Journal on Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales
Updated: Feb 16
Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales is a collection of tales that are meant to educate the readers about political economy. Although at the time Martineau did not realize her tales were also educating her readers on social economy as well. Although Martineau wrote this in the early 1830s many of the social issues portrayed in these tales are still relevant today. The issues that struck me to be the most relevant in today’s societies were the issues revolving around charity, as well as the issues of birth-control. After reading this collection of tales I began asking myself why Martineau is not as famous now as other writers from this era.
One of the big issues that Martineau stressed in her tales is charity given to the poor. This relates to issues today with welfare in America. The tale in which this issue is the most relevant is “Cousin Marshall.” In this tale charity is portrayed as a negative, Dale is an example as someone who does not agree with charity, “One may see what brings them. The flies come in swarms when there is a honey-pot near; and the beggars are brought by your master’s charity purse” (270). This opinion on giving money to the poor is similar to some people in today’s society. People think that the poor are less deserving because they did not work for their money as the people who pay taxes for welfare, or in the time being portrayed in this tale, pays for charity. This leads to the difference between the deserving and undeserving. In the introduction to “Cousin Marshall,” Deborah Logan writes, “the terms deserving, and undeserving poor were common currency, as the distinction between chronic exploitation of the system and temporary emergency assistance” (217). Once again this is a huge debate in today’s society as well. In today’s society some people might think that certain people are more deserving to be in the welfare system than others. An example could be, a man in his mid-thirties that chooses not to work, out of laziness, with no other cause, versus a mother of two, who just lost her husband (who was the worker of the household), and therefore is low on money while looking for a job. However, the decision of who is deserving and undeserving differs person by person in today’s society, just as I assumed it did in the 1830s.
Another large issue that Martineau brings up in her tales is birth-control. The tale that brings up this issue the most is “Weal and Woe in Garveloch.” In this tale Martineau shows the lack of birth control through some of Katie’s and Ella’s conversations. In conversation, Ella is explaining to Katie how birth control can help the economy, “We have not the power of increasing food as fast as our numbers may increase; but we have the power of limiting our numbers to agree with the supply of food” (110). Ella is telling Katie that although they cannot improve the economy around them, they can limit the number of babies that they have, saying that they need to only have the number of babies that they can provide for at that time. This is a similar topic that is being had today. When people have babies that they cannot provide for the families have to rely on more money being given to them. Another issue with this is some babies then are put up for adoption, because their parents cannot provide for them. Just as Ella is telling Katie, now days also can help society and the economy by only having babies that can be provided for and if someone cannot provide for a baby to practice some sort of birth control.
These tales were extremely interesting to me, and, therefore, they left me wondering why Martineau is not super well-known like others of this time, for example, Charlotte Brontë. Although there is no true way of knowing, I have a theory. When first learning I was going to read this collection of tales I was very off put by the title, because of the two words “political economy.” These two words automatically made me think this was somehow going to be almost like a textbook on political economy of the 1800s. This is a different reaction from when I normally see a title, like Jane Eyre, for example. Although I don’t think the title of this book has the power to take away Martineau’s fame throughout history, I do think that as time has passed this collection of tales could have seemed uninteresting to people looking for a book to read. This could possibly be an aspect of why Martineau got left in the dust when it came to be staying a famous writer through history.
Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales was extremely interesting to read. Harriet Martineau did a fantastic job of combining social and political economy in a way that is still relevant today. After reading this, I am very excited to see what other works Martineau has written.
Martineau, Harriet. Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales. Edited by Deborah Anna. Logan. Broadview, 2004.