Tolstoy in Essex

Gillian Darley

You could look very hard in Purleigh and not find any physical evidence of the Tolstoyan anarchist community that was founded there in 1897. The experiment, near Maldon, Essex, was short-lived, and the core settlers soon moved west, to Whiteway Colony on a (then) bleak Cotswolds plateau. It is there still, now comfortably huddled and well treed, its continued existence due in part to a decision by the founding colonists to destroy their title deeds, leaving the settlement to be held perpetually in common.

I’d forgotten, until I reread it over Christmas, how important Tolstoyan idealism is to Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Beginning of Spring. Fitzgerald had studied the Russian language since the 1960s but visited the country only once, in 1975. Her sober, entrancing novel, set in March 1913 and woven from her careful reading about the pre-revolutionary expatriate community in Moscow (and a 1914 Baedeker), was published during perestroika, in 1988. As often in Fitzgerald’s fiction, most of the characters are slightly at odds with their setting, caught up in endeavours that fall short of their ambitions or ideals. The ‘noble absurdity in carrying on in unlikely circumstances’, as she put it, was her home territory.

Frank Reid is the stoical proprietor of a small printing works in Moscow. His colleague and compatriot Selwyn Crane persuades Nellie Reid, Frank’s wife, to leave home in secret and join him in a Tolstoyan venture in the Russian countryside. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, suggests that Crane is lightly based on Aylmer Maude, who had given up his life as a businessman in Moscow on encountering Tolstoy in the 1890s. His Russian-born wife Louise’s family, the Shanks, were also steeped in Tolstoyan notions.

Crane loses his nerve at their railway junction tryst as it dawns on him that Nellie is unable to distinguish between the spiritual and the romantic (she’s evidently more of a Ruskinian than a Tolstoyan). But she sends her three children back to their father and travels on to England alone, to a settlement called Bright Meadows, only to find it wanting and to return home to Moscow.

In reality, Purleigh’s colonists were an awkward mix of homegrown radicals and visiting Russians who came, dug and hoed for a season, and went home again. The settlers did their best to set up their stall locally, inviting villagers (who came in their hundreds) to hear how they did things. (Selwyn describes Bright Meadows to Frank Reid as a place for ‘handicrafts, vegetable gardening and, I’m sure, music.’) The one family that offered actual stability (as well as valuable practical and financial support) were the Maudes, who lived in Essex for the rest of their lives, translating and editing Tolstoy, writing his biography and in effect becoming the literary overseers of the English-language Tolstoy industry.

The house that they built around 1912 at Great Baddow, just outside Chelmsford, was panelled in decorated timber, Russian-style, and had a little dacha attached, in which one of their sons lived until the 1950s. Louisa wore loose belted garments of a kind not previously seen in mid-Essex, and their establishment, with its continuous stream of Russians in exile, was decorously distinct. Long after their day the meadows around the house were known as the ‘Russian Fields’ although soon nobody could quite remember why.


  • 5 February 2019 at 5:41pm
    kessler says:
    "Tolstoyan anarchists"... :-) What's the relationship between Purleigh and New Lanark? Is Purleigh "Owenism", and would someone please refer me to a recent & updated history of the latter?

  • 5 February 2019 at 7:36pm
    Chris Weeks says:
    Shortly after the beginning of the Purleigh group in 1897 some members moved to Leeds and later to a 7 acre piece of land at Stapleton near Pontefract, known as the Brotherhood Church. The group followed the principles of Tolstoyan anarchism, and like the group at Whiteway near Stroud, they burnt the deeds of ownership, renouncing rent, interest and profit. Two of the founder members were expelled from the Society of Friends (Quakers) because they had refused to register their marriage. As pacifists, they refused to register as conscientious objectors in the First World War and some when to jail.

    In the early years the group had many conflicts with the authorities, especially over building simple living quarters, which were frequently torn down by the authorities. When I knew them in the 1960s just two members of the original group were living there, Alf and Nellie Higgins, who taught me beekeeping. Their daughter Hilda died at Stapleton recently and is buried there.

    There is still a small community at Stapleton, keeping alive the flickering flame of Tolstoyan anarchism, and interest and support has waxed and waned over the years. I still keep bees.