NO PRAISE IS TOO HIGH for this luminous, beautifully written and edited account of a young Englishwoman's coming of age in the closing decades of the Victorian era. Though a diary, it reads like a novel, and not just any novel either but one of the highest artistic merit, a sort of socialist Jane Eyre.
The author may need an introduction for an American audience. Beatrice Potter was one of nine daughters of a wealthy English manufacturer and had the great good luck to grow up in an indulgent and cultivated home--her first tutor was the philosopher Herbert Spencer. Though she never went to a university, she read widely and systematically, plowing her way through the classics, the sciences, political theory, and economics: we are reminded once again of the homely truth that all education is self-education. She started this diary when she was 15; at her death in 1943 when she was 85, it contained more than 2 million words. With her husband Sidney Webb, she is now enshrined in the pantheon of the British Left as a founder of the London School of Economics and the New Statesman, an early stalwart of the Fabian Society and the Labor Party, and a pioneer social scientist. Her achievement was the establishment of the modern welfare state, and it earned her burial in Westminster Abbey.
Future volumes of this edition of the diary will chronicle the worldly success; this one relates the story of a terribly earnest young bluestocking tormented by doubts about filial duty, Christian faith, and love and marriage. When at last she accepts the class-struggle as a guide to the conduct of life, it is something of a religious conversion. For readers whose only prior acquaintance with Beatrice Webb might have been her nephew Malcolm Muggeridge's hilarious caricature of her in his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time--by then Sidney had been raised to the peerage, and she was Lady Passfield and very rapturous about Stalin--the portrait in the diary provides a needed corrective. What is so wonderfully attractive and compelling about the early diary, however, is not the young Beatrice's intellectual development but rather the tremendous psychological interest provided by her obsessive, unrequited love for Joseph Chamberlain, the dynamic Birmingham politician and Liberal turncoat. The hopeless passion lasted for years. To escape from it she plunged into social work in London's East End slums. The volume ends with Sidney Webb's courtship of her and her gradual and reluctant return of his love. Even with new-found happiness in marriage, her objectivity could be merciless, though perhaps a little melodramatic: "And now the old life is over. . . . Past are the surroundings of wealth, past the association with the upper middle class, past also the silent reserve and the hidden secret. Now I take my place as a worker and a help-mate of a worker, one of a very modest couple living in a small way. But in essentials I remain the same-- the same woman who collected rents, studied the docks, worked in the sweated dens. . . . That I shall in the first instance suffer, even in my work, for my step downwards in the social scale is probable, but if it is his gain it will not be my loss."