Martineau wrote many books and a multitude of essays from a sociological, holistic, religious, domestic, and perhaps most controversially, feminine perspective; she also translated various works by Auguste Comte. She earned enough to support herself entirely by her writing, a rare feat for a woman in the Victorian era.
The young Princess Victoria enjoyed reading Martineau's publications. She invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838 — an event which Martineau described, in great and amusing detail, to her many readers.
Martineau said of her own approach to writing: "when one studies a society, one must focus on all its aspects, including key political, religious, and social institutions". She believed a thorough societal analysis was necessary to understand women's status under men. The novelist Margaret Oliphant said "as a born lecturer and politician was less distinctively affected by her sex than perhaps any other, male or female, of her generation".
The sixth of eight children, Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich, England, where her father Thomas was a textile manufacturer. A highly respected Unitarian, he was also deacon of the Octagon Chapel, Norwich from 1797. Harriet's mother was the daughter of a sugar refiner and grocer.
The Martineau family was of French Huguenot ancestry and professed Unitarian views. Her uncles included the surgeon Philip Meadows Martineau (1752–1829), whom she had enjoyed visiting at his nearby estate, Bracondale Lodge, and businessman and benefactor Peter Finch Martineau. Martineau was closest to her brother James, who became a philosopher and clergyman in the tradition of the English Dissenters. According to the writer Diana Postlethwaite, Harriet's relationship with her mother was strained and lacking affection, which contributed to views expressed in her later writing. Martineau claimed her mother abandoned her to a wet nurse.