Barbara Wootton

  • The Diary of Beatrice Webb. Vol. II: All the Good Things in Life edited by Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie
    Virago, 376 pp, £18.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 86068 210 2

The final entry in Volume One of this diary, dated 23 July 1892, left Beatrice safely married to her Sidney, but lamenting that, according to current convention, as ‘Mrs Sidney Webb’ she would lose both her names. The next entry is dated 16 August and is divided between a brief reference to two delightful days of ‘real honeymoon in the Wicklow Hills’ and interviews with trade-unionists in Glasgow and elsewhere relevant to the History of Trade Unionism, which was to be their first joint book. As soon as this volume was completed, its authors felt the need for some sociological analyses to explore the background of the events which the History had recorded. They immediately set to work, therefore, on a study of ‘industrial democracy’. To Beatrice, however, this proved a less engaging task, though the pace at which one book was intended to succeed another was reflected in the fact that the diary’s announcement on 30 April 1894 that ‘our book comes out tomorrow’ was followed less than three months later by a lament about ‘not getting on with our book’. As it turned out, however, ‘industrial democracy’ proved such an awkward subject that the finished product did not reach the publishers for another three years.

In July 1894, while the couple were on holiday in the country, Beatrice confided to the diary one of its longest and most reflective passages – a meditation on womanhood. At what should women aim? First and foremost Beatrice put ‘the holiness of motherhood and its infinite superiority over any other occupation that a woman may take to’. As she was 34 years old at the date of their marriage, she and Sidney had agreed that parenthood was not for them, though the editors of this book mention, without disclosing their source, that the couple ‘apparently enjoyed a limited physical relationship’. Beatrice records this renunciation of her own possible motherhood without a flicker of emotion or self-pity and goes on to urge that married women should also make the most of their intellectual faculties. ‘It pains me,’ she writes, ‘to see a fine intelligent girl, directly she marries, putting aside intellectual things as no longer pertinent to her daily life.’ Nevertheless, in the end she works round to the old story that men and women have inherently different qualities, crediting women with a special gift of sympathy, while deprecating their intrusion into such masculine preserves as the acquisition of ‘riches, power or learning’.

Shortly after the return from their honeymoon, the Webbs moved from Hampstead, as being ‘too far from London’, and bought the house in Grosvenor Road, Westminster, where, with two resident maids and one research assistant, they settled permanently to a routine of writing every morning, while the latter part of the day was largely devoted to cultivating influential people who might support their enthusiasm for collectivism (a title they preferred to ‘socialism’) and their concern for the welfare of the working classes. Sidney, moreover, having been elected to the newly-established London County Council, also became deeply involved in that.

Throughout the early years of the marriage expressions of Beatrice’s love for her husband and satisfaction in their joint enterprises are liberally scattered through the pages of the diary. At first she had feared that happiness might dull her energies and make her intellectually dependent, but when her daily intellectual effort proved to be ‘set in a frame of loving companionship and constant sympathy’, that experience restored the ‘old fervour for work without the old restlessness’. Again, three years later, she expressed doubts whether two persons could stand the stress and strain of their ‘joint struggle with ideas, if it was not for the perpetual honeymoon of our life together’. If occasionally even they got at cross-purposes, ‘these would end in a shower of kisses.’

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