Strawberries in December

Paul Laity

  • Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham
    Verso, 512 pp, £25.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 1 78478 588 8

In 1889 Helena Born and Miriam Daniell, two socialists in their late twenties, left their family homes (and Daniell’s husband) in Bristol’s middle-class suburbs and moved to the slums. New converts to a ‘simple life’, they tinted the walls of their small house, waxed the uncarpeted floors and improvised furniture, hoping to set an aesthetic example to their neighbours. The drawing-room gatherings and expensive clothes of their former lives now seemed ‘as dross’. On a January morning the following year Born wrote to her cousin that she had ‘made the floor of my room shine with extra brightness’ using ‘beeswax, turps and elbow-grease’. She was excitedly preparing for a visit from the poet, philosopher and ‘saint in sandals’, Edward Carpenter.

Born and Daniell, two of the half-dozen ‘puzzled idealists’ whose lives Sheila Rowbotham follows in Rebel Crossings, were members of the Bristol Socialist Society, a body that aspired to ‘the attainment of the higher ideals of life’ regardless of class or sex. Its members met in coffee houses, read from their favourite poets – Whitman, Shelley, William Morris – and listened to ‘rousing glees’; Carpenter was one of their most popular speakers. The two women were swept up in the ‘new unionism’ that energised British socialism at the end of the 1880s, as the old craft unions made way for organisations that were more militant and more inclusive, willing to accept unskilled workers and women. New unionism’s openness to women meant that Born and Daniell could get involved in organising strikes and recruiting members. The charismatic Daniell addressed a torch-lit procession of shoe workers and was cheered for denouncing bosses and their large profits.

But the language of the two women’s socialism was often more mystical than organisational, infused with a Christian idea of redemption, a romantic revolt against industrial capitalism, and the desire expressed by Carpenter and Whitman for an embrace of all humanity. What was needed, they believed, was a new consciousness – a democratic culture of comradeship – as much as political or economic upheaval. Daniell wrote a pamphlet on The New Trade Unionism with a handsome Scottish radical called Robert Allan Nicol (a ‘Shelleyan type’), which, rather than discussing pickets, looked forward to ‘the union of the Souls of Mankind in a perfect Love’.

Daniell had met Nicol when she was still married, during a trip to Edinburgh for medical treatment in 1889. He was a lively young socialist about town, a somewhat scandalous figure; he’d slept with the wife of one of his professors. He was also an acolyte of the sociologist Patrick Geddes, who had just published The Evolution of Sex, which served as an ‘ethical endorsement of desire’ and defended the use of contraception. Daniell, whom Rowbotham variously describes as brilliant, imperious and quivering with ‘excessive sensibility’, decided to take Nicol back to Bristol to live in her marital home – an arrangement to which her insufficiently Whitmanesque solicitor husband seems to have objected. So Daniell and Nicol moved to the house in the slums, with Born’s presence providing ‘a threadbare cover of respectability’. Together, Rowbotham writes, they ‘generated a wild courage’.

When Daniell became pregnant with Nicol’s child, a dream of taking flight to the land of Emerson and Thoreau became edged with necessity. Daniell and Born were too close to be separated, so all three made the six-day voyage from Liverpool to New York. They then headed for Cambridge, Massachusetts, which they assumed would be a hub of Transcendentalist enlightenment. The baby when it arrived was named Sunrise; she was a ‘small, helpless bundle of utopia’.

Rowbotham first came across Born and Daniell in the 1970s, during her initial research into Carpenter, eventually realised in her splendid biography of 2008. Turning her attention back to them recently, she found their histories so oddly entangled with others that only a collective biography could answer the questions raised. When Orwell sneered at those 1930s left-wingers who went in for ‘simple life, poetry, nature-worship’ and a ‘roll in the dew before breakfast’, he called these ‘cranks’ a ‘hangover from the William Morris period’. Rowbotham’s little-known utopians belong to the era itself, though they fit the stereotype only sometimes, and to varying degrees. All were libertarian socialists with an interest in anarchism; five made the journey from Britain to the US. Each of them sought, Rowbotham writes, to combine individual freedom with ‘the creation of a society based on co-operative association, rather than competition and profit’. For them, as for other exponents of ‘whole-life socialism’, the personal merged with the political: they sought to embody their ideals in their everyday lives, to show it could be done, while also envisioning a new world free of the clutter and hypocrisy of bourgeois life, and of the immoralities of capitalism. How this new world combining equality with liberty might come about was unclear, but discussed at great length.

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