Beatrice Webb

by Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam
Knopf, 288 pp., $6.95

Beatrice and Sidney Webb
Beatrice and Sidney Webb; drawing by David Levine

Anyone who writes about Beatrice Webb is faced with a difficulty. On the one hand there is the tireless social investigator and reformer; the pioneer Fabian socialist; the woman who at the time of the women’s rights movement was herself the unanswerable evidence that her sex was a match in ability, hard work, and political dexterity for any man. She has been hailed as a spiritual descendant of the noble meliorism of John Stuart Mill and George Eliot. On the other hand, there is the tyrannical, overbearing, drill sergeant, inspired by a sweeping sense of her own rectitude and superiority, determined to improve by compulsion the morals as well as the condition of the working classes, contemptuous of inferiors, insufferable to her equals, convinced that everyone else’s motives were corrupt while hers were lily-pure, willing to stoop to intrigue and even chicanery to achieve her ends, and finally, in old age, scornful of democracy and blinded by an absurd reliance upon Soviet statistics, maintaining that Stalinist Russia was the only state of the future.

What did she achieve? Did she convert to collectivism the puzzled rulers of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and did she save the Labour Party from syndicalism by giving it a backbone of bureaucratic pragmatism and a cadre of young intellectuals who would keep the wild trade unionists in their place? Or was she the dupe of the cynical Edwardian politicians who used just as much of her expertise as was necessary to save their capitalist skins, and has her influence upon the Labour Party and the creation of the welfare state been overestimated?

Historians have on the whole preferred to treat her as undoubtedly she would have wished to be treated: not as an individual but as part of a bicephalic creature called the Webbs. It is therefore a relief to read a biography which does not attempt to be a piece of social and political history in disguise, but shows from the copious evidence in her diaries and papers how the Fabian and the woman were one. Kitty Muggeridge is well qualified to do so. For not only is she the wife of Britain’s leading nihilist, and therefore unlikely to write hagiography, but she is also Beatrice Webb’s niece. Her mother was the youngest of the Potter sisters and in every way was the opposite of her famous sister: improvident, bohemian, content to support on her unearned income a pleasure-loving husband, true to the family tradition only in being outspoken. Rose Potter is given the role of a Greek chorus who appears from the wings to make a wayward telling comment at any time when her Aunt Bo appears to be getting away with it. That she is not going to get away with it is clear from the Introduction where Kitty Muggeridge recollects the first time she met her aunt and…

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