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  • Contested Liberalisms: Martineau, Dickens and the Victorian Press by Iain Crawford
  • Catherine Waters (bio)
Iain Crawford. Contested Liberalisms: Martineau, Dickens and the Victorian Press. Edinburgh UP, 2020. Pp. xi + 332. £80.00. ISBN 9781474453134.

Our understanding of the relationship between Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau has long been dominated by the notorious Factory Accident controversy that erupted in 1855–56 over the campaign for industrial safety waged in Household Words. Dickens had invited Martineau to write for his new periodical in 1850 and she contributed more than 40 items–mostly devoted to the description of visits to manufactories and their industrial processes–before the dispute ended their five-year journalistic connection. Following a landmark essay by K. J. Fielding and Anne Smith published in 1971, the episode has traditionally been interpreted as having centered upon differences between the two about political economy. However, as Iain Crawford argues compellingly in his incisive new study, this reading narrows our understanding, not only of the event itself, but of the wider issues it can now be seen to bring into critical focus regarding transatlantic exchange, the development of Anglo-American liberalism and the formation of the Victorian press. Situating the dispute in this broader context enables Crawford to show how it gave expression to underlying differences in the understanding of liberalism shared by Dickens and Martineau and in their perception of the role of the press in advancing its cause. Studying the two side by side through their transatlantic engagements in the years leading up to the abolition of the so-called "taxes on knowledge," this comparative method gives us a new window onto both their professional development and the complex, networked world of Victorian print culture.

While "utterly different in so many ways," yet also "profoundly similar in so many others," as Crawford observes (300), it is remarkable that Martineau and Dickens have not been brought together in a book-length study before. Their visits to America, in 1834–36 and 1842 respectively, were formative experiences in the professional development of both writers and clearly invite comparative investigation. Crawford devotes the first four chapters of his study to the "transformational effect" of these tours, moving beyond existing debates about the accuracy or otherwise of their subsequent representations of America to consider instead their positioning within early Victorian transatlantic discourse, the critical reception of the writing that resulted from their visits and the development of mass-market journalism. Noting the dearth of critical attention paid to Martineau's evolving role in the press in the 1830s, Chapter 1 considers the stadial theory of social progress she drew from Enlightenment thought, focusing in particular upon two articles about Sir Walter Scott published in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine which make the progressive case for women's agency even while they reveal [End Page 293] the intellectual conservatism of her "commitment to a unitary historical narrative structure" (43)–a paradigm that forms a point of contrast with Dickens's later, "more complex, less optimistically teleological reading of historical analogy" (15). Chapter 2 examines Martineau's American visit itself, reframing earlier studies of her involvement with the abolitionist cause to consider it as part of her argument for a free press and its role in advancing a liberal society. Along the way, Crawford analyses her altercation with Samuel and Caroline Gilman over their reprinting of two of her Monthly Repository pieces in what she regarded as "a Pro-Slavery paper" (83)–The Southern Rose–together with Martineau's later strategic recirculation of extracts from Gilman in her own volumes, as an episode that shows "her willingness to regard erstwhile friends and liberal allies as collateral damage in her argument for social progress" and that thereby "prefigure[s] the arc of her relationship with Dickens" (87).

Chapters 3 and 4 turn to Dickens, examining American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit respectively. Here, the visits of Martineau and Dickens are brought into sharp contrast as the writing that came out of them is shown to illuminate fundamentally incompatible interpretations of America that reflect their differing visions of liberalism and of the role of the press as an agent of progress. Dickens's accounts of the Mississippi River and...