I do and I don’t

Barbara Wootton

  • The Diary of Beatrice Webb. Vol. I 1873-1892: Glitter Around and Darkness Within edited by Norman Mackenzie and Jeanne Mackenzie
    Virago, 386 pp, £15.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 86068 209 9

Beatrice Potter was born in 1858 at Standish on the edge of the Cotswolds. Her father, Richard Potter, was a well-to-do (mainly self-made) businessman to whom she was devoted. Relations with her mother seem, however, to have been uneasy: the diary mentions ‘a kind of feeling of dislike and distrust which I believe is mutual’. For this she suffered a strong sense of guilt, as she earnestly believed that ‘whatever my mother might be, it ought not to make the slightest difference to my feelings and behaviour towards her. Honour thy Father and thy Mother was one of the greatest of Christ’s commandments.’ Nevertheless, as the eighth daughter in a family of nine girls and one boy (who died in infancy), Beatrice did sometimes feel neglected by her parents’ preoccupation with her older sisters’ numerous courtships and marriages.

Beatrice’s own upbringing was unusual, either for her own, or for any later generation. When she was 16, she was sent for a few months to Stirling House, apparently a conventional finishing-school. There, after a brief period of homesickness, she seems to have settled quite contentedly, but she says nothing about the curriculum. Anyway, apart from a few governesses at home, not mentioned in the diary, Stirling House was the sum total of her formal schooling. For the rest, her education was derived from conversations with her father’s intellectual friends, notably the philosopher Herbert Spencer (with whom she kept up a lifelong friendship), and from her own extensive reading. Good-looking, well-to-do and intelligent as she was in her teens and early twenties, Beatrice might have attracted many suitors. If she did, they find no place in her diary, though much later, after her ‘obsessive infatuation’ with Joseph Chamberlain, she does hint at ‘affaires de coeur’ by then clearly regarded as negligible.

In the course of her self-education, she records reading ‘Hesiod and other Greek authors, as well as Goethe and Ruskin’. Later she tackled mathematics (but found this difficult) and also attended classes in physiology. But from the day when, as a girl of 16, she resolved ‘to live a more serious life’ (not that there are many traces of previous frivolity), she was incessantly tormented by the struggle to reconcile her religious belief with the agnostic conclusions toward which her intellect was already pointing. Thereafter this conflict coloured all her mental activity. At 16 she had accepted the validity of Christ’s commandments, and eight years later, after her mother’s funeral, although already a self-confessed agnostic, she admitted that she might still be forced to ‘acknowledge the supremacy’ of her religious feeling over her ‘whole nature’. The dilemma seems to have troubled her right to the end of her life. The diary even suggests that, whereas an agnostic should follow his reasoning faculty in every other context, he should renounce this obligation on the one subject of an emotional religion.

Altogether, the first third of this book does not make cheerful reading. Only after Beatrice met Charles Booth, who was already engaged on his epoch-making survey of Life and Labour in London, did things begin to look up. Both Charles and his wife Mary became firm friends with this beautiful and intellectually precocious young woman. Through them she first met Joseph Chamberlain at a dinner-party. As Mayor of Birmingham, Chamberlain had won a considerable reputation as a civic reformer, and after his election to the Commons, he had become Gladstone’s President of the Board of Trade. When Beatrice first encountered this handsome, rich and successful politician, he had already been twice widowed and left, a few years before, with a son and baby daughter (his second wife died in childbirth). Now he was prepared to keep an eye open for a third marriage partner. Beatrice’s entry in the diary for that day reads:

Met sundry distinguished men, among others Joseph Chamberlain. I do, and I don’t, like him. Talking to clever men in society is a snare and delusion, as regards interest. Much better read their books.

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