The familial link between Kate Middleton and Harriet Martineau

As the press continues to look for news on Kate Middleton in advance of the royal wedding, a sociologist popped up in Middleton’s family tree. Through a common ancestor, Middleton is related to early woman sociologist Harriet Martineau. Here is a description of Martineau’s life:

Harriet Martineau, to whom Kate bears more than a passing resemblance, is today a largely forgotten figure, yet during the Victorian era she was a powerhouse, a towering intellect who braved male prejudice to carve out a unique career in the world of letters. She is generally acknowledged as the first woman sociologist.

Born the daughter of a Norwich textile manufacturer, she grew up in a household dominated by Unitarianism and underpinned by a progressive attitude towards the education of girls. By the time she was 21 she had published her first article: perhaps unsurprisingly, “On Female Education”.

She moved to London and soon came her first book, Devotional Exercises for the Use of Young Persons in 1826 – but this was merely a warm-up: her big plan was to write books on politics and economics for the ordinary reader. Illustrations of Political Economy, which followed, was an instant success and brought her financial independence at a stroke…

Her circle included Thomas Malthus, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë and Wordsworth. These people, the heralds of change, thought they could improve the world and, to a greater or lesser extent, did so. Buoyed up by their vision of the new, Harriet yearned to experience nascent cultures for herself, and at a time when few of her age or class undertook such solo trips, she sailed to the United States in 1835.

While The Telegraph may suggest that Martineau is unknown in the UK, she is certainly known to sociologists. There is (or was) a Harriet Martineau Sociological Society and there have books written about her (an example here).

While Martineau’s accomplishments are impressive for her era, it is amusing that the news story continually tries to link Middleton to Martineau. Here are some of the comparisons:

Miss Martineau was renowned for her zeal and her intellectual rigour while, on the surface at least, Miss Middleton is better-known for her saintly patience in waiting for her prince and her impossibly glossy hair.

Harriet counted among her friends the reformers and intellectuals John Stuart Mill, Sydney Smith, Florence Nightingale and Thomas Carlyle. Speak it not unkindly but Kate, though photographed often, has rarely been seen with a book as a companion…

Quite how much of that rebellious streak still resides in the sleek Miss Middleton’s DNA is hard to judge… But it does raise the question: is there a Harriet lurking inside Miss Middleton ready to burst forth?

This is silly: how much can someone of today really resemble an ancestor of over 100 years ago? However, we could ask if Middleton was to act like a feminist today or to undertake activities similar to Martineau, what would be the public’s response be to her joining the Royal family?

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