Books vs. Babies

After Beatrice Potter (1858-1943) married Sidney Webb at age 34, the couple began a fifty-year collaboration. The Webbs were committed socialists and key members of the Fabian Society. They co-authored many books aimed at social reform and founded the London School of Economics. Beatrice Webb kept an extensive diary for most of her life, and so any entry represents only a small sliver of her thoughts and experiences. Here are her reflections on her relationship with Sidney while on holiday in Dorset in 1901, at age 43.

(Churchfield, West Lulworth, Dorset): "The last week has been glorious summer weather and we have taken lovely rides inland or long walks along the cliffs on either side. Other times I have blissfully brooded and prayed for guidance and strength. A great peace has come over me. I am again completely absorbed in my subject and completely satisfied with the companionship of nature and the comradeship of my partner, lover, husband....

Sidney away and I play....The day is gloriously hot and I find myself cradled on the rocks...Heat and coolness, motion and rest, sun and water, tide and rock--is it the contrasts that are so enchanting?....On the horizon the stern outline of Portland and visions of convicts working under the midday sun on the [prison] quarries, squalid lives behind them--mean streets, hot, crowded, one-roomed homes, lack of nourishment, drink, intolerable vacant-mindedness, gambling, monotonous labour, adventurous crime, darkness and direct, glaring lights and debauch--contrasted evils! I watch the sun's rays dancing on the sea...And then I drift on to the personal question. Are the books we have written together worth (to the community) the babies we might have had? Then again, I dream over the problem of whether one would marry the same man, in order to have his babies, that one would select as joint author? The old, old question, always being put afresh to our civilization. Ought a man or a woman to have many relations with the other sex or only one? I think of the peace and happiness of these last weeks--the strenuous thought, the long hours of joyful enjoyment of light, colour, form, the physical relief of exercise and the equal relief of rest. I see my boy's blue eyes resting on me with love as he grasps my bicycle to push it up a hard bit of hill, I hear his voice praising me for some rearrangement of our chapter, I see him writing page after page, hour after hour, while I am mooning over a fire or wandering up and down a lane, 'cried off' because I am tired! I think what a fraud I am apart from him, how little I really contribute to the joint work, merely a 'fly-wheel' to get him over 'dead points'.

I decide that the answer is: one lover, not only in the letter but in the spirit. And this is all noonday dreaming, another contrast, a purely fanciful contrast, with no bearing on my personal life...."

The Diaries of Beatrice Webb, Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie, eds., abridged by Lynn Knight, preface by Hermione Lee (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001), 248-249 (April 24, 1901).

#UK #Webb #marriage #1800s

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