.  I am, however, glad that my re-read gave me the answer to what was apparently a burning question.