A Victorian Courtship: The Story of Beatrice Potter and Sidney Webb 
by Jeanne Mackenzie.
Weidenfeld, 148 pp., £5.50
Show More
Show More

‘I can’t help it​ being “Beauty and the Beast,” ’ wrote Sidney Webb to Beatrice Potter shortly before their marriage in 1892, ‘ – if only it is not a case of Titania and Bottom!’ The courtship of this super-extraordinary pair – ‘two active self-centred people, excessively devoted to the public cause,’ as H.G. Wells characterised them in The New Machiavelli – was the oddest romance in the Fabian calendar and a triumph for Sidney’s policy of gradualism.

Beatrice was 34 at the time of their marriage and apparently determined to prove an old maid. Handsome, with huge black eyes, a wide rather sensuous mouth and what was known as a ‘beautiful carriage’, she did not look an old maid. ‘What nonsense is this,’ one of her sisters protested, ‘trying to be a bluestocking when you are meant to be a pretty woman.’ Though she once confessed ‘my origins lie in my sensual nature,’ she had sought to quell this nature, feeling it wicked to crave so much the love and attention she had missed as a child. ‘My childhood was not on the whole a happy one,’ she wrote. She was not ill-treated but scrupulously ignored by her mother who had wanted a son instead of her eighth daughter and who considered her ‘the only one of my children who is below the average in intelligence’. Beatrice had inherited from her a tendency to melancholia that was deepened by their mutual distrust and dislike. When very young, she stole a bottle of chloroform with the notion of killing herself. As she grew up she turned more to the informal intimacy of the servants’ quarters. ‘She would take refuge in the laundry and curl up among the sheets and tablecloths,’ Jeanne MacKenzie writes, ‘or she would sit on the ironing-board and chat to the maids about her intention to become a nun.’ Later on, her two mentors were the ponderous and pedantic philosopher Herbert Spencer and Charles Booth the social investigator and a live wire who introduced her to the world of politics and philanthropy. But to neither could she give her heart. ‘I must pour my poor crooked thoughts into somebody’s heart,’ she wrote, aged 15, at the beginning of her diary, ‘even if it be my own.’

To one man she did give her heart: Joseph Chamberlain. He was ‘intensely attractive to me’, she admitted: yet she could not overlook his ‘intense personal ambition and desire to dominate’. Sexual passion and the love of power tore her apart. It seemed impossible to reconcile her sensual and intellectual needs. ‘I don’t know how it will end,’ she wrote. ‘Certainly not in my happiness.’ Chamberlain’s rejection of her, as brutal in its way as Henry V’s banishment of Falstaff, hit the same spot as her mother’s neglect and drove her into suicidal depression. Death, she wrote, ‘would be welcome. What would I give for a mother now; just to lay my head down, tell all – and cry. It is a curious feeling of life being ended.’

Another life came to her through social work, which numbed the pains of celibacy and rejection, and displaced her emotional energy into politics. She brooded over statistics, went adventuring on a study of Sweating in the tailoring trade, kept company with trade-unionists and members of the Co-operative movement en masse. ‘At last I am a Socialist,’ she exulted in January 1890. That month she had met Sidney Webb: ‘a London retail tradesman with the aims of Napoleon’. Though she liked to claim that she was without a sense of beauty, she had an almost voluptuous appreciation of its opposite. ‘I am of course very busy,’ Sidney told her, ‘somewhat serious, very analytic and introspective – but I hope passably honest, sincere, and not obviously hateful or repulsive.’ But in this last matter she could not agree with him. ‘His tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, lack of manner, cockney pronunciation, poverty, are all against him,’ she noted. He was complacent, she added, and his ‘disproportionate view of his own position is at once ludicrous and repulsive’. But deep beneath the bourgeois black coat, inside the bulky head, lurked an improbable monster of romance that, when unhappily in love, erupted as a plague of spots. He had already been spotted by a love-affair with a lady who married a Liberal MP, and now he fell in love with Beatrice.

There was more than physical attraction on his side. ‘You have it in your hands to make me in the noblest sense, great,’ he informed her. Beatrice had begun to see herself as the 19th-century woman with masculine interests and ‘womanly charm cultivated by her as an instrument of power in public life’. It was as a vehicle of this power that Sidney prized her. For this crushingly plain and earnest scholarship boy, now a clerk in the Colonial Office, lusted for his ideas to be embodied in the smart, handsome, well-born and successful figures in the land: men like Joseph Chamberlain. So began his courtship of Beatrice.

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? He told her of the prizes he had won and she counselled him not to grow swollen with small successes. He announced himself to be ‘divinely intoxicated’. As he lay in bed at night thinking of her, a vision of her face floated before him ‘in the guise of a co-worker … between the lines of the dispatch boxes’. But she warned him that she had only ‘lent you Friendship – on trust’, and devised a concordat to ensure that it should ‘not be blurred by the predominantly lower feeling’. Sometimes Sidney was obliged to rush from her speechless for fear of breaking this concordat, and at other times he went too far: ‘the agony is unendurable,’ he assured her. ‘Come off somewhere and let us clear up what is more important than all Congresses.’ Her encouragement was at best tepid. ‘Take care of your voice pronunciation,’ she felt moved to advise him: ‘it is the chief instrument of influence.’ Her heart seemed locked in its attachment to Chamberlain. ‘I am not capable of loving,’ she insisted. ‘Personal passion has burnt itself out and what little personal feeling exists haunts the memory of another man.’

The courtship grew so desperate as to bewilder them both. ‘The question is,’ Beatrice urgently demanded, ‘what is the present position?’ Whatever it was, it changed. One day, after Sidney had finally given up all hope of marrying her, she failed to withdraw her hand from his. ‘I am still a little in a dream,’ he confessed. What had changed her mind? She believed that she had been permeated by Sidney’s ‘resolute patient affection’. But the change coincided with her advancement, through lectures and a book, into public life, and her awareness of how much she would need him there. Marriage, the Webbs agreed, was the waste-paper basket of the emotions. Optimistically he sent her his portrait, but: ‘No dear,’ she chided him. ‘I do not even look at your photograph. It is too hideous … it is the head only I am marrying.’ ‘You have made a splendid beginning,’ he responded. Their engagement was cemented, in Sidney’s words, over the death of Beatrice’s father, and they were married at St Pancras Vestry in a ‘prosaic, almost sordid ceremony’.

Jeanne MacKenzie is neither sentimental nor cynical. As co-author of The First Fabians she already knew this territory well. She sticks closely to the correspondence and to Beatrice’s diary and builds her careful narrative round quotations for which she has an excellent eye and which concentrate on Beatrice, who had literary genius, more than Sidney, who was merely ‘the ablest man in England’. But her book is too modest. An analysis of the Webbs’ marriage (‘they were the most completely married couple that I have ever known,’ wrote Bertrand Russell) would have given perspective to her story of their courtship. In the opinion of Shaw, ‘if all marriages were as happy England, and indeed the civilized world, would be a Fabian Paradise.’ Sidney’s part seems to have been similar to that of Leonard Woolf in the support each husband gave to an exceptional wife. It is our loss that Jeanne MacKenzie has not entered this Fabian Paradise and presented the choice between Mrs Webb and Mrs Woolf that, according to Noel Annan, confronted England between the two world wars.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences