With my first married Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it’s a good time to think about the historic couples I come across in my work. As a social historian with a taste for counter-culture, I find some of what might be called the ‘great couples of history’ a little boring. The couples that interest me are those – usually with strong political preoccupations – who have embarked upon a shared crusade. Working together side by side, two lovers who find that extra strength to take on the world.
My mind runs straight to the Webbs. When Beatrice (not to be confused with Beatrix) Potter finally accepted Sidney Webb’s proposal and the two married in 1892, her money enabled him to focus on his social and political work. As MP for Seaham he served in the first Labour government (Jan-Nov 1924) as President of the Board of Trade. By the second (1929-31) he had been elevated to the peerage as Baron Passfield, and from the House of Lords he served as the Colonial Secretary. In this role he tightened Jewish immigration to Palestine, a notable change from Churchill’s policy of working towards ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people’ – although the Prime Minister James Ramsay Macdonald intervened to reassert the established line. Meanwhile, Beatrice had long since mastered the role of politician’s wife, hosting their monthly political dining club known as the ‘coefficients’ – but she was more than a politician’s wife. That limited role might have been hers if she had married Joseph Chamberlain, a romance with whom came to an end after he told her he would expect ‘intellectual sympathy’ from a wife.
There was an intellectual sympathy between Beatrice and Sidney, but it was not a matter of a wife supporting her husband’s political views or career. She was not defined by her husband anymore than the men in her family – who notably included her Liberal MP grandfather Richard Potter, who had been instrumental in bringing about the 1832 Great Reform Act, and her nephew Stafford Cripps, who would be Labour’s Austerity Chancellor in the 1940s. Something undoubtedly influenced by her father, whom she described as ‘the only man I ever knew who genuinely believed that women were superior to men’. Rather, Beatrice was a notable political figure – as a sociologist, an economist and a social reformer – in her own right. She worked as an assistant to her cousin Charles Booth on his pioneering survey of London’s Victorian slums, wrote an influential history of the co-operative movement and coined the term ‘collective bargaining‘, all before being appointed onto the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1905. When the Commission split between those who wanted to reform the Poor Law system and those who wanted it abolished, she headed up the latter in producing the Minority Report in 1909. It called for a new system:
“to secure a national minimum of civilised life… open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes, by which we meant sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged.”
But they didn’t simply work in parallel – it was a partnership. Publicly, it was Beatrice on the Royal Commission, but they worked together on the Minority Report. They also worked together on the history of trade unionism and co-operative economics as an alternative to capitalism and worked to espouse these ideas through the Fabian Society. Indeed, before she met him Beatrice had read Sidney’s 1889 Fabian essay on the historic basis of socialism, which presented an evolutionary view of history. His overarching narrative of the past century of English social history saw the unsustainable ‘individualistic order’ brought about by the Industrial Revolution necessarily regulated and limited, leading to a point where ‘it may now fairly be claimed that the Socialist philosophy of to-day’ was no more than making explicit principles ‘which have been already in great part unconsciously adopted’. It was as a potential collaborator to work on a study of British labour history that the two first met in 1890. Certainly, the meeting was not a romantic one, with Beatrice writing of Sidney in her diary afterwards that ‘his tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, cockney pronunciation, poverty, are all against him’. It was explicitly an intellectual partnership first and a romantic one second, and one that basis it was a hugely successful one. They worked together to help found the London School of Economics in 1895 and to set up the New Statesman in 1913. These what Beatrice called the symbolic children of this childless relationship. These were the means through which they sought to remake their world. Despite their heavy involvement with the Labour Party from the First World War on, it was this broader mission of stimulating discussion and formulating ideas that was their main area of activity. Where they had specific policy commitments on co-operatives, education or poor law reform, these were part of a bigger agenda for righting the fundamental wrongs in society. Echoing down the generations, it is the lack of such broad thinking that leaves today’s politicians looking like pygmies.
These activities won them critics and rivals as well as friends and supporters. A late conversion to the cause of female suffrage (as John Davis has noted, her diaries make no mention of her ever actually voting herself) and an interest in Soviet central planning were notable here. Still, they made a lasting impression on British politics and history. Four decades later, the 1945 Labour government would introduce a welfare state, often seen as the long-delayed implementation of the Webbs’ agenda. More immediately influential was the 1942 Beveridge Report, but as William Beveridge himself said, his report ‘stemmed from what all of us had imbibed from the Webbs’. When they each died in the 1940s, their ashes were buried in their garden. But they were shortly moved to Westminster Abbey, following a petition from their long-time ally George Bernard Shaw, as a mark of their significance in British political life.
In my main area of research, health and welfare, there have been quite a few campaigning couples. One in particular that comes to mind is Innes Pearse and George Scott Williamson (pictured below), the team of doctors who set up their Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham in 1926, dubbing themselves the ‘Peckham Biologists’ for not only treating their patients but also investigating health and wellbeing more generally. I’ve blogged about them before. They worked as a professional partnership for three decades, then in 1950 were married only a month after his wife of 42 years died. Even when one of them was married to another, it was their work together which shaped their lives and for which they are remembered today. A lot of academics might relate to this image of shared work – often having relationships with other academics, as one sign of the all-consuming nature of academia as a way of life rather than a job. Although few would go as far as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who spent their honeymoon working together on Irish trade union records for their history. Personally, a distinct separation from my work is one way in which my relationship helps me to keep the nonsense in perspective.
The danger here is that we end up thinking of one as being simply a supporter of the other – in the mould perhaps of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. The relationship between the literary figure of import and her lover, muse, cook and co-host for the Parisian modernist scene is a fascinating and complex one. They were certainly partners, but equals? We might expect so from someone who was so committed to what she understood to be equality. She was, for example, enthralled by Cezanne’s paintings, where she said the whole canvas was important rather than just some central figure. But then, perhaps her version of equality was not one that needed two equally central figures. And they were certainly different characters. The literary critic Oscar Cargill once said of Stein that she was ‘the supreme egocentric of the most perfect clique of egocentrics’. Meanwhile, the same could hardly be said of her partner. ‘She doesn’t sit in a chair, she hides in it; she doesn’t look at you, but up at you’, wrote WG Rogers of Toklas in 1946, the year of Stein’s death. Whatever the power balance, they were certainly a formidable and inseparable partnership, something perhaps best captured by Stein calling her 1933 memoirs The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. The quiet partner was certainly not above a nicely cynical turn of phrase herself, commenting at one of their dinner parties: ‘It will take her years to understand the things she’s said tonight.’
Drifting further away from my own research, my mind turns to another artistic couple who stood outside of society, so to speak. Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, gives a shocking, simple and touching glimpse into a relationship where each took the same energy and vision but onto different stages. They both produced some of the greatest art of their generation, forcing the mainstream to think again about the purpose and placing of its boundaries – her through poetry as the godmother of punk and him through his aggressively sexual photography. They often moved in the same circles and it would be wrong to think he had no talent for words or she for images, but their work was their own, distinct from each others’. As she has said in a recent interview:
“Robert had different goals. He came from a different upbringing. His upbringing was Catholic, middle class, precise, military, well ordered, spanking clean. I came from a very chaotic household. I really believe that Robert sought not to destroy order, but to reorder, to reinvent, and to create a new order. I know that he always wanted to do something that no one else had done. That was very important to him. I was a little different. I always wanted to do what somebody else had already done—I wanted to write the next Peter Pan, the next Alice in Wonderland. I loved history, and I wanted to be a part of it. Robert wanted to break from history.”
I enjoyed her book more than any I’ve read since The God of Small Things, but I don’t quite see this an an ideal story of an intensely liberal couple supporting each other to be their own selves. Not only because the relationship came to an end – each finding longer lasting ones elsewhere before he died in 1989 following a battle with AIDS – but also because it seems a fundamentally unbalanced relationship to me. Perhaps this is harsh and, if he had lived to write his version, his celebration of her artistic explorations, that might have given an equivalent focus on his place in her story. The image of a great woman feeling comfortable playing second fiddle to (in my view) an interesting but lesser man is a telling one – but then, maybe that tells us more about the 1970s than it does about them personally.
What makes a great romantic partnership is something we could spend a lifetime trying to figure out – and many of us will. The dynamics are intriguing: the balance between supporting and being an equal partner, and that between the personal and the political. Here are a few of those from the past century or so that have caught my attention. Which couples from history fascinate or inspire you, and why?