The Revolutionary Christian Girl

Edith Heckstall Smith: The Match Girl, circa 1884–1890
Private Collection/Bridgeman Images
Edith Heckstall Smith: The Match Girl, circa 1884–1890

Toward the start of his fascinating book The Match Girl and the Heiress, Seth Koven states that it “joins efforts by historians to reclaim pre–World War II Britain for Christianity, a salutary historiographical Reconquista.” This may set alarm bells ringing, with its implication that more secular-minded scholars should be driven from the field, like the Moors expelled from Spain. But if the word “Reconquista” is unfortunate, he has a point. Surprisingly little academic attention has been paid to the part played by the Anglican Church, Catholic missions, and, above all, the Nonconformist sects in British reform movements, class awareness, women’s history, and social protest. This is particularly clear in the missions and settlements set up in the slums of British cities following the initiative of F.D. Maurice and the Christian Socialists in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Match Girl and the Heiress reflects Koven’s interest in the Christian revolutionaries who adopted voluntary poverty to counter social inequality and injustice. But he approaches his subject in an unusual and intimate way, by tracing the friendship between Muriel Lester (1883–1968), the charismatic daughter of a wealthy Baptist shipowner, and Nellie Dowell (1876–1923), a working-class girl from Bromley-by-Bow, in East London, and examining their work at Kingsley Hall, a settlement inspired by Muriel’s personal brand of “God is Love” theology and her ambition to build a “New Jerusalem” among the tenements.

In his account of this utopian endeavor, a blend of radical Christian idealism and hard pragmatism, Koven considers wider issues. These range from public and private education to the workings of the Poor Law, labor struggles and capitalism, the “New Woman” and suffrage movements, the plethora of contemporary quests for spiritual guidance, and the subtleties of same-sex friendships. Emotional currents, personal and spiritual, drive the story—the word “love” and the phrase “God’s love” echo through the book—and the author is unusually, and engagingly, open about his own feelings as he follows the different tracks of the women’s lives.

The tone is set in the opening sentence: “I cannot say with certainty how and when they met, but I do know that Muriel Lester and Nellie Dowell loved one another.” Their backgrounds, however, could not have been more different. Muriel’s father Henry had been born in Poplar in the East End, but once he made money he moved his family to leafy Leytonstone, and then to Loughton in Essex, where he was president of the Essex Baptist Union, a magistrate, and school board chairman. While Nellie endured a childhood of poverty and institutionalization, the Lester girls were sent to the progressive Wanstead College, and Muriel then went to St. Leonard’s school in St. Andrews.

The Lester sisters belong to a group that featured in Koven’s previous book, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian…

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