Читать онлайн «Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention»
At Windsor Castle on the night of 14 December 1861, Prince Albert died of typhoid at the age of forty-two. Victoria was inconsolable: his loss was, she said, ‘like tearing the flesh from my bones’. As she withdrew from the world, all that interested her was memorialising her husband and the miracle of their marriage through the likes of the Royal Albert Hall (opened in 1871) and the Albert Memorial (unveiled in 1872).
But however marvellous Victoria and Albert’s often stormy relationship had been, as an institution marriage was becoming less and less popular. By 1871 there were 3.4 million unmarried women over the age of twenty, an increase from 2.8 million in 1851 – a mixture of spinsters and widows. Whatever their circumstances, these were ‘surplus women’, considered a significant social problem in late-Victorian Britain, unless they lived lives of sainted purity.
Among this number we can count the single, celibate Florence Nightingale, who referred to herself as a nun, her only ‘sons’ the soldiers she cared for. Other less fortunate surplus women lived in special lodgings on small annuities, devoting themselves to good works because to work for money was socially unacceptable. Nightingale was scornful of these ‘lady philanthropists who do the odds and ends of charity’: ‘It is a kind of conscience-quieter,’ she wrote, ‘a soothing syrup.’43 (#litres_trial_promo)
For middle-class women who chose not to marry, options were limited. They could become governesses, educating the children of their social superiors but kept at arm’s length by the host families so that they felt no more valued or involved than servants. Writing was also acceptable, but to make a success of it you needed private means. Back in the early nineteenth century, the prolific social theorist Harriet Martineu had been able to make a living entirely by the pen. But she was considered a brazen oddity, which may be why the novelist Margaret Oliphant wrote that Martineu was ‘less distinctively affected by her sex than perhaps any other, male or female, of her generation’.44 (#litres_trial_promo)
In journalism, women’s inability to forge the necessary old-school-tie connections made the job doubly hard. As Charlotte O’Connor Eccles wrote in 1893, in an anonymous article for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:
One is horribly handicapped in being a woman. A man meets other men at his club; he can be out and about at all hours; he can insist without being thought bold and forward; he is not presumed to be capable of undertaking only a limited class of subjects, but is set to anything … Where a man finds one obstacle, we find a dozen.45 (#litres_trial_promo)
When women were employed at a senior level, it was often as a gimmick. In November 1903, the newspaper proprietor Alfred Harmsworth – later Lord Northcliffe – decided to launch a paper ‘for gentlewomen by gentlewomen’. Called the Daily Mirror, it would, Harmsworth announced in its inaugural editorial, arrange its stories so that ‘the transition from the shaping of a flounce to the forthcoming changes in imperial defence, from the arrangement of flowers on the dinner-table to the disposition of forces in the Far East, shall be made without mental paroxysm or dislocation of interest.’46 (#litres_trial_promo) So far, so enlightened: in fact, it sounds rather like the UK edition of Marie Claire in its 1990s pomp.
To edit the Daily Mirror Harmsworth chose Mary Howarth, who had previously edited the women’s pages of his incredibly successful Daily Mail, launched in 1896 and a classic example of the so-called ‘ha’penny press’ which catered to the newly literate beneficiaries of the 1870 Education Act. All Howarth’s staff were women, and for a short time it looked as if Harmsworth’s gamble had paid off: the first issue sold a healthy 276,000 copies. Within weeks, however, circulation had plummeted to 25,000. Howarth and her team were sacked and the Mirror transformed into a picture-driven (and male-edited) paper which went on to be almost as successful as the Mail.
Harmsworth called the first incarnation of the Daily Mirror ‘the only journalistic failure with which I have been associated’: ‘Some people say that a woman never really knows what she wants. It is certain she knew what she didn’t want. She didn’t want the Daily Mirror.’47 (#litres_trial_promo) Bafflingly, the conclusion Harmsworth drew from this catastrophe was not that he had misjudged women’s interests and catered to them poorly, but that ‘women can’t write and don’t want to read.’48 (#litres_trial_promo) Oh dear.
Female journalists were consistently sidelined and belittled – a hazard of the job familiar to some in Fleet Street today. Emilie Peacocke, born in 1882, was the daughter of the editor of the Northern Echo, but even having journalism in the blood was of little help when she became the first full-time woman reporter on the Daily Express: she still wasn’t allowed to use the paper’s staff room.
Rachel Beer’s installation as editor of both the Sunday Times and the Observer in the 1890s owed more than a little to the fact that her family owned them: her husband Frederick Beer had inherited the Observer from his father. She was a socialite, the great-granddaughter of the Sassoon family patriarch Sheikh Sason ben Saleh, an Iraqi Jew born in Baghdad in 1750 – the poet Siegfried Sassoon was her nephew – and arguably the papers were her playthings. Beer worked from home, a telephone line connecting her west London villa to the Sunday Times’ office in Fleet Street.
Beer wrote copiously and was surprisingly hands-on as an editor. She had a weakness for puffery – she once altered George Bernard Shaw’s copy to insert some society gossip, to his noisy displeasure – and was denied the confidence even of politicians she counted as friends, such as Gladstone. But on the whole she used her powers thoughtfully and responsibly, supporting women’s causes whenever she could, although she thought equal pay and respect in the workplace more pressing issues for women than the vote.
Under her editorship the Observer achieved one of its biggest scoops: the admission by Count Esterhazy that he forged letters that had resulted in the false conviction of the Jewish artillery officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus for feeding military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. But Beer’s final years were not happy ones. She had contracted syphilis from Frederick and, after he died from the disease in 1903, her grief escalated into a full-scale mental breakdown. She was declared insane by the controversial psychiatrist George Savage, who counted Virginia Woolf among his patients, and the papers were sold off.
Instead of being forced into an asylum, Rachel was installed in a mansion in Tunbridge Wells and looked after by three nurses. Her nephew Siegfried visited her and wrote, in a passage he later cut from the final version of his memoir The Weald of Youth, that Rachel was reduced to staring at him, ‘apathetic and unrecognising … a brooding sallow stranger, cut off from the rest of the world.’49 (#litres_trial_promo) She died on 29 April 1927.
A similar fate befell another talented woman journalist of the period, Lady Colin Campbell, aka Gertrude Elizabeth Blood, the youngest daughter of Anglo-Irish landowners from County Clare, Ireland. She contracted an unspecified venereal disease – probably gonorrhea – from her philandering Liberal MP husband. After a humiliating show trial in 1886 that left her a pariah, Gertrude was not allowed to divorce him. The illness robbed her of her vitality and striking looks and led eventually to her death in 1911, by which time she was more famous for having once worn a live snake around her neck than for her books and witty contributions to the Pall Mall Gazette.
Gertrude Elizabeth Blood’s treatment showed that the sexual double-standard was alive and well relatively late in the century. It showed how little things had changed; how far, despite everything, women still had to go in their quest for representation and equality. For like it or not, the public sphere was still overwhelmingly male. Women who wished to make inroads into it were obliged to emphasise their homely, caring virtues, as the campaigner Josephine Butler did explicitly in 1869 when she wrote:
I believe that nothing whatever will avail but the large infusion of Home elements into workhouses, hospitals, schools, orphanages, lunatic asylums, reformatories, and even prisons, and in order to attain this there must be a setting free of feminine powers and influence from the constraint of a bad education, and narrow aims, and listless homes where they are at present a superfluity.50 (#litres_trial_promo)
Butler had grown up in a staunchly liberal, abolitionist family where women were treated as intellectual equals. Like Mary Higgs, she married a clergyman and became interested in philanthropy, befriending an unmarried mother who had been imprisoned in Newgate after committing infanticide and finding the woman work as a servant in the Butler family home in Oxford – an early example of her ‘rescue work’.
As with Annie Besant, personal tragedy turbo-charged her reforming zeal. In 1864 her five-year-old daughter Eva died after falling forty feet while trying to slide down a bannister. She had been rushing to greet her parents as they returned from a holiday in the Lake District. Josephine, who witnessed the event, wrote later that ‘for twenty-five years I never woke from sleep without the vision of her falling figure, and the sound of the crash on the stone floor.’51 (#litres_trial_promo)
The Butlers moved to Liverpool in 1866 to begin a new life. Josephine remained depressed, but knew the only solution was to ‘go forth and find some pain keener than my own … I only knew that my heart ached night and day and that the only solace possible would seem to be to find other hearts which ached night and day, and with more reason than mine.’52 (#litres_trial_promo)
At the suggestion of a local Baptist minister, she visited Liverpool’s docks where homeless women would gather to collect oakum, the untwisted fibres of old rope used to caulk ships – ‘hard and degrading work, thought fit only for paupers or convicts’.53 (#litres_trial_promo) To their baffled amusement, Butler joined the women in their work and slowly won their trust and friendship. Many of them, she realised, were also prostitutes. They had to be, if they were to have enough money to live.
As before, Butler opened up her house, this time to the prostitutes she felt were especially deserving. One in particular became like a surrogate daughter: twenty-four-year-old consumptive Mary Lomax, a former under-maid in a grand house who had been raped by her employer and left pregnant, then drifted onto the streets after she was dismissed from service and then rejected by her own family.
Nothing summed up the sexual double standard quite like the Contagious Diseases Act 1864, which gave the police the power to arrest prostitutes and subject them to brutal, degrading internal examinations for venereal disease, on the grounds that they – not the men who used and abused them – were to blame for spreading it. Through her Ladies’ National Association, Butler mobilised opposition to the Act and finally achieved success in 1885 when it was abolished and the age of consent for women raised from twelve to sixteen.
What took her so long? Partly it was the inability of the political patriarchy to come to terms with any sort of female agenda. In 1896 Butler would remember a ‘fully sympathetic’ MP admitting to a female friend, ‘“Your manifesto has shaken us very badly in the House of Commons … We know how to manage any other opposition in the House or in the country, but this is very awkward for us – this revolt of the women. It is quite a new thing; what are we to do with such an opposition as this?”’54 (#litres_trial_promo)
It was a more uncertain opposition than the MP perhaps supposed. Some middle-class women struggled to cast off their shackles and adjust to their new public prominence. Conditioned to be servile and law-abiding, they showed perverse respect for the rules that kept women in second place: educational reformer Mary Carpenter, for example, refused to chair meetings as she thought it wasn’t respectable. Women who stood up at meetings were routinely praised for their ‘heroism’ – or treated as circus freaks. Suffrage campaigner Lilias Ashworth went on a speaking tour of the West Country in 1872 and noticed that audiences ‘came expecting to see curious masculine objects walking on the platform, and when we appeared, with our quiet black dresses, the whole expression of the faces of the audience would instantly change’.55 (#litres_trial_promo)
Many men were also uncomfortable seeing women as Poor Law guardians – a sort of early social work. The work was considered unsuitable because of the unsavoury things they would witness in workhouses and hospitals. The first female English Poor Law guardian, Martha Merrington, was elected in 1875.
The historian Steven King recently discovered the diary of a female Poor Law guardian from Bolton in Lancashire called Mary Haslam. This entry for 27 February 1894 gives some idea of the day-to-day routine:
Visited the Lying-in Ward again having tried to find out particulars of two of the women; one had left and the other had proved untruthful. Visited feeble-minded room. Saw lunatics in bed. Talked with Nurse Henry. Our Committee suggested to the guardians the possibility of brightening the lunatics’ surroundings by reversing a day and night room; we had some conversation as to whether occasional nurses could be provided.56 (#litres_trial_promo)
Many women took advantage of the 1894 Local Government Act, which granted them the right to stand for election to local councils. Henrietta ‘Nettie’ Adler, daughter of the Chief Rabbi, was a school board manager until 1910 when she became a Progressive councillor for Hackney Central. Susan Lawrence – tall, haughty and monocled, with a cut-glass accent to match – began her career in 1910 as a Conservative councillor for West Marylebone but underwent an improbable conversion to socialism in 1913, eventually becoming one of the first three female Labour MPs alongside Margaret Bondfield and Dorothy Jewson.
What unites many of the women of the era is a willingness to play the long game. The female-dominated Fabian Society, founded in 1884, wanted to effect change on a grand scale by proceeding slowly and carefully. (Hence ‘Fabian’, honouring the Roman general Fabius Maximus who favoured attrition as a strategy rather than direct conflict.) When we think of nineteenth-century sanitary reform we think of someone like Bazalgette and his sewers – large-scale infrastructure designed and built by men. But other big, though perhaps less ostentatious, projects in this field – like the provision of public baths and wash-houses, found in nearly every British town by the 1920s – were the work of women.
Derbyshire-born Hannah Mitchell, a seamstress who went on to become a leading suffrage activist and Labour councillor, was elected as a Poor Law guardian in the market town of Ashton-under-Lyne in May 1904. Years later she became a member of the Manchester Baths Committee and wrote with pride of the ‘really up-to-date little wash house’ she had helped to get built, where ‘a family wash could be done in a couple of hours, and the home kept free of wet clothes and steam’.57 (#litres_trial_promo)
From the 1850s onwards, a pressing social concern had been the woeful state of housing for the poor. One of Fabian-stalwart Beatrice Webb’s sisters worked as a rent collector for the housing scheme run by Octavia Hill – the woman Webb said taught her ‘the meaning of the poverty of the poor’. Webb first met Hill in 1886 at the home of their mutual friend Henrietta Barnett, the co-founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb and Toynbee Hall, the ‘settlement’ centre for the poor in London’s Tower Hamlets. ‘She is a small woman, with large head finely set on her shoulders,’ Webb wrote in her diary:
The form of her head and features, and the expression of the eyes and mouth, show the attractiveness of mental power. We talked on Artisans’ Dwellings. I asked her whether she thought it necessary to keep accurate descriptions of the tenants. No, she did not see the use of it … She objected that there was already too much windy talk. What you wanted was action … I felt penitent for my presumption, but not convinced.58 (#litres_trial_promo)
The regal hauteur is immediately evident. Still, more than any other woman of her era, Hill could see that grand schemes only worked if you combined clarity of ambition with an infinite supply of patience.
Octavia Hill was born in 1838 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Her father, James Hill, was a corn merchant who had fathered six children and been widowed twice by the time he married Octavia’s mother, Caroline Southwood Smith – the family governess, hired after James was impressed by her writings on education.
In 1840 James Hill’s business collapsed and he fell into a depression. The family moved to London where Caroline found work as manager and bookkeeper of the Ladies’ Cooperative Guild. As soon as she was old enough, Octavia worked alongside her as her assistant and at fourteen began supervising the local ragged school children as they manufactured toys. But she was no callous ‘sweater’ – on the contrary, she took the children on regular trips to wide open green spaces like Hampstead Heath and noticed how much they valued and enjoyed them.
This sowed the seeds of a scheme for improving the working classes’ quality of life by improving their environment – principally their homes, which were cramped and run-down even when ‘well kept’. She wasn’t the only one to come up with the idea. A mass of so-called ‘model dwelling’ companies emerged in London in the middle of the nineteenth century. There were thirty or more operating by the 1870s, of which the oldest, the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes, had been around since 1841. Their goal – and Hill’s – was solidly paternalistic, and at least one of their aims was the maintenance of the status quo, by nipping discontent in the bud. As Lord Shaftesbury put it: ‘If the working man has his own house, I have no fear of revolution.’59 (#litres_trial_promo)
In other respects, though, Hill was different. For one thing there was the unusual matter of her key investor. John Ruskin had taken an interest in her as a fifteen-year-old after seeing her sketches – she was a talented artist – and had offered his services as an art tutor. He invested money he had inherited from his father in Hill’s Charity Organisation Society for a 5 per cent dividend.
On the whole, as we know, Ruskin preferred his women to stay home by the hearth. But exceptions were permitted: if they were carrying out ‘public work or duty which is also the expansion of that [i.e. their domestic role]’ then they had his blessing, as such work was consistent with what Sheila Rowbotham calls Ruskin’s ‘organic vision of society as an interconnected household’.60 (#litres_trial_promo)
In 1865, Hill bought her first properties, close to Marylebone High Street in central London, but a million miles from the area as we now know it. She described her purchase a little later as ‘a row of cottages facing a bit of desolate ground, occupied with wretched, dilapidated cow-sheds, manure heaps, old timber, and rubbish of every description’:
The houses were in a most deplorable condition – the plaster was dropping from the walls; on one staircase a pail was placed to catch the rain that fell through the roof. All the staircases were perfectly dark; the banisters were gone, having been burnt as firewood by tenants. The grates, with large holes in them, were falling forward into the rooms.61 (#litres_trial_promo)
Most ‘model dwelling’ companies had rules and regulations designed to exclude tenants of ‘bad character’ and attract the respectable working classes. Octavia went one step further. She believed that if you enabled people to develop self-respect and self-reliance then they wouldn’t need charity. Any form of philanthropy which cultivated dependency was pointless and un-Christian. Reading one of her letters from 1890, I’m reminded of some of the twenty-first-century political rows over welfare reform:
We have made many mistakes with our alms: eaten out the heart of the independent, bolstered up the drunkard in his indulgence, subsidised wages, discouraged thrift, assumed that many of the most ordinary wants of a working man’s family must be met by our wretched and intermittent doles.62 (#litres_trial_promo)
Hill’s tenants were closely monitored by teams of lady volunteers who distributed forms in which they were expected to review their weekly conduct. Hill favoured cottages rather than the barrack-like blocks popular with other housing associations – ‘little houses’ where lower-class people could ‘get the individual feeling and notice which trains them in humanity’; though by the end of the century she was experimenting with maisonette-like ‘compound houses’, ‘two distinct cottages one on the top of the other’:
People become brutal in large numbers who are gentle when they are in smaller groups and know one another, and the life in a block only becomes possible when there is a deliberate isolation of the family, and a sense of duty with respect to all that is in common.63 (#litres_trial_promo)
Any profits from the scheme were spent on what Hill considered to be improvements – like playgrounds and gardens. By 1874 she ran fifteen housing schemes and had around three thousand tenants. Ten years later she began to manage properties for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.
But housing wasn’t Hill’s only focus. She wanted her tenants to be immersed in culture, education and nature. So she campaigned for the opening up of closed-off public spaces and the preservation of areas such as Hampstead Heath. In 1876, she and her sister Miranda founded the Society for the Diffusion of Beauty, later rechristened the Kyrle Society. This mutated over time into a ‘holding trust’ in which the ownership of threatened land or buildings could be vested. Hill suggested it be called ‘The Commons and Gardens Trust’. But a colleague thought it should have a snappier title. What about ‘National Trust’? She agreed and the society was registered in 1895.
Hill accomplished a good deal, but it didn’t come easily to her. A workaholic perfectionist who hated delegating, she had several breakdowns triggered by a combination of overwork and a turbulent emotional life. But while she gave the world a blueprint for philanthropic property management, she worked on a small scale, smaller than her reputation perhaps suggests, and the housing crisis of the early twentieth century needed more far-reaching reform than she was able to provide.
Her influence on the debate about housing policy remains palpable. The historian and former MP Tristram Hunt writes that, as ministers ‘grapple with re-engineering the welfare state, it is not Keynes, Marx or Giddens who provide the inspiration, but Hill, the most versatile of late Victorian social entrepreneurs.’64 (#litres_trial_promo)
Hill died of cancer in 1912, the year a woman cut from similar cloth, Maud Pember Reeves, published Round About a Pound a Week, compiled from tracts she had produced for the Fabian Society, distilling four years’ worth of research into working-class housing. Reeves had established the Fabian Women’s Group, working alongside Beatrice Webb, who was involved in the Royal Commission considering Poor Law reform. Through this she became interested in studying the lives of working-class families in Lambeth, focusing particularly on the women who held those families together.
Despite living in well-to-do Kensington and being the wife of the New Zealand government’s Agent General, Reeves lacked Hill’s air of genteel condescension and compulsion to moralise. But her indignation was just as fierce. As she watched children playing on the streets, she was infuriated by the way the poorer ones had had their futures stolen from them. You can tell them apart, she wrote, by the way they are ‘comfortably dirty’ and have ‘the look of being small for their age’: ‘Had they been well housed, well fed, well clothed, and well tended, from birth, what kind of raw material would they have shown themselves to be?’65 (#litres_trial_promo)
What’s astonishing about Round About a Pound a Week is how many of its suggested solutions came to pass: free school dinners, free health clinics, child benefit. Not since Rowntree’s Poverty in 1901 had a book punched through so effectively, showing the middle classes and policy makers how the other half lived. It came at a time of general panic about the physical state of British men after the Boer War – concerns that would be raised again in 1914. Many were weakened by rickets and other diseases caused by poor nutrition.
Reeves and her helpers – including the anarchist Charlotte Wilson, who ran a Marxist debating society out of the Hampstead farmhouse she shared with her stockbroker husband – visited families trying to survive on a pound a week. She asked them to keep note of their outgoings and diaries detailing daily problems such as the struggle to heat their houses and keep vermin from disturbing children while they slept. Reeves was shocked by the way the families spent money they couldn’t afford on burial insurance to avoid the embarrassment of a pauper’s funeral for their children, few of whom lived to adulthood. The middle-class theory that the poor were ‘bad managers’ who squandered their money on drink was mostly not true. On the contrary, they did their best, living on bread with a scraping of dripping and sometimes potatoes. Once weaned, none of the children ever tasted milk again.
It is shocking that the families featured were by no means the worst off. A pound a week was a low wage, but not disastrously so.
Keeping body and soul together was only half the battle. There was also the life of the mind to consider.
Thanks to the 1870 Education Act, 92 per cent of the population of England and Wales were literate by 1910. But women were still not thought worth properly educating. The assumption was that they would – and would want to – stay at home raising children rather than go out to work.
Helena Swanwick, an early feminist and suffrage campaigner, wrote of her childhood in the 1880s that she ‘could not help contrasting my condition with that of my three elder brothers, all at school and able to walk about freely in the daytime, while I was not allowed out alone and had to be content with some very poor piano lessons and a few desultory German lessons with two other girls who were quite beginners.’66 (#litres_trial_promo)
Slowly, this changed. The Girls’ Public Day School Trust was founded in 1850, inspired by North London Collegiate, the first independent school for girls. This had been opened the previous year by Frances Mary Buss with the goal of enabling girls to study subjects usually thought of as ‘male’, such as science and mathematics.
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