The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb

ph_0111200410-Webb_B.jpg Beatrice Webb Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Readers only casually acquainted with societal forces in England’s late Victorian period will nevertheless probably be aware of the influence of Sidney and Beatrice Webb on the contemporary political scene. Beatrice Potter Webb was the most notable woman of her time, and her husband, politician Sidney Webb, was of only slightly less fame. Though the couple were active during World War I, their letters to each other and to their associates carry few references to that conflict. They do, however, bridge the period between the fading of the Liberals as a power in the British Empire and the rise of the Labor Party as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Norman MacKenzie, a sociologist at the University of Sussex and prominent in the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, has sifted through several thousand letters the Webbs wrote to each other and to their correspondents. He includes complete letters rather than merely excerpts of important letters, and the entries are numbered, dated, and introduced by paragraphs explaining their significance to readers and future historians. When Beatrice planned, late in life, to write an autobiography, she planned a threepart division: Apprenticeship (1873-1892), Partnership (1892-1922), and Pilgrimage (1912- ). MacKenzie follows her divisions. In addition, he assures prospective readers that, however uninteresting the letters are by Sidney (a pleasant fellow even though a boring letter writer), those by Beatrice (often charmingly written) offer an excellent intellectual survey of the era that spanned the period between the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.

Three threads give a sort of unity to this collection. One is Beatrice’s personal story, smothered by trends, reports, and statistics; the second follows the development of socialism in nineteenth century Great Britain; and the third covers the careers of the Webbs, to whose tireless work and research many of Britain’s political and social reforms owe a considerable debt.

The first volume of 452 pages covers the first nineteen years of the Webbs’ letter-writing, while the other two books contain their production during over half a century. Each book also includes a brief “Survey Chronology of the Period Covered” and a List of recipients of the letters in it. Volume I also provides a “List of the Potter Children.” The first forty letters were written by Beatrice, next-to-the-youngest of the Potter’s nine daughters. (A younger brother died at the age of four.) Letter No. 1, which Beatrice called “a nice little letter,” is an uncorrected copy of the work of a four-year-old girl. Other early letters by her to parents, sisters, family servants, and so forth, asking for local news and reports on pets, are omitted. One significant letter gives details of her visit to some of her mother’s poor relations in Lancaster, and conditions in the collectives where they lived. Another letter, written though never sent, confesses her own antidemocratic and anticollectivist biases with which she began this early survey of industrial conditions.

Beatrice was born into a wealthy industrial family, while Sidney came from an impoverished family—his father was an innkeeper, his mother a milliner. His ambitious parents nevertheless sent their two sons to France and Germany to learn languages, after graduation from a middle-class school in England; Sidney then took up legal studies. Beatrice describes Sidney as “Under average height” and “homely and plain.” In later years, the couple was labeled “Beauty and the Beast,” though photographs and paintings used as frontispieces in the books prove this is an exaggeration. Her letters concede that he was “unusually tolerant and with an extraordinary stock of abilities.” In the literary and debating clubs he later joined, he revealed a clear and legal mind. It was in one of these clubs that he first met Bernard Shaw, and their friendship persisted.

Sidney’s first letter in this collection, dated February 28, 1881, reported his defeat in a club election, though his opponent characterized him as “the ablest man in England.” Another letter suggests the group be renamed “Fabian Society” instead of “Free...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)


Economist. CCLXVII, May 13, 1978, p. 133.

Guardian Weekly. CXVIII, May 21, 1978, p. 20.

New York Times Book Review. July 30, 1978, p. 7.

Observer. May 21, 1978, p. 16.

Times Literary Supplement. May 19, 1978, p. 551.