A Working Woman: The Remarkable Life of Ray Strachey 
by Jennifer Holmes.
Troubador, 392 pp., £20, February 2019, 978 1 78901 654 3
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Ray Strachey​ is remembered, if at all, for The Cause, her history of the women’s movement, published in 1928. But reading that book – which is dedicated to Strachey’s friend and mentor Millicent Garrett Fawcett – you wouldn’t know that its writer played a major role in the events described at the end, when an ‘almost religious fervour … sent young ladies to street corners to demand the vote’, and to pledge ‘their whole lives to the Cause’. In February 1918, when the vote was finally granted to property-owning women over the age of thirty, she was in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons as the votes were cast. As the House broke into applause at the bill’s passing, she hurried off to break the news to Fawcett, who was waiting at home by the fire in her dressing gown, and in her elation, drove her car straight into a police officer.

Ray Strachey (in the driver’s seat) with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, her daughter Philippa and sister Agnes on 2 July 1928.

Ray Strachey (in the driver’s seat) with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, her daughter Philippa and sister Agnes on 2 July 1928.

The Cause, though not a personal history, is as interesting for the people, events and decisions it leaves out as for those it includes. It emphasises the opening of schools and colleges, the campaign for fair working conditions and pay, the nuts and bolts of legal reform: things Strachey worked for. Throughout, her highest praise is reserved for those driven by a sense of duty, who often made personal sacrifices for the wider struggle; she writes approvingly of egalitarian marriages, such as that of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, but is less interested in – perhaps even a little suspicious of – women who were sexually free or who publicly challenged gender roles. She skates over the divisions in the movement, and rather than predict possible futures for feminism, brings her narrative to an end in the enlightened present, where women wear trousers and ride bicycles, play sport and cast votes.

The Cause reveals a great deal about Strachey’s preoccupations, and their roots in her life, which are carefully unpicked in Jennifer Holmes’s meticulous biography. In many ways, The Cause is Strachey’s tribute to preceding generations, a compendium of women whose lives guided her in steering a course away from her own mother’s demands. Strachey’s mother, Mary Whitall Smith, lived for emotional drama and the struggle, as she would later put it, for ‘self-development, real education, knowledge, enjoyment’. From a wealthy family of Philadelphia Quakers, Mary shocked her parents by marrying Frank Costelloe, an Irish Catholic barrister with political ambitions. Their daughter Rachel (almost immediately known as Ray) was born on 4 June 1887, and her sister, Karin, two years later. They moved to London, and lived in Westminster – closer to Millbank Prison than to Parliament – where Frank worked all hours for the fledgling London County Council while Mary stayed at home with the girls. Being a wife, mother and political helpmeet made Mary claustrophobic. She began an affair with the American art historian Bernard Berenson. Frank, eager to see the good in everyone, convinced himself that the relationship was Platonic, even when Mary insisted she needed to spend a year as Berenson’s pupil at I Tatti, his villa in Florence. She never returned. ‘Now that I have found studying of my own I really like to do,’ she wrote in a letter to the five-year-old Ray, ‘I do not want to give it up in order to stay with thee all the time.’

Ray rarely spoke of her feelings about her mother’s departure, or her father’s death in 1899, which left her and Karin in the care of their grandmother Hannah Whitall Smith, a well-known suffragist and temperance reformer (Mary’s parents had moved to England after she was married). Hannah believed in a feminism based on public service, not on personal emancipation. Mary made occasional visits, feeding the girls too much ice cream and letting them fall off their ponies. At school, Ray liked hockey and maths; tutored by Bertrand Russell (who was married to Mary’s sister, Alys), she won a place at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1905. In a last-ditch attempt to convince her daughter of the pleasures of fashion and flirtation, Mary summoned Ray to Florence for the summer, at the same time as a carefully chosen eligible bachelor. But when Ray wrote a novel – The World at Eighteen – satirising the young man’s chauvinism, Mary admitted defeat. She taught Ray to smoke and drive, and secretly paid for the novel’s publication.

Ray arrived at Cambridge at a time when the suffrage movement was gaining strength. With her best friend, Ellie Rendel, Ray made posters instead of revising for her exams, and joined the ‘howling mob of hooligans’ on the Mud March of February 1907: three thousand women walked from Hyde Park Corner to Exeter Hall in the wind and rain, their skirts trailing in the muddy gutter. In the holidays, staying with Ellie’s grandmother in Surrey, they bicycled round villages, delivering impromptu lectures to passers-by, encountering ‘on the whole great friendliness, with just that spice of opposition which makes such deeds exciting’. They disarmed hecklers with jokes, learned to speak calmly and clearly, and dodged the occasional rotten egg or orange lobbed at their heads by schoolboys. In the summer of 1908, Ray and some friends travelled around the country in a horse-drawn caravan. They camped in fields, cooked outdoors and sold badges to publicise their speeches, delivered from the caravan. Once, they held a meeting on a lake, with the audience bobbing in boats. At the end of that summer, Ray wrote that the vote was ‘the only important thing in an otherwise trivial universe’.

Mary, anxious that her favourite daughter was spending too much time on the English roadside, persuaded Ray to spend a semester at Bryn Mawr in 1909. Ray agreed to go if she could study electrical engineering and if Ellie could accompany her. Once there, instead of staying put in Pennsylvania, Ray and Ellie joined Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, on a tour across the US, preaching the cause to university students. Idaho and Utah had voted for suffrage in 1896, and Ray was excited to see women voting in those states, but disappointed at the way the movement seemed to have stalled elsewhere. They returned to Britain before the general election of January 1910, and Ray worked 18-hour days collecting signatures at polling stations. In March, she was elected to the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. But her interest in politics was starting to wane. ‘Suffrage work is awful,’ she complained. ‘It takes so much effort and organisation for so little result.’ She soon resigned from the committee, and instead took engineering classes and wrote another novel, Marching On, based on Shaw’s life.

Ray​ met Oliver Strachey in 1909 through Ellie, whose mother was the eldest of his eight siblings. She fell in love with ‘the Strachey way of living’: she loved debating over dinner with Lytton, Pippa, Marjorie and Pernel, and appreciated the family’s unspoken commitment – which her own did not share – to leaving one another alone when deep in reading or writing. Oliver had just returned from several years in India, where he had been working for the railway; recently divorced, he had sole custody of his daughter, Julia. It seems to have been a source of relief rather than concern to Ray – despite her own childhood – that Julia was spending her early years shuttling between aunts, family friends and boarding schools. (Julia herself recalled feeling ‘deserted and betrayed’ by her parents and her stepmother.) Soon after she met Oliver, Ray told Virginia Woolf that she could ‘quite imagine falling in love with him’. After a month, she proposed to him on a walk ‘between the sewage station and the lunatic asylum at Littlemore’ in Oxford.

Alys Russell, whose husband had recently left her, warned Ray that marriage was ‘a terribly risky affair to embark upon’. But she and Oliver were determined to ‘make a success’ of it, and planned to live on Ray’s allowance from the Berensons and to collaborate on a history of British India. Ray told her mother that ‘the chance of working together, and of living the kind of life we both think congenial seems too tempting to be lost.’ With their income depending on the Berensons’ tempestuous relationship, Ray and Oliver veered between lavish spending and near bankruptcy. Julia told a friend they seemed ‘more like irresponsible, grown-up cousins’ than parents. After the birth of their daughter Barbara in 1912, Ray returned to suffrage work, tired of ‘rent, chimney sweepings, washing curtains, wages, repairs etc’.

This was a significant moment for the suffrage movement. The schism was deepening between the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, run by Fawcett, and the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union, whose militant tactics were growing increasingly controversial: two weeks after Emily Wilding Davison stepped in front of the king’s horse at the Derby, Ray was ‘pelted with mud and things’ at a meeting in Greenwich, and had to take refuge in a shop under police protection. But the declaration of war in 1914 caused an even greater divide: on one side were those eager to support the war effort and on the other those who believed feminism was radically opposed to militarism. When Fawcett banned NUWSS constituent societies from sending delegates to the International Women’s Congress in The Hague because she thought it was overly pacifist, several members of the executive committee resigned. Ray supported Fawcett: ‘If I were a man I should enlist, Quaker or no,’ she said.

Ray was now Fawcett’s closest ally, and her organisational zeal powered the NUWSS. She spent the war working to place women in employment and ‘trying to see that they don’t ruin the whole labour market by taking low wages’; she supplied munitions workers to factories, organised training for engineering, welding and mechanical jobs, and continued to agitate for the vote as well as for the legal amendments that would result in the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. She accompanied Fawcett as she lobbied every member of the government, ‘parting from one cabinet minister at dinner time only to breakfast with another the next day’; she rang round suffrage societies trying at short notice to find a Welsh speaker who would flatter Lloyd George; she organised a fancy-dress march to Downing Street with representatives of all the suffrage groups (‘like trying to harness a pack of wild elephants – and wild elephants with years of private conflict behind them’). ‘If we get the vote now,’ Alys Russell wrote, ‘it will be entirely due to her, because even Mrs Fawcett can’t do much without Ray’s driving energy.’ She even found time, despite the birth of her son, Christopher, and periods of near constant bleeding and pain from uterine fibroids, to campaign for the removal of the iron grille from the Ladies’ Gallery of the Commons, allowing women a clear view when, on 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was finally passed.

The general election of December 1918 was the first at which women were allowed to stand, and Ray was an obvious candidate. She insisted that ‘the time had come for women’s politics and real politics to amalgamate,’ but found it difficult to choose a party, disliking all of them. She eventually campaigned as an Independent, but was resoundingly defeated, losing her deposit. Two further attempts were also unsuccessful, thanks in part to the smear campaigns by her opponent in Brentford and Chiswick, the Conservative Walter Grant Morden. In 1922, Ray was forced to print makeshift posters proclaiming that ‘Mrs Oliver Strachey is not a Bolshevist, an Atheist, or a Communist, is not a Prohibitionist, in spite of what anyone may say, her husband was not a conscientious objector, and her children are not neglected.’ She was disappointed that the first woman to take a seat in the Commons was the Conservative Nancy Astor, whom she did not consider ‘a good specimen for the first woman MP’, though she admitted that ‘Christabel [Pankhurst] would be far worse.’ She offered to assist Astor: she would operate behind the scenes, without a salary, and allow Astor to take credit for speeches she had written and ideas she had developed. Astor accepted, and the two women worked together productively for decades.

What did​ Ray Strachey believe? ‘To have the power of working for a cause,’ she wrote later in life, ‘was a new and thrilling and satisfying experience for the female mind.’ Yet her enthusiasms tended to wane before her campaigns reached fulfilment: she seems to have got more pleasure from the process than from the results. Her dedication to the NUWSS was inextricable from her regard for Fawcett, while her work, after the war, for the League of Nations and for a new centrist political party appears to have been driven by her infatuation with Lord Robert Cecil (Holmes doesn’t make entirely clear whether this was romantic). ‘I do not approve of extremes in politics,’ she wrote. ‘I distrust Revolution on the one hand and Reaction on the other, and I believe we ought to pursue a middle course.’ She was always more interested in backroom administration than in the high drama of the debating chamber, in persuasion rather than the ‘emotional, unscrupulous, unwise and dangerous’ attitudes of hunger strikers and arsonists, whose determination to coerce she denounced as ‘moral violence’.

Her inner life is mysterious: she kept a diary on and off, but withheld secrets there too. In her novel Shaken by the Wind (1927), set in rural 19th-century America, a new bride is attracted to a celibate cult: ‘To be done with all this human emotion, to have only God to think of, must be so restful, so pure!’ Oliver – who found his métier in wartime intelligence – was ‘not naturally monogamous’, as Holmes puts it. His long affair with Inez Ferguson, the NUWSS secretary, made Ray briefly the subject of Bloomsbury gossip; Woolf noted in her diary that Ray had become ‘floppy, fat, untidy, clumsy and making fewer concessions than ever to brilliancy, charm, politeness, wit, art, manners, literature and so forth’. Though her sister, Karin, had married Woolf’s brother Adrian, Ray thought the Bloomsbury set ‘a queer self-absorbed fantastic set of people’; she didn’t enjoy their parties as Oliver did, preferring to sit at home like ‘an old fat spider’. In the spring of 1920 she bought land at Fernhurst in West Sussex and began building a house, designing it as well as laying bricks herself. Mary paid for a swimming pool, which Ray let her neighbours use once a week, though she locked herself in the bathroom if they knocked on her door. Her success in this led to one of the most disastrous decisions of her life: to set up as a building contractor. In partnership with Ralph, Oliver’s brother, she took on several projects, working out plans without factoring in bad weather and hard soil. She financed the business by selling stocks, since Berenson prudently refused to invest in her scheme; when it failed, she was left in serious debt.

Ray and Oliver continued to live together in London, spending their evenings separately then convening at midnight for a game of chess. But the marriage doesn’t seem to have been particularly intimate, and Holmes’s focus on Oliver sidelines Ray’s other relationships. When she got engaged, Ellie had been distraught and went for a rest cure in the country; after this she vanishes almost entirely from Holmes’s narrative (she turns up later as a family doctor, treating Ray for ‘various leakages’). Once married, Ray’s closest confidante was her sister-in-law Pippa Strachey, with whom she worked for years in the London Society for Women’s Service. Pippa, she wrote, was ‘the one person in the world I feel free to talk openly with about my own feelings’; Holmes hints that Ray’s devotion to Pippa was ‘a source of emotional anguish’, but doesn’t elaborate. Accounts of women’s lives tend to give priority to marriage, but Ray – like many feminists of her generation – found her most intellectual and emotional fulfilment in her friendships and collaborations with women.

Ray said she had an ‘insatiable tendency to overwork’, and told her mother that her life resembled ‘that of a juggler who has to keep eight or nine balls in the air at once’. When the pressure became overwhelming, she would switch projects, or retreat into the past. In the 1930s she began work on a history of the slave trade. She met Liberian delegates in London, lent them money for travel to the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva, and later received a letter signed by several tribal chiefs asking her to be their queen. But the book stalled when she became involved in a scheme to set up day nurseries in Britain for the children of the unemployed. Instead, she wrote Careers and Openings for Women, an offshoot of her work for the Women’s Employment Federation, which she founded. The book discusses the value of qualifications, the efficacy of pension schemes and the conflict between work and home-making; in its call for women to value themselves highly and follow their ambitions, it is one of the most impassioned things she ever wrote. (The first Faber edition carried two advertisements for secretarial colleges.) She called on women to stand for election: otherwise ‘they will continue to be overworked and overdriven, and to attempt the impossible task of doing a double job for half a wage.’

She died in 1940, at 53, following an operation to remove a fibroid. Her mother had the last word. Nazi soldiers had requisitioned the lower floors of I Tatti, but allowed the bedridden Mary to remain in the attic. She spent her final months writing a biography of Ray, moulding her as she never could in life: ‘a near-saint’, as Holmes puts it, ‘who enjoyed a perfect marriage and an untroubled relationship of mutual devotion with her mother’. Woolf, more accurately, concluded that Ray’s life had been ‘much of a scramble and a fight’. She recalled Ray’s ‘competence’, her official air (‘documents, overalls, interviews’), her sitting hunched over endless games of Patience, her bitterness at Oliver. ‘She had a kind of representative quality, in her white coat & trousers; wall building, disappointed, courageous, without what? Imagination?’

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