Discovering Harriet Martineau’s Egypt

March 14, 2011 at 12:00 am Leave a comment

And your random nineteenth-century lady-writer of the week is: Harriet Martineau! For me, Martineau has become one of those rare creatures who are able to transcend the experience of the classroom and remain interesting.

Biographically, she was a deaf, female political economist born in 1802 who is most famous for writing a series of “political illustrations” designed to make political economy more understandable to the common man. While these illustrations can be purposefully and painfully obvious in their attempts at education (the characters are extremely prone to have long-winded “conversations”/lectures on the nature and practicality of political economy), Martineau’s other writing, notably her travel narratives, are far less pedantic and thus more enjoyable.

Recently, I’ve been reading her Eastern Life: Past and Present which talks about her journey through Egypt and the Near East in the 1840s. I’ll be the first to admit I have a personal interest in the topic (dissertation!). But even without this interest, she still produced a book which is absolutely fascinating to read with a modern eye towards issues of the British imperialist action in Egypt, European attitudes towards the East more generally, and the writing of travel narratives by women, a fairly transgressive act at the time.

(Reading it with a contemporary eye, however, I fear would prove a bit of a chore as she is entirely prone to downplay any of the exciting bits, like when her boat was dragged into a whirlpool and nearly dashed against rocks while attempting to climb the first cataract of the Nile. Martineau’s comment on this escapade? Some of the dishes were broken, they had to postpone dinner, and it was all terribly inconvenient.)

I’ve been reading Eastern Life for weeks now and the reason it is taking me so long is not because it’s dull but because practically everything she says has tremendous, subtextual meaning that I just have to write down! With the book, Martineau meant to promote the idea of the Near East as the birthplace of monotheism and attempted to portray contemporary Egyptians in a humane light (very successfully by nineteenth-century standards, but failed miserably by modern ones), but the text has become fascinating in a way she never intended.

I can’t say that I would recommend Martineau as light pleasure reading, although I frankly never tire of hearing British descriptions of Egypt from the Victorian period. If that floats your dahabeeyah, too, then definitely pick up a copy of Eastern Life. But if the crucible of monotheism isn’t of interest (although, in fairness, she does not belabor the point and does spend a number surprisingly well-informed paragraphs discussing ancient Egyptian history and architecture), definitely check out Amelia Edwards for a rather more preservationist and spirited account of much the same trip up and down the Nile from later in the century.



Entry filed under: Classics, Non-fiction. Tags: , , , , .

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