Archive for February, 2014

Today, the name Harriet Martineau is synonymous with social reform, human rights and religious tracts and was so during her lifetime.   Readers may be aware of her work in America, where she actively supported the abolition of slavery, and her numerous publications on worker’s rights and Uniterianism, less attention is paid to her comments and observations about Egypt.  Apart from the information she gives us about Egypt (as she saw it), I am personally interested in Harriet from the medical point of view  –  as a qualified audiologist and teacher of Deaf people –  as you will read below.  Thus, the intention of this article is to offer a brief overview of some of Harriet’s experiences whilst travelling in Egypt following a short introduction to her life and health issues.  Where appropriate I shall include short diary quotes from the lady herself!

Early life and ill health:

Harriet Martineau (fig. 1a) was born in  June,1802 in Norwich into a middle class business family.  She seems to have suffered from poor health since infancy and, apparently, was not expected to live long – she did live, however, and died, also in June, in 1876, at the comparatively elderly age of 74 years.


fig. 1a: Harriet at a young age ( not found copyright holder, please inform if need correction)

She appears to have had a remarkable memory for, in her diaries, she claims that her earliest memory was the death of Lord Nelson (fig. 1b)   –  she could only have been three years of age at that time!


fig.1b: Lord Nelson memorabilia – model of ship and coffin, newspaper report of funeral

In her diaries she states that her life was overshadowed, and even controlled, by ill health; between the years 1839 and 1844 she lived as a complete invalid, it is thought she had an ovarian cyst.  It is clear from her statements that she also experienced a worsening loss of hearing so that by her late adolescence she was quite deaf.  Of course, we do not have access to the types of detailed measurements of Harriet’s hearing that is undergone by modern clients in an audiology clinical setting so we can only ‘guess’ at the extent of her infirmity.  However, from the audiological assessment point of view, all the evidence suggests to me, as an audiologist,  that Harriet probably suffered from a form of deafness known as otosclerosis.  In this condition the bones in the middle ear harden and become fixed and, therefore, are unable to transmit sound.  The condition affects mostly Caucasoid individuals and principally females; it seems likely that Queen Alexandra also suffered from otosclerosis.  Harriet reports that she often cupped a hand around her ear to aid the direction of sound and there is at least one portrait of Harriet in which she is depicted cupping a hand to her ear; she often used an ear trumpet for the same effect.  Her school experiences seem to have been greatly affected by her ongoing hearing loss, nevertheless, as we shall see below, she became well-read in both the Classical field and the then current archaeological theories.  During her lifetime she produced many publications, including religious tracts, social commentaries and novels, the proceeds of which enabled her to buy herself a home in Ambleside in the Lake District.

Overcoming difficulties with humour:

When we read Harriet’s works it is clear she was a woman of deep thought and seriousness.  Some people have stated she was humourless, however, I discovered that she did possess a rather quirky sense of humour.  With regard to her deafness she opined that it was no great disability as it meant she did not have to listen to the often aimless chatter of those around her!

Earlier I mentioned that Harriet often used an ear trumpet to assist her hearing and she tells an amusing story about how the local Egyptians at Aswan market regarded this (to them) ‘strange’ device:

‘Here [ie. in Aswan], as everywhere, my ear trumpet was handled and examined with quick    curiosity:and in almost every case, from Nubia to the Lebanon, the immediate conclusion was the same.  The inquirers put the small end to their lips, and gave a satisfied nod.  It was clearly a pipe, with an enormous bowl!’

Up and down the Nile:

It was quite common for well-to-do Europeans to do a Grand Tour, especially of both the Classical world and the Middle East.  In 1846, Harriet Martineau was invited to join a group travelling to the Middle East, principally Egypt and Palestine.  As was the usual fashion of the times, her group went by various steamers eventually arriving in Alexandria in November that year (fig. 2).


fig. 2: a typical scene of steamer ‘life’ (although this is somewhat later being 1899)

Despite the group’s being in the country for merely eight months, they managed to cover a lot of ground – visiting various towns, famous ancient monuments and studying the local environments.  Harriet states ‘I carried compass and note-book, and noted down what I saw, from eminence to eminence, along the whole valley, from Cairo to the Second Cataract’; she published her account of this journey in March, 1848.

In this ‘note-book’ she comments on aspects of the landscape and wildlife, noting the seemingly unceasing conflict between the Nile and the desert in claiming the land.  It is clear she was aware of the then current research as she mentions the discoveries of watermarks high on the rocks made by Dr. Lepsius and his conviction that the Nile water bed had sunk over time; she ponders about the symbiotic relationship between the Nile crocodile and various birds.  Of the various peoples her group encountered she notes Nubians with three cheek gashes as ‘beauty-marks’ and Nubian women with tattoo marks, blue underlips, nose rings and hair minutely braided.  In keeping with her support of the abolition of slavery in America, she derides the evidence of human ownership which she actually witnessed in Egyptian slave-bazaars.

Part Two – what did Harriet see in Egypt = to follow – watch the next month’s blog space!

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