- 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.’
The paragraph which contains the above quotations closes with the triumphant declaration, ‘I am so well and so blessedly happy’ – words which could never have found a place in the previous volume. Nevertheless the Beatrice of Volume One is still with us. Before their marriage she had frankly warned Sidney that she could not guarantee that her passionate sexual attraction to Joe Chamberlain was quite extinct, and on the sixth anniversary of her last meeting with Chamberlain she wrote: ‘How strange it is that I, a happy wife, should brood over the thought of this day six years ago,’ when ‘five long-drawn-out years of passionate feeling reached their climax.’ There speaks the anxious, self-critical Beatrice of the days before her marriage. Moreover, the diary expresses repeated concern as to whether she was giving Sidney enough help or support. In fact, this troubled her so much that she actually wrote, ‘I sometimes wonder whether I work at all, or whether I simply watch Sidney work’ – which, in the light of her own accounts of their joint working every morning, was absolute nonsense. Another worry was provoked by the question of how far they were justified in maintaining a standard of living conspicuously above that of the working people whose welfare was their major concern. This ‘wearied and excited’ Beatrice’s ‘poor little brain’ particularly at the time of the move from Hampstead to Westminster when she had to decide on furniture for the new house. ‘It is somewhat softening to contend that you need beautiful things to work with. It may be desirable to have them, but it requires a lot of proving.’ Beatrice therefore picked up ‘charming old bits’ in second-hand shops, which provoked her sisters ‘to blaspheme, saying that they could not “see much socialism in that”.’
By nature Beatrice was, it would seem, a somewhat introverted character, but, having escaped from that Society with a capital ‘s’ into which she was born, she was destined to a life of constant lunching and dining with politicians and other public figures in the promotion of Sidney’s and her own political and social objectives. ‘One reason why I am so fagged,’ she confesses (October 1896), ‘is the social side of our work. We are perpetually entertaining ...’ And, later: ‘There is a constant stream of individuals passing through our house ... their one common feature being that they all ask questions which have to be answered.’ Neither she nor Sidney made friends with the frankly socialist movement associated with such names as Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and John Burns, but Bernard Shaw (in spite of his philandering, of which Beatrice strongly disapproved) was a regular guest at the famous Webb lunches. Manual workers were conspicuous by their absence. Possibly Beatrice never quite escaped from the conventional class feeling of the circles in which she grew up. Certainly the diary contains occasional expressions of dismay at the uncouthness and low intellectual standard of individual proletarians with whom she was unavoidably brought into contact when addressing trade-union meetings. One group of miners she described as ‘a stupid, stolid lot of men’, even though credited with ‘fairmindedness and kindliness’. ‘But oh how dense! ... They will have to depend on middle-class leadership for years to come.’
But for all its cares and worries, life at Grosvenor Road had its cheerful moments. As if they had not enough to do, Sidney, with Beatrice co-operating, founded the London School of Economics, the primary object of which was to teach students not to build castles in the air, but to demonstrate that, as in the natural sciences, so also in social studies, progress must come from patient observation of facts: on that alone could valid theories and fruitful policies be constructed. From its earliest days the School has gone from strength to strength, building a world-wide reputation: but how many of us still think of it as the child of the Webbs?
Meanwhile perhaps the brightest spot in the early years of the Webbs’ married life was the publication in January 1898 of ‘our book’, the volume on Industrial Democracy, the writing of which Beatrice had found such a tedious task. The diary reported its ‘brilliant reception’ – two columns in the Times on the day of publication, an abusive leader in the Standard, notices in the Daily Chronicle and Daily News, while half a dozen provincial papers were all ‘properly enthusiastic’, and ‘the weeklies treated us quite handsomely.’
Beatrice’s austerity was so far undermined by this success that she launched out into extensive purchases of silks and satins in a determination to ‘clothe myself properly’. (In the diary she was always a keen observer of other women’s dress.) This extravagance was moreover encouraged by their joint decision to take an eight-month sabbatical voyage round the world, the ostensible object of which was to study overseas patterns of local government. Up to this point both Sidney and Beatrice would seem to have had somewhat insular attitudes. They had each paid one visit to the USA some years previously, but the diary never mentions any holiday abroad, nor is there much sign of interest in the goings-on across the Channel, or of familiarity with any foreign language. Not surprisingly, therefore, they planned a route that would circumscribe the globe without going outside English-speaking countries, which of course presented no problem in an Empire on which the sun never set. Even so, according to the editors of this book, ‘within days of landing Beatrice had struck a note of insular condescension that was to echo through everything she wrote along the way. She seldom made a gracious or generous comment,’ and as she became ill and exhausted by the tour she ‘lapsed increasingly into the habit of judging people by appearances and making invidious comparisons’. Sidney is said to have been ‘less censorious’ but to have shown ‘even less imagination’. The one country which appears to have made some appeal to them was New Zealand: but the attraction seems to have been more in the country and climate than in the people or in the pattern of government.
In the last diary entry before she left for the tour Beatrice wrote that for the last four years she had ‘done a good deal of hard work. Now I want to sketch life as I see it casually from day to day.’ In fact, no diary entries for the travel period are recorded in this book. But Beatrice did produce a record of the journey running to nearly a hundred thousand words. On return she was anxious to publish this, but Sidney eventually managed to persuade her that her ‘accounts of parliaments and politicians and labour laws were too technical (and stale) for the general reader, and too casual for the scholar’. The individual travelogues relating to the USA, New Zealand and Australia were, however, separately published after her death. In her first entry in the diary about a month after their return, Beatrice observed that she was now disinclined to write in it, ‘having lost the habit of intimate confidences impossible in a joint diary such as we have kept together during our journey round the world’. A joint travelogue was unobjectionable, but ‘one cannot run on into self-analysis, family gossip, or indiscreet and hasty descriptions of current happenings, if someone else, however dear, is to read one’s chatter then and there.’ The thought that Sidney would decipher what she wrote would make it impossible for her to record ‘whatever came into her head at the moment’.
So the old pattern was in principle restored. The recipe does not, however, seem to have been exactly ‘the mixture as before’. In the words of this book’s editors, the Webbs were returning to a Britain ‘alive with optimism and prosperity’. They were both in their forties and in good health. They knew exactly what they wanted to do, and had the means with which to do it. To some extent this happy situation may explain the contrast between the diary before and after the world tour. The later entries lack the melancholy philosophising which was previously so prominent. They are more concerned with character analyses of the personalities who crossed the Webbs’ path. Thus, after a meeting with Churchill at a dinner party, Beatrice records: ‘First impression: restless, almost intolerably so, without capacity for sustained and unexcited labour, egotistical, bumptious, shallow-minded and reactionary, but with a certain personal magnetism, great pluck and some originality, not of intellect but of character.’ Comments on political developments also play a larger part than in the earlier years. At the same time the Webbs’ domestic routine underwent certain changes. Instead of the former collaboration in joint authorship, a new division of labour became established in which Sidney devoted himself mainly to administrative matters as a member of the LCC, to promoting the growth of the LSE, and in particular to his (ultimately successful) plans to secure the integration of the School into the University of London, while Beatrice concentrated on writing up her researches into local government at home and abroad, as well as entertaining influential persons who might be useful in the Webb policy of ‘permeating’ the political scene from the top.
Here, however, a new worry arose. Not only did the role of hostess prove fatiguing, but times had changed. Round about the turn of the century, the standards of living of the well-to-do had significantly risen. As a young woman, Beatrice had learned at her father’s table the art of ‘salon politics’ and ‘knew exactly how influence could be traded across the dinner table’. This, as the editors remind us, ‘was the milieu in which Beatrice had grown up and to which she was reverting in middle life – but with ambivalent feelings’, ‘This last year,’ she wrote at the end of 1900, ‘we have seemed to drift upward in the strata of society.’ So, while the diary gradually turned into a list of social engagements, Beatrice once again had something to arouse her sense of guilt: their friends might even regard their supposedly public-spirited activities as just social climbing. The immediate effect on the diary was, however, to make it less interesting, as a mere catalogue of engagements, and the reader who has followed it from the beginning may be tempted at this point to cry ‘enough is enough.’ There were, however, even stranger things to come. By the end of 1901, feeling unwell and constantly fatigued, Beatrice decided to take her diet in hand, and many pages are devoted to her experiments in this field. But eventually the old style returned, and the final entry in this volume, dated 14 October 1905, concludes with the declaration that Sidney ‘is a blessed mate for me’.
Looking back over these two diary volumes and my own somewhat faded memories of my personal contacts with her, I find it difficult to assess Beatrice’s character and achievements. In public she had a conviction of her own infallibility comparable with that of our present prime minister; but in Beatrice’s case the diary betrays that this was the screen to protect a deep abyss of self-distrust. Personally, I have been generally sympathetic to her objectives; and the dedication and industry with which she sought to achieve them were beyond praise. For several years after their marriage the diary makes repeated references to the continuing ‘honeymoon’, and from time to time breaks out with such exclamations as ‘Oh my boy’ – as she always called him – ‘how I love him!’
Of Sidney’s own reaction no first-hand evidence is available, but a few months before their travels she said ‘his manner had improved,’ principally as a result of his ‘happiness in the blessed fact of loving and being loved with a love without flaw or blemish’. To that I can but sadly add that, for all her virtues and personal kindness, Beatrice Webb in my experience lacked both the warmth and the humour that are essential ingredients in any truly lovable character.
This review must not, however, close without a word of admiration for the splendid way in which the editors have tackled their formidable task. Incidentally, the inclusion in this volume of a facsimile of the manuscript throws light on the purely material difficulties they had to face.