Inside a tangled Webb

The Life and Times of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, 1858-1905
November 10, 2000

The story of the remarkable partnership between the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb has been told so many times and from such different angles, including (unforgettably) Beatrice's own, that another version scarcely seems necessary.

Yet this is a very different kind of version, one long awaited and worth waiting for. Its author, Royden Harrison, wrote an indispensable historical monograph on the Victorian positivists, Before the Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics , in 1965, and was invited soon afterwards by the Passfield trustees to write an authorised dual biography.

Harrison then discovered - he had not been told - that not only was Kitty Muggeridge (wife of Malcolm and Beatrice's niece) already writing a biography that the trustees knew about, but that in 1947 the trustees had invited R. H. Tawney to write one, too. Tawney had withdrawn on learning that Margaret Cole, one of the trustees, was writing her own and that she had chosen as her title that of his own 1945 memorial lecture, "The Webbs and their work".

Margaret Cole - lively, restless, gossipy - was the leading spirit behind the authorised version of the 1960s. In the background was the Labour History Society, founded in 1960 and financed out of the proceeds of the volume of essays on labour history brought out to celebrate what would have been G. D. H. Cole's 70th birthday.

Cole and the Webbs were very different kinds of Fabians. Not all the members of the Labour History Society were Fabians of any kind. Some were thoroughly out of sympathy with that strand in British socialism, although they believed that it had to be taken fully into account to explain the political culture.

Labour history has moved in many directions since 1965, but Harrison, who has shown that he can skilfully finish a job despite all kinds of hindrances, concludes, with the lives of the Webbs only half finished, that through them not only had Fabianism become "the most distinctive and influential mode of socialism in England" but that the foundations had been laid for "modern labour historiography".

His is a readable and informative version of the first half of the story, different from any of its predecessors and quite different from anything Tawney would have written.

For Beatrice, Sidney, when she first met him, had a "tiny tadpole body". He was "a queer monstrosity to be justified only by success". Their partnership was a business bargain that guaranteed both of them a substantial kind of success, if a substantial amount of suspicion. There was something inherently unattractive about their bargain, although Beatrice found "charm" in the making of it.

Harrison is as interesting and revealing in discussing the personal relations of the two partners as he is in examining what made them socialists and the kind of socialists they were. For this reason, the chapters that deal with each of them separately before they met are particularly illuminating. Sidney's letters are unappealing as he awkwardly shapes himself as a "professional man", a term pivotal in Harrison's analysis, before pressing forward as a Fabian.

And there are elements in the life of Beatrice as a "gilded spinster", a "glorified spinster", before and while she is rebuffing Joseph Chamberlain, that leave as much distaste as her handling of Sidney before the bargain was struck. Her confusion is sometimes as great as her intimate self-analysis.

Charles and Mary Booth, themselves a kind of partnership, perhaps deserve rather more attention. Harrison observes that the Booths did not want to know Sidney and that Beatrice cried about it, but also that Beatrice noted in 1889, "it would be strange if the close personal relationship between me and him (Charlie) had not ended".

Some of Harrison's comments on politics are admirably incisive. Sidney was always "more interested in the waste attendant on neglect than he was in the waste attendant in extravagance", and "socialism and imperialism were beating on the same drum", for example.

But it is the personal remarks of Beatrice that most illuminate what has been called the story of "the oddest couple since Adam and Eve". And it was Beatrice who brought in a mystical element - "A woman in all the relations of life should be sought".

In 1901, she told a shocked guest that one of her principal faults was cruelty and she knew she was "not quite a lady". It is with that quote that Harrison ends.

Lord Briggs was the first president of the Labour History Society.

The Life and Times of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, 1858-1905

Author - Royden J. Harrison
ISBN - 0 333 77343 8
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £50.00
Pages - 397

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