Making herself disagreeable

Barbara Wootton

  • The Diary of Beatrice Webb. Vol. III: ‘The Power to Alter Things’ edited by Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie
    Virago, 445 pp, £20.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 86068 211 0
  • Beatrice and Sidney Webb: Fabian Socialists by Lisanne Radice
    Macmillan, 350 pp, £20.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 333 36183 0

The third and final volume of the Webb diaries, which covers the period 1905 to 1924, is appropriately subtitled ‘The Power to Alter Things’. Hitherto Beatrice had been mainly the stay-at-home book-writer and social entertainer, while Sidney pursued his activities in the London County Council as well as in the London School of Economics which the Webbs had themselves founded. Towards the end of this volume Sidney became an MP and a Cabinet Minister in the first ever Labour government, but for Beatrice the turning-point was an invitation to join a Royal Commission on the Poor Law, which was Balfour’s legacy to the Liberal government that followed his defeat in the General Election of January 1906. In Volume Two of the diary Beatrice had already escaped from the neurotic self-analysis and sense of guilt which had characterised the first instalment; now in Volume Three we are aware of a confident, outgoing, independent-minded and very sociable woman approaching her fifties. In these entries, even before the defeat of the Balfour government, she presents herself as anxiously awaiting news as to who her colleagues in the Royal Commission were to be. When the full list arrived, she was ready to welcome her old friend Charles Booth, already famous for his researches into the lives of the London poor: but of the others only George Lansbury, and perhaps to some extent Octavia Hill, looked likely to share what would today be called Beatrice’s left-wing opinions. In consequence, Beatrice was compelled from the outset to fight a solitary battle for the principle that destitution was something to be prevented, not just mitigated after its occurrence.

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