The Match Girl and the Heiress, by Seth Koven

A cross-class relationship burns bright in a study of an experiment in ethical living, says Nadia Valman

January 15, 2015

Nellie Dowell was an apolitical match factory employee who lived her hard-working life in the shadow of deprivation and illness and repeatedly struggled against institutionalisation. Muriel Lester was the privileged daughter of a wealthy suburban Nonconformist family, a feminist, pacifist and revolutionary Christian who established a radical egalitarian community in the heart of an impoverished East London neighbourhood. Seth Koven’s new book is a bold, brilliant and deeply moving account of their contrasting lives – lives that, in the cause of early 20th-century Christian utopianism, were to become closely intertwined.

Dowell’s and Lester’s stories unfolded in Bow, the slum neighbourhood at the edge of London’s East End where many of the key political controversies of the Edwardian period were being played out. To understand the factors that shaped the life choices of these two individuals, Koven shows, is also to tell the story of Bow. Bow was the location of the famed 1888 strike by female workers at the Bryant and May match factory, and by the following decade it was teeming with competing philanthropic organisations whose lady helpers offered uplifting activities for working girls like Dowell. In the 1910s Bow was also the scene of bitter conflict between competing factions of the campaign for women’s suffrage, and, during the First World War, of Zeppelin attacks and violent demonstrations against pacifism.

It was here that Lester, who had several years’ experience of social work locally, and Dowell, whose ill health had jeopardised her job, established Kingsley Hall in 1915. Modelled on the settlement houses of the 1880s, which provided opportunities for earnest graduates to live and work among the underprivileged, Kingsley Hall represented a rejection of the condescending forms of Victorian philanthropy and a radical experiment in creating a Christian community. Here, wealthy and poor residents lived together as equals, sharing the manual labour of communal living, providing childcare, nutritious meals and meeting spaces for local people, and maintaining an open house for discussion and sociability every evening. The large windows and rooftop sleeping areas of the building signified their wish to eliminate privacy and private property.

Kingsley Hall’s residents were also committed, Koven writes, to challenging the “micro-workings of power in daily life” (violations of which included leaving dregs of toothpaste in the washbasin). Lester envisioned a philosophy of living inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, a gospel of love, non-violence and humility. Residents lived in voluntary poverty and offered any excess food, clothing and earnings to be freely taken by anyone who needed them, without incurring judgement. If Kingsley Hall was not the only revolutionary community of the period, none of its peers, Koven argues, went so far in striving to undo the gift economy of Victorian philanthropy. “It isn’t enough to give away money,” Lester explained in a manifesto published in 1921, “we feel we have no right to possess it.”

Tracing the rich political and religious genealogy of Kingsley Hall is a compelling enough tale. But at the core of this book is a narrative that is both more elusive and more immediate: the love between Lester, Kingsley Hall’s financial and intellectual driving force, and Dowell, who worked with her, aspired with her and watched over her.

Through the figure of Dowell, Koven endeavours to tell a much less familiar story, that of late-Victorian and Edwardian Bow as experienced by a labouring woman. This is of course far more difficult to recover: the evidence is tantalisingly fragmentary and often contradictory. Unlike Lester, who left many autobiographical writings and speeches, Dowell’s obscure life emerges only faintly. Koven documents the laborious tracking-down of the official records that provide glimpses of Dowell: her birth, her incarceration in an orphanage, her medical records. Another version of Dowell exists in Lester’s unfinished biographies of her, written posthumously and through the perspective of Dowell’s mother Harriet, who was forced to hand her over to the Poor Law authorities when she could no longer support her. A further layer of complexity lies in the powerful cultural narrative of the negligent slum mother, a stereotype that Lester determinedly contests in her stories of Dowell.

Meanwhile, key information about Dowell’s life remains absent: why did she not participate in the match workers’ strike that galvanised Bell’s match factory in Bromley-by-Bow in 1893-94? Was she reluctant to strike because her experience of profound insecurity as a child had made her fiercely protective of her ability to earn? Drawing on his diverse sources, Koven is able to speculate convincingly. But Dowell, who is visible only through the words and perceptions of others, remains blurry. In a neat move, however, Koven observes that in some ways the much more well-documented Lester is equally unfathomable. She left no record of the emotional dimension of her life and work with Dowell.

In contrast, Dowell’s interiority comes into brief focus in the handful of ardent, lively letters written to Lester and preserved among her papers. In his exceptionally sensitive close readings of the letters, Koven brings to life these few surviving words of Dowell’s, teasing out the wit as well as the longing in her addresses to Lester: “are you really better I have thought about you, & was so sorry for I know you won’t give in & rest & look after every one else I think I can beat you, now you always think you are strong, but I know now & when you come home & do your Tramping round Bow, I shall have to look after you”. As he perceptively argues, the lack of grammatical ordering in her sentences evokes the fleeting association of thoughts that gives the letters a potent immediacy.

What rings poignantly true, too, is his characterisation of Lester and Dowell’s relationship as one of unresolved tension and “intimate inequality”. Nonetheless, against the bigger picture of Kingsley Hall’s political and religious vision, these readings reveal in a strikingly original way a cross-class relationship being negotiated dynamically.

It is Koven’s evident admiration for the imagination and conviction involved in the struggle to live ethically that makes this book such a terrific read (even if the thematic organisation means that the chronology is sometimes hard to follow). It is pleasing to see, for example, a small swipe at smug Virginia Woolf, with her belief in her own progressiveness and disdain for Victorian fathers, in contrast to fervent Lester, who strove to enact her revolutionary politics in everyday life and whose Victorian father supported her work as a way of giving back to East London some of the wealth that he had made there.

But Koven is just as interested in bits of this story that do not match the idealism: Dowell’s persistent attachment to her deferential attitude, for example, or the ways that Lester’s working-class neighbours saw no appeal in the dissolution of private life that she encouraged at Kingsley Hall. He acknowledges his own disappointment, too, that within a few years of Dowell’s death in 1923, Lester ceased to refer to her. “Nellie always mattered to Muriel”, he insists, somewhat unconvincingly, but “Muriel had moved on”; this was her way of honouring the dead. In Koven’s willingness to treat his subjects with generosity and empathy rather than judgement when they fail to satisfy his political, emotional or narrative hopes, I hear a historiographical echo of Kingsley Hall.

The Match Girl and the Heiress

By Seth Koven
Princeton University Press, 464pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691158501 and 9781400865420 (e-book)
Published 28 January 2015

The author

“I live with my inspirationally dynamic wife Joan, an accomplished educational consultant. She always seems utterly unhurried and gets things done more effectively – and artfully – than anyone I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, those qualities haven’t rubbed off on me even after 34 years,” confesses Seth Koven, associate professor of history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

“We live just outside the city limits of Philadelphia in a turn of the century suburb, with ageing trees and homes with wrap-around porches that could stand a coat of paint. Our three children are happily launched in the world – at least for now – in different parts of the US. Our wheaten terrier Tenby is finally getting some well-deserved rest after keeping the five of us on track for so many years.”

Koven was born in northern Virginia, “a stroll down to the Potomac River and close to George Washington’s Mt Vernon estate. From a very early age, I was keenly aware of religion – mostly because our family stood out as just about the only Jews in our small community. We moved to Bethesda, Maryland, but what stuck for me was an enduring interest in religion as something that could unite and divide people. And respect for faith.”

As a child, he says, “the life of the mind was almost comically important and I bought into it entirely. My father, an aerospace engineer, remained an appreciative tough critic of everything that I wrote until his death. I inherited his copy of my first book [Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, 2004] dedicated to him – and its margins burst with his dissents, queries and comments about it.

“My mother left behind graduate work on Herman Melville and teaching in a public school in what was then called Spanish Harlem in NYC to get married and raise a family. I treasure her dog-eared copy of Moby-Dick, which she gave me in high school. I worked my favourite line from it into The Match Girl and the Heiress.”

Koven adds: “I remember one odious stretch when my parents, but really my mother, decided that we would read and discuss some pages of C. P. Snow before dinner each night. It was a very bad idea. My older brother affected a highbrow Alastair Cook-inspired accent, skewered our ‘Search for Self’, and put an end to that particular intellectual exercise in our moral growth. I suspect my mother, had she lived, would have been pleased to know that I took up the one line of work in which C. P. Snow still matters!”

As an undergraduate, Koven says, he was “very engaged and involved - no doubt more opinionated than wise. I went to Swarthmore College, by whose standards I was neither scholarly nor learned. I had the good fortune to take a seminar on Victorian England with Miss Anderson (as University of California Berkeley professor Margaret Anderson then called herself.) It was the single most exciting course I’ve ever taken. We read Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society and Steven Marcus’ The Other Victorians. I’ve spent my entire career trying to put together those two great books.

Swarthmore College was – and still is – a place deeply in tune with humane values and it left a profound imprint on me. Ideas mattered there. Learning was beautiful for its own sake. People pushed themselves against their own standard of excellence. I got to see first-hand some of the virtues and limitations of Quaker techniques of peace and reconciliation that Muriel Lester and Nellie Dowell adapted in their own lives. I first met Muriel Lester at Swarthmore College Library’s Peace Collection, which houses some of her archives, along with the world’s preeminent collection of printed materials about Anglo-American pacifism. I spent a good bit of time there as I wrote this book.”

Following his undergraduate degree at Swarthmore, he undertook graduate studies in viola performance at the Eastman School of Music. Asked if he was ever tempted to become a professional musician rather than a historian, he replies: “Tempted is about right. I arrived with vague ideas about art; Eastman quite rightly wanted to make me a professional musician. That meant mastering vocational skills, like swift accurate sight-reading of complex orchestral scores. This I neither wanted nor could do. I reserved my strongest performances for the practice room rather than the concert hall.

He adds: “I did read Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain while I was there. For reasons I cannot plausibly reconstruct, this novel convinced me to get a PhD in modern European history at Harvard University. Music came with me to Harvard; I was admitted to its legendary year-long Music 180 Chamber Music Performance seminar, whose alumni include Yo Yo Ma, and where the renowned composer Leon Kirchner pushed me rather hard. That seminar taught me that you could learn a lot and not have fun doing it.”

Of his path to specialising in women’s history, and England in the 19th century, Koven admits that although he grew up “in a household that valued feminism” and went to a university “where feminist students challenged me to think hard about women’s rights”, he “neither intended nor decided to become a women’s historian”.

“Here’s how it happened,” he continues. “During my first summer of research in 1981, I looked through the London telephone directory and discovered that many late-Victorian women’s social welfare organisations had survived in their original buildings in south and east London.

“None could afford formal archives – a powerful reminder of the truth of Virginia Woolf’s famous observation about ‘the reprehensible poverty of our sex’. But they all had cupboards and bookcases full of papers, annual reports, case files, letters, minutes books and much else bursting with mostly untold stories about educated women’s work in their adopted poor communities. My biggest breakthrough came during teatime when a staff member mentioned that a Miss Packenham Walsh might have some boxes of papers at her home that would interest me. And did she ever.

“The archives of these Victorian women’s organisations showed me that so many big stories – about benevolence, the state, social welfare, sexuality, gender, class relations, inequality – were not merely incomplete without women’s contributions. They were wrong.”

Of the impetus for his new book, Koven observes: “I wrote The Match Girl and the Heiress quite simply because I wanted to make sense of Nellie Dowell’s letters to Muriel Lester. I hoped that Nellie, who I eventually learned was a half orphaned Cockney spinster ‘match girl’, might allow me to break that silence, to understand the world through her mind and her heart. I knew immediately that Nellie was a very poor woman, full of wit, insight, and longing for Muriel. But who she was – even the most basic facts about her – and why she wrote these letters remained a complete mystery for quite some time.

“Why had Muriel put her letters into a well-worn manila envelope, and in the hand of very great old age, written the word Nell on it? What conditions had made it possible for them to meet and to form their partnership? It took me years to go from reading Nellie’s letters to listening to her. There’s a world of difference. I don’t pretend to have exhausted my sources’ interpretative possibilities,” he adds.

“Nellie surprised me at every turn - and at the outset, she often disappointed me. She emphatically did not say or do most of the things that my training as a feminist historian had taught me to hope and expect that she would. Understanding Nellie’s choices is at the heart of this book. If I fell in love with Nellie rather quickly, it took me years to accept Muriel Lester – to appreciate her inward struggle to achieve the outward persona of the globally revered saint of Christian social justice pacifism. Their foibles and imperfections as individuals and the tensions in their loving friendship disclose the intimate inner life of inequality. Slumming was full of dark ethically dodgy characters; this book isn’t. But its ethical conundrums and stakes are no less complex. I’ve learned that there are no easy answers, even for those sincerely committed to reducing poverty and increasing dignity in the world.”

Many of the figures Koven considered in Slumming presented themselves as do-gooders assisting the poor of London’s East End, but their motives were mixed, to say the least, and they frequently fetishised and objectified the targets of their charity. Are we any better today at not fetishising, “othering” and patronising the “needy”, at home or abroad?

“The challenges remain no less pressing,” he argues. “I like to believe that books like mine can help in a small way to raise people’s awareness of and push back against the tendency to sexualise, distort and objectify the poor. Compassion by itself is insufficient. Seeing poverty through the eyes of the poor and understanding the dilemmas it poses for them constitute a starting point.”

What gives Koven hope? “Humility, courage, and generosity are near neighbours of hope for me. I locate them in the remarkable capacity of people to find and create goodness in their lives, often under very difficult circumstances.

“This book argues that part of what makes Muriel and Nellie’s story so hopeful was their recognition of the impossibility of living according to their own perfectionist ideals of radical equality and social justice. Put simply, the everyday needs of being human tempered and sometimes trumped their Christian revolutionary principles. This is less about the failure of principles in practice than about how practice redeemed and made useable those principles. There are tens of thousands of people all around us quietly striving – imperfectly like Muriel and Nellie – to live just lives.

“If we want to increase the sum total of hope in the world,” Koven concludes, “perhaps we need to make a commitment to listening to their stories.”

Karen Shook

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