Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States 
by Sheila Rowbotham.
Verso, 512 pp., £25, October 2016, 978 1 78478 588 8
Show More
Show More

In​ 1889 Helena Born and Miriam Daniell, two socialists in their late twenties, left their family homes (and Daniell’s husband) in Bristol’s middle-class suburbs and moved to the slums. New converts to a ‘simple life’, they tinted the walls of their small house, waxed the uncarpeted floors and improvised furniture, hoping to set an aesthetic example to their neighbours. The drawing-room gatherings and expensive clothes of their former lives now seemed ‘as dross’. On a January morning the following year Born wrote to her cousin that she had ‘made the floor of my room shine with extra brightness’ using ‘beeswax, turps and elbow-grease’. She was excitedly preparing for a visit from the poet, philosopher and ‘saint in sandals’, Edward Carpenter.

Born and Daniell, two of the half-dozen ‘puzzled idealists’ whose lives Sheila Rowbotham follows in Rebel Crossings, were members of the Bristol Socialist Society, a body that aspired to ‘the attainment of the higher ideals of life’ regardless of class or sex. Its members met in coffee houses, read from their favourite poets – Whitman, Shelley, William Morris – and listened to ‘rousing glees’; Carpenter was one of their most popular speakers. The two women were swept up in the ‘new unionism’ that energised British socialism at the end of the 1880s, as the old craft unions made way for organisations that were more militant and more inclusive, willing to accept unskilled workers and women. New unionism’s openness to women meant that Born and Daniell could get involved in organising strikes and recruiting members. The charismatic Daniell addressed a torch-lit procession of shoe workers and was cheered for denouncing bosses and their large profits.

But the language of the two women’s socialism was often more mystical than organisational, infused with a Christian idea of redemption, a romantic revolt against industrial capitalism, and the desire expressed by Carpenter and Whitman for an embrace of all humanity. What was needed, they believed, was a new consciousness – a democratic culture of comradeship – as much as political or economic upheaval. Daniell wrote a pamphlet on The New Trade Unionism with a handsome Scottish radical called Robert Allan Nicol (a ‘Shelleyan type’), which, rather than discussing pickets, looked forward to ‘the union of the Souls of Mankind in a perfect Love’.

Daniell had met Nicol when she was still married, during a trip to Edinburgh for medical treatment in 1889. He was a lively young socialist about town, a somewhat scandalous figure; he’d slept with the wife of one of his professors. He was also an acolyte of the sociologist Patrick Geddes, who had just published The Evolution of Sex, which served as an ‘ethical endorsement of desire’ and defended the use of contraception. Daniell, whom Rowbotham variously describes as brilliant, imperious and quivering with ‘excessive sensibility’, decided to take Nicol back to Bristol to live in her marital home – an arrangement to which her insufficiently Whitmanesque solicitor husband seems to have objected. So Daniell and Nicol moved to the house in the slums, with Born’s presence providing ‘a threadbare cover of respectability’. Together, Rowbotham writes, they ‘generated a wild courage’.

When Daniell became pregnant with Nicol’s child, a dream of taking flight to the land of Emerson and Thoreau became edged with necessity. Daniell and Born were too close to be separated, so all three made the six-day voyage from Liverpool to New York. They then headed for Cambridge, Massachusetts, which they assumed would be a hub of Transcendentalist enlightenment. The baby when it arrived was named Sunrise; she was a ‘small, helpless bundle of utopia’.

Rowbotham first came across Born and Daniell in the 1970s, during her initial research into Carpenter, eventually realised in her splendid biography of 2008. Turning her attention back to them recently, she found their histories so oddly entangled with others that only a collective biography could answer the questions raised. When Orwell sneered at those 1930s left-wingers who went in for ‘simple life, poetry, nature-worship’ and a ‘roll in the dew before breakfast’, he called these ‘cranks’ a ‘hangover from the William Morris period’. Rowbotham’s little-known utopians belong to the era itself, though they fit the stereotype only sometimes, and to varying degrees. All were libertarian socialists with an interest in anarchism; five made the journey from Britain to the US. Each of them sought, Rowbotham writes, to combine individual freedom with ‘the creation of a society based on co-operative association, rather than competition and profit’. For them, as for other exponents of ‘whole-life socialism’, the personal merged with the political: they sought to embody their ideals in their everyday lives, to show it could be done, while also envisioning a new world free of the clutter and hypocrisy of bourgeois life, and of the immoralities of capitalism. How this new world combining equality with liberty might come about was unclear, but discussed at great length.

Rowbotham has always been fascinated by the connection between inner awakening and social change, and explores Daniell and Nicol’s belief in an erotically charged altruism – several of her subjects seem high on a mix of Ruskin, sexology and the brotherhood of man. This was socialism before the Fabians sobered it up, before all ties with anarchism were severed, before the British labour movement hardened into its parliamentary form, and before Leninism changed everything. Within a half-century the language of Carpenter’s Towards Democracy would seem mawkish and remote, but it electrified generations of late 19th-century leftists, who felt an ideal society to be within reach.

Much less remote are Carpenter’s sexual politics. While few contemporaries engaged fully with his ideas of ‘homogenic’ love, he was an influential critic of women’s subordination. A belief in a remodelling of gender relationships is a typical feature of socialist utopias. Britain’s first socialists, from the 1820s to the 1840s, linked sexual repression to the structure of society: the Owenites (named after the social reformer Robert Owen) discussed the reform of marriage laws and birth control; they even argued for communal childcare and co-operative families. As a pioneering feminist historian in the early 1970s, Rowbotham began to uncover these priorities. She also recognised that women’s liberation was ‘a live and explosive issue’ when utopian socialism re-emerged in Britain in the 1880s after a severe economic downturn. For Born, Daniell and many other ‘new-lifers’, capitalism reached into all areas of life, including sex and the home. They called for gender equality and sought a revolutionised morality at a time when commitment to sexual frankness and opposition to prevailing conventions took courage.

In Boston, Daniell and Nicol became involved with Benjamin Tucker, an outspoken supporter of women’s emancipation and an ‘individualist anarchist’ (he argued for private property rather than common ownership). Daniell contributed stories and poems to his journal, Liberty; according to Rowbotham, the ‘mystical orientation already incipient while she was in Bristol’ now ‘moved into the ascendant’. In the journal’s pages, she clashed with the basket-maker William Baillie, originally from Belfast, who knew Carpenter and had been involved in Morris’s Socialist League. He had little time for her ‘quick-coming millennium’, warning that the ‘cold truth’ might eventually dawn on self-sacrificing idealists that ‘the people thank them not.’ Daniell responded with fervour, but Baillie, another of Rowbotham’s rebellious six, was undaunted, filling Liberty with his thoughts on Proudhon and Kropotkin.

‘They had all turned their backs on conventional society,’ one American friend later said of Daniell, Born and Nicol in New England. Another friend preferred to describe them as ‘reckless’. Daniell began to oscillate ‘between pinnacles of hope and abysses of despair’: her husband was agitating for divorce, while Nicol’s family planned to send an envoy to judge his sanity. Restless and unwell, Daniell became preoccupied by White-nights, a ranch set up by a friend of Carpenter’s in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California. She had a ‘long-treasured’ project of founding a socialist colony, and they heard glowing reports about the ranch, built in a sheltered valley surrounded by tall pines – it promised warmth and a life of beauty, another fresh start. Northern California had been a gold rush destination, but now, as Rowbotham writes, it attracted a different breed of optimist: White-nights has a place in the long list of attempts to find Arcadia on the West Coast.

Nearby was the Applegate ‘colony of Esoterics’ led by Hiram E. Butler, whose creed of ‘solar biology’ involved yoga, a health diet and astrology; it seems he wrote the first popular guide to star signs. Like other 19th-century advocates of ‘free love’ (who regarded marriage as legal bondage), and unlike their 1960s descendants, Butler thought that sex ‘exhausted the vital fluids’; he recommended intercourse only every 18 months. Taking its place should be a ‘harmonious exchange of magnetism’ producing a pleasant sensation of floatiness. At the other end of the canyon from Applegate lived Sara Thacker, a former pupil of Butler’s, who had successfully pacified two rattlesnakes on a mountain path with her compelling message of love.

Daniell implored Born to join her on the journey to California, along with Nicol and Sunrise. Born had just landed a job at ‘the Harvard Magazines’ but went anyway, later telling a friend: ‘What could I do? It isn’t easy to live with a genius.’ Once they had arrived, Daniell enthused to friends in Boston about the ‘pungent, perfumed’ evergreens and the miraculously warm winter: ‘You don’t know how I long to send you the weather. In Dec we had strawberries, roses and violets … and pale sweet manzanita blossoms bring the bees buzzing about.’ Born had had to put up with the couple’s rows and Nicol’s jealousy. She adapted to ranch life with stoicism, and decided it was, for the time being, ‘a sane idea to live simply, in contact with Mother Earth’. She foraged for watercress, mint and ‘baskets-full of pinkest mushrooms – a vegetarian luxury’. But if the ranch resembled any form of utopia, it didn’t last. Soon dangerously ill with lung and larynx problems, Daniell continued to write poems – ‘I am in all things, all life, all people, all that Is’ – until she died in 1894, aged 33.

Born went back to Boston, and found solace reading Whitman (‘Love the earth, and the sun and the animals, despise riches … hate tyrants’) and in meetings of the Walt Whitman Fellowship. She continued to move in political circles and among advocates of free love. One of her close friends was A.H. Simpson, a Marxist turned peaceful anarchist, who wrote about the pleasures of masturbation and orgasm. Another friend was Elizabeth Holmes, a contributor to Liberty, who had a child from a free union and had been Benjamin Tucker’s lover. Friends remembered Holmes as an intellectual, more fond of books than housework: ‘She’d dust a leg of the piano, go out and read Browning, then dust the other.’ (In the same house, the children played a game called ‘blowing up the tsar’ using toothpicks and a match.)

Then Born found a protégée. Helen Tufts, the only American-born member of Rowbotham’s group, was a ‘new woman’ from a well-connected but impecunious family. Her journal – along with her published recollections of Born – provides the archival spine of Rowbotham’s account. The two women went on cycle rides, exercised together at the YW gym and with friends founded ‘The Sensible Skirt Vindicators’. Taking inspiration from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, they decided to open a Pure Food Kitchen serving dandelion salads (‘The luxury of humble life/Is dandelion greens’) but the clientele stole the crockery and the waiters kept leaving. Unabashed, Born wrote papers attacking soul-destroying labour, and arguing that society ‘at present denies us freedom to realise ourselves’. She looked to socialism to ‘remove the external obstacles’, but thought inner feeling was the vital force: ‘I am not greatly concerned about systems.’

Rowbotham reflects in her introduction that while considering her group of radicals she ‘came to recognise’ that she had ‘been driven by a quest’ similar to theirs. In her 1969 pamphlet Women’s Liberation and the New Politics she called for release from ‘both inner and outer bondages’; it was no use, she wrote, being ‘fobbed off with an either/or’. A socialist feminist, she wanted capitalism ‘to be resisted not only at work but in the home, not only in the institutional apparatus of government, but in the head’. The women’s liberation groups she helped to found at the end of the 1960s ‘had a list of demands for abortion rights, equal pay, nurseries. But there was something deeper, a desire to transform daily life, personal relationships and culture.’ A decade later when she wrote most of Beyond the Fragments, an attack on the inflexibilities of the male-dominated hard left, at least one rejoinder accused her of obscuring the political struggle with clouds of subjectivity, mysticism and lifestyle politics.

In​  Rebel Crossings, Rowbotham hints at other parallels between her own experiences and that of her six characters – activists whose ‘hopes were high … whose ideas were collected from here and there, expressed in small meetings and circulated through barely remembered networks’. This seems to be a gentle invitation to put Helena Born’s pieces on Whitman next to Rowbotham’s own 1960s and 1970s contributions to Black Dwarf, Red Rag and New Society. ‘Small meetings and networks’ have been central to her life too: the phrase evokes her involvement with the International Socialists, feminist conferences, the trade union movement and home workers and her journalism for the GLC in the mid-1980s (‘libertarian but practical socialism’).

But the writing of Rebel Crossings didn’t simply involve her ‘coming to recognise’ similarities between her own ‘quests’ and those of her subjects. Rowbotham has actively historicised her own ideological position since the early 1970s. In her biography of Carpenter, she describes his socialism as having ‘anarchist stripes’, exactly as she has described her own. ‘The funny thing about talking to Sheila,’ one former 1970s housemate recalled, ‘was that she made no distinction between people who were alive and people who had died a hundred years ago.’ The affinities between author and subject are inevitable. ‘When the women’s movement began,’ she once said, ‘we thought we’d invented everything. Then as we started to dig into history we were surprised.’ In Women, Resistance and Revolution, published in 1972, she spelled out why the anti-capitalist new lifers spoke so clearly to her: their refusal to prioritise either inner change or a transformed society ‘helped the question of women’s oppression to emerge clearly, because of all subordination this was precisely one in which the personal merged with the political.’

Nicol stayed in California after Daniell’s death and caught the cosmic vibe, writing to Carpenter of his voyage towards transcendence. Once a branch secretary of the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union, he now expressed his desire to be like a mountain, and to resolve his body into nothingness. He corresponded with Edmund Russell, a Theosophist deep-breather and colour enthusiast, who would give readings in New York ‘dressed either as Prince Siddhartha or clad simply in tights, with a red handkerchief serving as a loincloth’. But his guru remained Carpenter and he did his best to flog the message of Towards Democracy, along with pairs of Carpenter’s Kashmiri-style sandals, to all he met. The sandals, Nicol was sure, ‘enhanced the earth’s magnetism’; it was a pity they ‘skinned’ his feet and wrenched his ankles.

The final radical in Rebel Crossings is Gertrude Dix, a young novelist who in 1895 made the pilgrimage to Carpenter’s house in Millthorpe, near Sheffield. Like Born and Daniell, she was a former member of the Bristol Socialist Society, and had advanced views on dress, sex and marriage. She had looked after the children of the Fabian couple Margaret and Sydney Olivier (‘I sometimes wonder if all socialist infants are so exhausting’). Dix arrived at Carpenter’s door wearing bloomers, which he didn’t care for, and was accompanied by Raymond Unwin, the future architect of Letchworth Garden City, and Philip Dalmas, a Whitmanite who drifted around the Northern countryside carrying a baize bag filled with vegetables. The visitors overstayed their welcome: they ate their vegetarian dinner, and didn’t leave until 10 p.m. During the evening, there was some discussion of the Californian adventures of Nicol, whom Dix knew from Bristol new unionism. The next time Carpenter wrote to his friend, he mentioned that Dix wanted to get in touch. ‘Gertrude Dix! Yes, I remember her well,’ Nicol replied. ‘Tell her if she cares to I would like to hear from her. You know I like women as much as men.’

Over the next few years, Dix helped to set up Godspeace, a commune for writers and artists in an old farmhouse in Surrey. Its members were described by Arnold Bennett in 1898 as ‘teetotallers – and they wear sandals. They have an air of living the higher life.’ In 1900 she published The Image Breakers, a novel full of ethical socialists, which ends with a couple looking ahead to the success of a ‘free union’. Then, in 1902, she travelled to join Nicol in California. They didn’t know each other well, and her reasons for taking such a big decision remain unclear: perhaps she had utterly fallen for him a decade or so before. Thankfully, when they met, neither was disappointed; the rarely moderate Nicol wrote of aching to cover her ‘beautiful Grecian body with light laughing kisses’.

The pair would bring up three children (as well as the wayward Sunrise) in California, sustained by the proceeds from the short stories with a Western theme that Dix wrote: she would return from the Post Office shouting ‘Another story sold!’ When the ‘sexually indefatigable’ Nicol ran off with his dentist, who gave birth to his child, he suggested the two households merge. Dix went after him, leaving their own children to fend for themselves; their son, not yet a teenager, went to live with another family and never forgave his father. Nicol’s second family eventually tired of his infrequent visits and requests for money and they lost touch. Remarkably, he and Dix were still together in San Francisco in the 1940s, ardent and unconventional leftists to the end.

In Boston, Born met Daniell’s old sparring partner in Liberty, William Baillie; Tufts later described the encounter as ‘electric’. He sent her a book by Morris with passages marked for special attention; she gave him Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age. She was 37, and a virgin; he was 31 and married with six children. Born arranged a secret tryst en route to the Walt Whitman Fellowship commemoration in Walden Woods. Tufts, who clearly also admired Baillie, wrote in her journal: ‘I do not feel jealous … I shall back them up, though I feel as if I were standing on a mine. People are so easily horrified.’ When Baillie and Born began to share a house, Tufts lived there too: ‘in a replay of Helena’s role with Miriam and Robert,’ Rowbotham writes, she ‘provided a degree of respectability for the unmarried woman and her male lodger’.

The following year Born died of cancer, and Baillie and Tufts became a couple, completing the intricate pattern carved out by the personal lives of Rowbotham’s half-dozen. Gradually Baillie’s brand of anarchism became marginalised, and after Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley all US anarchists were targeted: Emma Goldman was led to jail wearing a jaunty white sailor hat and carrying a copy of Towards Democracy. (The detective Robert Pinkerton said they should be rounded up and imprisoned on an island in the Philippines.) Baillie made clear his opposition to a violent revolution, which he feared would lead not to ‘a free society but to a collectivist economic despotism’ (showing what Elizabeth Bennet’s father called ‘some greatness of mind’). Before too long, he began to turn his mind to the quality of Boston’s drainage: ‘gas and water socialism’ had finally replaced the dream of utopia.

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