Heartache of rare bird of reform

Clara Collet 1860-1948 - Relations
May 7, 2004

Clara Collet's life was long and quietly eventful. When she died in 1948, the many obituaries told of how this social investigator and civil servant on matters concerning women's work had been an influential force for government reforms in this field. Yet "Miss Collet", as she was usually known, has attracted the attention of few scholars. Deborah McDonald offers the first full-length biography of this neglected figure, while Jane Miller paints a more intimate picture of the woman who was her great-aunt.

McDonald's informative book contains some rich detail. Collet was born in 1860 into a middle-class home in Islington. Her father, a teacher of singing, was a radical Unitarian who held the unconventional expectation that his daughters should be well educated so that they could, if they wished, earn a living and become financially independent. Collet attended North London Collegiate, one of the prestigious new academic schools for girls. She was confident and outspoken and mixed with other radical families, becoming close friends with Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. But Collet never embraced Marxism; although many of her later ideas supported reforms for working men and women, she was a moderate who, for most of her life, supported the Liberals.

While working in her first job, as a schoolteacher in Leicester, Collet passed her BA degree. She also received a marriage proposal but turned her suitor down. Dissatisfied with her life, she decided to move back to London to study for her masters, supporting herself by taking casual work. Soon she became involved in philanthropy and then, in the late 1880s, was employed by Charles Booth to research women's work in the East End of London. Collet was set on her life path. Unlike many Victorians, she argued that it was environmental rather than hereditary factors that caused social problems, such as prostitution, among poor women.

Although permanent, well-paid work was hard to find in a society that only grudgingly accepted the employment of middle-class women, Collet made good use of the contacts she made through the various networks relevant to her statistical research. She also helped to establish various societies and was a keen member of many professional and academic associations. She was ambitious and level headed and had articles published in journals, even arguing for a minimum wage for women. But it was not until 1882 that she entered the civil service, as a labour correspondent in the new Labour Department.

During the early 1890s, Collet met the writer George Gissing and their friendship is one of the more intriguing chapters in McDonald's book.

Gissing had married twice, unhappily, working-class women. He would never have selected a woman of his own social standing for a relationship, nor an intellectually strong woman such as Collet. Yet they had a close friendship in which she became emotionally involved. She was deeply hurt when Gissing fell in love with Gabrielle Marie Edith Fleury. That he wanted Collet to be party to his decision to live with his new love in France, as man and wife (he was still married to his second wife), cut deep. She destroyed her letters from Gissing and her diary entries from this period but, with typical self-control, kept her feelings to herself, only letting Gissing see how pleased she was that he was happy. When he died in 1903, Clara gave Gabrielle practical help and friendship, just as she had done when Gissing was alive.

While all this was going on in her life, Collet was furthering her career, eventually exercising considerable power in regard to reforms in women's employment and training.

Miller's reminiscences, part of a wider history of her family, are unforgettable since she picks out the quirky detail that a child remembers.

The small, neat Great-Aunt Clara, with her double chin and chilly ways, wore her hair in a thin plait at night and dressed during the day in rustling black silk, at least 50 years out of date. She returned Christmas presents, considering them unnecessary, and sent back letters with spelling mistakes corrected in red. Great-Aunt Clara had "always been bossy", remarks Miller. But there is admiration too for this "rare bird", a woman civil servant who worked with men in institutions organised by men and according to male traditions of professional behaviour. She brought about improvements for working women yet would have disliked being labelled a "feminist".

In their two books, McDonald and Miller offer fine portraits of Collet that complement each other. Both books will be of interest to history students and the general reader keen to find out more about this remarkable woman, quirky behaviour and all.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

Clara Collet 1860-1948: An Educated Working Woman

Author - Deborah McDonald
Publisher - Woburn Press
Pages - 256
Price - £35.00 and £17.50
ISBN - 0 7130 0241 7 and 4060 2

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