Living for the Future

The Diaries of Beatrice Webb

edited by Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie, abridged by Lynn Knight, preface by Hermione Lee
Northeastern University Press, 630 pp., $45.00

Selected from the four volumes of Beatrice Webb’s diaries and further abridged, this book is a brilliant enterprise. No other state or society has ever been so rich, so many-layered, so abundant in its moral and religious concerns and in scientific discovery as Great Britain between 1870 and 1914. About the fine arts, rising to a peak in Paris at that time, there is less to be said in these Jubilee years, and in fact very little is said about them in Beatrice Webb’s diaries. She and her husband Sidney took a large part in building up the Labour Party and the Fabian Society and in founding the London School of Economics, and together they wrote many books and articles. She was a woman of masterful intellect and great practical good sense, but she had a rather starved imagination, as she herself recognized.

She put this fact on record in her diary by saying, misleadingly, that she and Sidney both “had second-class minds”; but, perhaps because they knew their defects, they could use their limited but concentrated powers for the common good with maximum efficiency. Imagination provides multiple lives, enabling a person to ex-perience constructed worlds when he wishes. It was to become a tragedy for Beatrice Webb, a real tragedy in old age and near the end of her life, that she was quite unable to perceive, or in any way to experience for herself, forms of life which she had not already perceived and understood. She knew nothing, and naturally would guess nothing, about Russia and various Russian ways of life past and present. The Webbs wrote about Russia crassly and ignorantly in their last book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?, published in 1935.

Beatrice Webb was absorbed at birth into the high bourgeois houses in London and in the country, a world of Mrs. Beeton’s Cooking and faithful servants and heavily recurring meals, and mahogany sideboards and richly tasseled curtains and numerous aunts and cousins who came to stay. Organized charity was a custom in the group of families into which Beatrice was born in 1858, one of the nine Potter sisters, daughters of the amiable and prosperous merchant Richard Potter; other familiar names in the cousinage were Cripps, Booth, Meinertzhagen, and Macaulay. Charles Booth published a great work of empirical sociology, The Life and Labour of the People in London. The early part appeared in 1889, and he presided over the Board of Statistical Research, of which Beatrice Webb was a member. The aim was “to get a fair picture of the whole of London society—the 4,000,000, by district and employment.” Anecdotal studies of poverty, and amateur schemes of charitable relief, were to be superseded by exact statistics and a study of causes. It was a serious beginning.

As a very young woman, Beatrice already had a clear view of the enormity of the problem of poverty in the middle of evidently increasing wealth, of “The Crime of Poverty,” as Shaw called it, and of…

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