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George Eliot, Harriet Martineau and the Popularisation of Comte’s Positive Philosophy

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Abstract

Harriet Martineau’s ‘freely translated and condensed’ version of Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy (1853) made a significant contribution to the scholarly conversation on positivism in Britain. The translation of Continental philosophy into English during the mid-nineteenth century enabled translators to rewrite and rethink the original text for their home audience according to their own political and social agenda. Yet the idea of translation can be broadened to include translating philosophical ideas into different genres in order to broaden the readership – to popularise and, to some minds, bastardise the philosophy. The translation of philosophy into literary fiction arguably bridges the gap between scholarly integrity and popularisation that Eliot feared; indeed, both Eliot and Martineau, as established translators, vividly understood their power to manipulate and mould foreign philosophies through both their literal translations and their fiction. This paper examines the translational role of Eliot’s Middlemarch (1877) and Martineau’s Deerbrook (1839) in reproducing, reshaping and popularising Comte’s positivism within the British public mind.

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