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.

In the light of subsequent events, Beatrice’s first ambivalent assessment of Chamberlain must, I think, be read as a cover for ‘love at first sight’. On subsequent pages of the diary, if Chamberlain is not explicitly mentioned in the print, his spirit certainly flutters between the lines. Shortly after the initial dinner Beatrice attended a party given by his sister where she had ‘much conversation with him’. Thereafter she recorded that his ‘personality interested’ her. In September (when she was deep in J.S. Mill’s System of Logic), she accepted an invitation to spend a week at Chamberlain’s sister’s house. This visit ‘threw more light on his character’, after which the diary puzzles over the question whether his passionately-held convictions were based on ‘honest experience and thought’, or were originally ‘the tool of ambition, now become inextricably woven into the love of power’. Shrewd young woman, love notwithstanding!

Come November, Beatrice is, significantly, reflecting on the compatibility of the work for which she felt destined, and the satisfaction of the ‘normal needs of a woman, mental and physical’. ‘In the present phase of my work,’ she says, ‘my duties as an ordinary woman are not interfered with by the pursuit of my private ends,’ and she doubts if they would be ‘if one chose to remain unmarried’. Thus the battle between science and religion gradually gave way to a new clash between the demands of a chosen career and those of love and marriage.

In January 1884 (the month in which Beatrice reached her 26th birthday), matters came to a head when, owing to someone’s indiscretion, both families had become aware of the situation, and Beatrice and Chamberlain were brought together again in her father’s country home. ‘The house was full of young people who had spent three days in dancing and games,’ while Beatrice herself felt that she was ‘advancing towards a precipice’ (which indeed she was). Then the door opens and Mr Chamberlain is announced, at which everybody rose, amidst, she says, a general feeling of discomfort. Beatrice’s father, with marked discourtesy towards his guest, promptly retired to play patience, ‘utterly disgusted with the “supposed intentions” of that guest’.

At dinner, ‘after some shyness’, Beatrice writes, ‘we plunged into essentials, and Chamberlain began delicately to hint at his requirements.’ That evening and next morning ‘we were still on susceptible terms.’ But presently Beatrice’s disagreement with some of Chamberlain’s views on education provoked the announcement that ‘it pains me to hear my views controverted’ (that from a politician!), followed by a summary of his political creed. At first, Beatrice listened in silence, whereupon Chamberlain added that he required ‘intelligent sympathy from women’. ‘Servility, Mr Chamberlain, think I, not sympathy, but intelligent servility,’ she retorted, proceeding to advance her ‘feeble objections to his general proposition’. That, however, merely induced a further recital of his political gospel, but without reference to sex. Then, ‘as the mist which had hidden the chasm between us gradually cleared,’ they retired, too exhausted for further argument.

Next morning began with pleasant trivialities, till Chamberlain insisted on reviving the previous discussion, mentioning that he was pestered by his sister’s obsession with women’s rights. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I don’t allow any action on the subject.’ ‘You don’t allow any division of opinion in your household, Mr Chamberlain?’ queried Beatrice. ‘I can’t help people thinking differently from me,’ came the reply. ‘But you don’t allow the expression of any difference?’ ‘No.’ And ‘that little word,’ the diary records, ‘ended our intercourse.’ One of the oddest features of this affair is that, although the diary abounds in analyses of Chamberlain’s character, both before and after the breach, Beatrice’s comments on their actual meetings are extremely terse. There is no story of growing affection, nourished by the lovers’ regular companionship. In fact, the dramatic ending just related seems to blot out a passion of whose existence we had not been explicitly made aware.

In the diary Chamberlain’s final negative is followed by a paragraph (apparently without change of date) which opens with the words ‘Now that the pain and indecision are over ...’, followed by regrets that the author’s emotional absorption had left her ‘so little capable of getting to know him’. But the wound had gone much deeper than she realised, or would admit. References to misery, pain and sleepless nights recur in the diary for months after that fatal monosyllable. In March, no doubt unwisely, she accepted an invitation to spend two days at Miss Chamberlain’s home, to meet the ‘great man’ again, after which she is still wondering how it will all end. However, by April, she was able to ‘look facts clearly in the face’, admitting a desire to ‘play a part in the world’, and a belief that, as the wife of a great man, she would play a bigger part than as a ‘spinster or an ordinary married woman’. The pros and cons of the life of a politician’s wife are coolly examined, and its outward circumstances reckoned to be distasteful. But the one unresolved question remained: were Chamberlain’s convictions and the means employed to further his career honest? That was crucial. So she slipped again, inviting Chamberlain to yet another meeting at her father’s country home, although she had already confided to her diary that ‘happiness is a closed book to me.’ The invitation was accepted, and the result disastrous. When the visit was over, unable to contain herself any longer, she wrote to Chamberlain pouring out her heart ‘in a moment of suicidal misery’, but suggesting that they must never meet again. His cool reply expressed the wish to retain her friendship, nor did he see any reason against this, though he left the decision in her hands.

However, in the diary references to misery continue, and at one point Beatrice declared that she would never write in it again. (She did within a month.) In 1885 her father suffered a stroke, which he survived, though gradually declining through six more years. Beatrice now foresaw a future holding nothing but

companionising a failing mind – a life without physical or mental activity – no work – Good God, how awful. This time last year I was suffering from the same feeling – with other circumstances. There was hope for me then in work. Now I am hopeless ... Surely my cup is full.

The situation was, however, somewhat relieved by some of her eight sisters taking turns at looking after their father, thus enabling Beatrice to resume her work in London. By May 1888, happiness was no longer ‘a closed book’. She even writes of days which had ‘been very happy, full of interest and blessed with content’. Her work was now ‘all in all’ to her. Even Chamberlain’s eventual marriage to an American girl was dismissed ‘with a gasp, as if one had been stabbed, and then it is over’ – to which was added the thought that ‘it might be the saving of him.’

The Beatrice Potter whose thoughts and emotions have so far filled the pages of this diary is probably a stranger to most of its readers. Now, however, a more familiar figure gradually makes her appearance, though echoes of the past are still heard. ‘God knows that celibacy is painful to women,’ she once cried, while bravely trying to accept her prospects as a working spinster: but she was fast making her name by her articles on East End life in various journals. Never did Beatrice have a moment’s doubt about what she did or did not want to do. She wanted to abolish poverty: but she did not want to play the Lady Bountiful distributing charity, nor was she willing to adopt the harsh distinction that the Charity Organisation Society drew between the deserving and the undeserving poor. She was profoundly convinced that poverty and miserable social conditions were the result of misguided or inadequate social organisation, and that only exact observation of the nature and origin of these evils could put things right. This conviction appears quite early in the diary and stands unshaken throughout.

Beatrice Potter was indeed one of the first social scientists, which is the more remarkable when one remembers that she had had practically no formal schooling, nor had she ever been to a university. Although she knew many public figures, her contacts with the academic world were practically nil, at least until she had established her reputation without its help. As a social research worker, her choice of field was influenced by her human sympathies. She ‘enjoyed the life of the people of the East End’ and felt ‘the simplicity of their sorrows and of their joys’.

By 1890, Richard Potter was drifting into a half-conscious state, and Beatrice, ‘chained to his side’ as long as his life lasted, was again becoming discouraged by her exile from the ‘world of thought and action of other men and women’. Once, however, when she escaped for a fortnight’s change in London, ‘Sidney Webb, the socialist’ dined at her hotel to meet the Booths. She describes a ‘remarkable little man with a huge head on a very tiny body, a breadth of forehead quite sufficient to account for the encyclopaedic character of his knowledge, a Jewish nose’ (he was not a Jew), ‘prominent eyes and mouth, black hair somewhat unkempt, spectacles and a most bourgeois black coat shiny with wear ... His pronunciation is Cockney, his attitudes by no means eloquent, with his thumbs fixed pugnaciously in a far from immaculate waistcoat ... But I like the man. There is a directness of speech, an open-mindedness, an imaginative warm-heartedness which should carry him far.’

Perhaps under Sidney’s influence Beatrice was now becoming increasingly outraged by the contrasts between rich and poor. She was even shocked to find herself head of a household in which ‘ten persons, living on the fat of the land’, were required to minister to ‘the supposed comfort of one poor imbecile old man’. But at the same time, she was overwhelmed with guilt when she caught herself longing for her father’s death.

Before long, Sidney Webb began to turn up rather frequently. On one of his visits she learned that he had been employed at 17 in a broker’s City office, and that by working in his spare time for the Civil Service exams he had quickly reached a good position in the Colonial Office. Nevertheless, at this meeting, her personal reaction to him was even more unflattering, not to say downright snobbish, than on their first acquaintance:

His tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, lack of manner, Cockney pronunciation, poverty are all against him. He has the conceit of a man who has raised himself out of the most insignificant surroundings into a position of power ... This self-complacent egotism, this disproportionate view of his own position is at once repulsive and ludicrous. On the other hand, looked at by the light of his previous history, it was inevitable.

But as the months went by, her judgments became more charitable. Sidney was becoming a ‘needful background to my working life and I the same to him’. Unfortunately, however, Sidney, who was already in love with Beatrice, saw this working partnership as a tacit understanding that they would eventually marry. This caused her to send him a sharp letter, even reminding him that the wound of her desperate love for Chamberlain was still not healed: but she also promised to ‘try to love him’. ‘The other man I loved, but did not believe in; you I believe in but do not love.’ After a year of this platonic co-operation, Sidney returned Beatrice’s letters to her, accepting that he could count on ‘unconventional frankness’ on her part. In reply she acknowledged the ‘noble tone’ of his letter, but again reminded him that ‘in future he must write as a friend, as a friend only.’

And so it went on. They worked together and went about together, sometimes even (very daringly) staying in the same hotel, till, in 1881, on holiday in beautiful Norwegian scenery, Beatrice at last surrendered. Her comment was that the world would wonder. ‘On the face of it,’ she wrote, ‘it seems an extraordinary end to the once brilliant Beatrice Potter ... to marry an ugly little man with no social position and less means, whose only recommendation, as some may say, is a certain pushing ability. And I am not in love, not as I was.’ The world did indeed wonder: sadly, her engagement cost her the friendship of the Booths who could not understand how she could so demean herself. Nor did she tell her family till their father’s death (on New Year’s Day 1892) made it easier to come clean with her sisters. Then on her wedding day, 23 July of that year, Beatrice wrote the final entry in this first volume of her diaries: ‘The only thing I do resent is parting with my name ... Exit Beatrice Potter. Enter Beatrice Webb or rather (Mrs) Sidney Webb, for I lose alas! both names.’

Much later, in the early 1920s, when I was myself employed at what was then the Joint Research Department of the Labour Party and the TUC, I saw a good deal of the Webbs, as they often included me in the informal lunches at which they regularly entertained people active in the Labour Movement. The lunch was always substantial, but the talk not particularly lively, unless Bernard Shaw was present as he quite often was. I was always myself somewhat in awe of both the Webbs, particularly of Beatrice, ever since our first meeting, when she made straight for me at a party with the greeting, ‘How do you do, Mrs Wootton? What are you writing now?’ – a crushing embarrassment to a shy young woman who had then neither written, nor planned to write, anything. Beatrice had, I think, little sense of humour. Nor did she easily make contact with younger people. But she was kind-hearted and generous, as well as dedicated to her work. Her joint researches with Sidney illuminated wide tracts of British social life and established new models of accurate investigation. But most remarkable of all is the fact that these diaries could have been kept up for over seventy years by anyone so heavily loaded with paper-work in her professional life.