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 the need for systematic thought. Her now rather ridiculous old family friend, Herbert Spencer, had developed her natural distaste for loose, impressionistic, and sentimental attitudes on social questions, for the tittle-tattle of the drawing rooms in which she was from childhood so completely at home:
Not a moment of my time, except what is required for positive rest, shall be unemployed…. No more foolish trifling with health, but a steady perseverance in the path of duty—alas! The only straight way left to us poor children of the nineteenth century.
The “alas” betrays the extreme self-consciousness of the diaries, but there is some relief here in the slightly ironical and secular tone.
Beatrice Webb was swept from her path of good works by a wholly unrequited love of Joseph Chamberlain, who began attractively as a glowing radical and was to end as a colonial secretary in a Conservative government. It is a not very interesting story in the diaries until Webb, finally retreating, records that she has become in her disillusion like “surgical steel” in inner feeling. She sometimes thought that she would never recover.
The diaries reveal her as a superb observer of personalities, moving up and down the social scale, never ill at ease. For example on meeting her future husband she writes, “…An interesting study. A London retail tradesman with the aims of a Napoleon! a queer monstrosity to be justified only by success. And above all, a loop-hole into the socialist party.” Reacting from her failed love, she writes, “My whole thought and feeling have drifted far out into the future—present persons seem to me so many shadows. It is for future generations, for their noble happiness, that I live and pray.” So it remained until her death in connubial bliss.
Great fame and success came together. I think that she at first enjoyed the offsetting effect of Sidney’s grotesque appearance as being nearly a dwarf, and of his Cockney accent and his apparent insignificance, but that she soon developed a deep affection for him as they worked together, and as they bicycled around Hampshire lanes in tandem, and as his uncompetitive nature and natural selflessness emerged in their work. Malcolm Muggeridge, related to Beatrice by marriage, claimed, in his Chronicles of Wasted Time and elsewhere, that he always saw sadness in Beatrice’s face and demeanor, a melancholy that showed through her beauty and that sustained it.
From 1887 she lived in the circle of the most successful and intelligent men and women in England, all the time secretly disappointed, as the diaries show, as if she were lost in a pageant of which she was only a spectator. She had excellent relations with most of the prime ministers of England between the death of Gladstone and the arrival of Stanley Baldwin. She had a particular, though transient, friendship with Arthur Balfour, who was notoriously a cold Tory, ruthless when challenged and famously charming. He later dropped her. She met him as a guest of Lady Horner, “high priestess of ‘The Souls’ in their palmy days, now somewhat elderly and faded but gracious to those she accepts as ‘distinguished,'” which included Beatrice Webb. A later entry—
A delightful Saturday and Sunday with the Elchos at Stanway [a house in Gloucestershire], A.J.B. [Balfour] bringing down his motor…. In his courtly devotion to Lady Elcho…”Prince Arthur” is at his best. One can believe that the relation between these two has always been at the same high level of affectionate friendship, without taint of intrigue.
This, incongruously, sounds like a novel by Maurice Baring. With Balfour’s background, she continues, “the intellectual camaraderie of the Conservative leader with ‘the Webbs’ dropped into its right place, as a slight new thing agreeably stimulating to all concerned. …Brilliant and pleasant was the talk as we whirled through the countryside in A.J.B.’s motor, or lounged in the famous hall of Stanway.”
This is the period of pre-war literary motoring, with the chauffeur Agostinelli driving Proust, and Edith Wharton whirling a reluctant Henry James through France, and Kipling imagining the voices of long-gone smugglers and press men in the Sussex lanes as he drove from his country house, Batemans. The diaries do confess that “such ‘society’ as we have…is tending to become of an aristocratic and fastidious character….There are grave disadvantages to this dallying with ‘fashion.'” But Webb likes “interesting folk versed in great affairs.” She had little sympathy with feminism or the women’s movement or the suffragettes. In fact, she enjoyed the spectacle of great men in great houses and she was neither surprised nor shocked by the vast inequalities she encountered every day.
She observed the future Edward VII with an unblinking eye:
…You could see that underneath the Royal automaton there lay the child and the animal, a simple kindly unmoral temperament which makes him a good fellow. Not an English gentleman, essentially a foreigner and yet an almost perfect constitutional sovereign. From a political point of view his vices and foibles, his lack of intellectual refinement or moral distinction, are as nothing compared to his complete detachment from all party prejudice and class interests and his genius for political discretion…. There is something comic in the great British nation with its infinite variety of talents, having this undistinguished and limited-minded German bourgeois to be its social sovereign.
This could hardly be bettered for worldly discernment and accuracy, and these flashes of intuition recur throughout the diaries. There are also vivid pictures of her real and progressive friends—Shaw, Wells, J.B.S. Haldane, and Bertrand Russell. They were her partners in the two great achievements of her long life: the creation of the Fabian Society’s research interests (though Wells was less than whole-hearted here), and the founding of the London School of Economics, which over the years was to satisfy, precisely and amply, her intellectual ambitions, developing the sciences of society “which did not yet exist” (as she said).
It was an unusual moment of British Enlightenment. Bertrand Russell gave a brilliant course of lectures on Marx and Lassalle in the first terms of the LSE under the title “German Social Democracy,” and the institution flourished with family friends recruiting talent and raising money. Leonard Hobhouse, later professor of sociology, found students in Oxford, and G.M. Trevelyan, the historian and later master of Trinity College, Cambridge, found scholars in Cambridge. A typical diary entry in 1908 runs:
…We lunched with Winston Churchill and his bride…. Winston had made a really eloquent speech on the unemployed the night before and he has mastered the Webb scheme…. He is brilliantly able—more than a phrase-monger, I think—and is definitely casting in his lot with the [cause of] constructive state action…. After lunch Lloyd George came in and asked us to breakfast to discuss his insurance scheme…. [Lloyd George] is a clever fellow, but has less intellect than Winston, and not such an attractive personality….
With the great reforming Liberal government in office, the Webbs were more influential than they were ever to be again. From their point of view it was all downhill to the Socialist government of Ramsay MacDonald after the war, which abjectly failed to promote any effective form of socialism before its leaders collapsed into a coalition with the Conservatives.
The Webbs’ scholarly output was gigantic and mind-numbing, extending from a history of the cooperative movement, the History of Trade Unionism (1894), the Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law (1909), to a series of eleven volumes on English local government, and so it continues with reports and pamphlets until the anticlimax of the two volumes of Soviet Communism in 1935. Their research laid the foundations of a possible social science in England, but, writing about poverty as the one great and growing evil of the age, they never tried to recapture the splendors of Carlyle and of Ruskin. They were there to give the facts and figures. They did not expect their friends and followers, like Ruskin’s followers, to help to build a road as an act of faith.
When she was thirty years old, Beatrice worked for some months as a “trouser-hand” in an East End sweatshop, observing her own ineptitude with the trousers and describing very clearly both the harshness and the warm sympathies of ordinary life, which was for almost everyone in the London slums a life of drudgery and of fear. She knew herself to be an extraordinary person, both in her analytical skills and in her clarity of mind, and in her extraordinary good fortune. She acknowledges this destiny unsentimentally and lucidly in her diaries. Two couples, both locked into marriages that were at once strange and intense, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, would meet for lunch in Grosvenor Road, in the Webbs’ London house next to the Embankment, and would walk by the river discussing their lives. Virginia Woolf said that she had “no living philosophy” to guide her, and Beatrice Webb would confess that she lacked, and that she despairingly wanted, some supernatural resources to inspire her. John Stuart Mill and the pursuit of happiness were not enough for her. They left her with only a depressing dryness of feeling.
Those who read the diaries and the journal of these two great women seventy or more years later will all admit, I think, that Virginia Woolf’s Journal is vastly more moving and enlivening than Beatrice Webb’s diaries, in spite of the terror of madness in Virginia Woolf’s pages. Beatrice Webb is always looking forward to the future of humanity, but actually there is nothing interesting and encouraging to be seen there, as she begins to suspect herself. In 1931, in the middle of the Depression, she writes:
…What I am beginning to doubt is “the inevitability of gradualness”—or even the practicability of gradualness, in the transition from a capitalist to an equalitarian civilization. Anyway, no leader in our country has thought out how to make the transition without upsetting the applecart…. And no one is doing the thinking….
Beatrice Webb realized, unlike her more naive husband, that there could never be socialism in England “without a terrific struggle on clearly thought out lines,” and this meant no predictable socialism ever except possibly in the event of defeat in war. Secondly, capitalism had shown itself to have resources that the Webbs could not earlier have foreseen—if capitalism were controlled with skill, and particularly with the skills involved in improving the distribution of wealth. Some of these skills were learned only during World War II. The Webbs, disappointed and exhausted, turned in their last few years toward Soviet communism, hoping but not greatly caring. They wrote down the facts and figures of the Soviet constitution as they were presented to them, and investigated nothing in the real world.
Why in busy lives do men and women keep diaries? Part of the reason is the desire to have a report on how well or badly they are doing, as if they become their own schoolteachers. Certainly this was part of Beatrice Webb’s motive. In the diaries she concluded without embarrassment that she had done very well, at least until near the end. She was certainly right, and a singular institution, the London School of Economics and Political Science, remains to prove it.
September 20, 2001