The Thinking 

Famous Couples

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Part II

January 20, 2011



I have become a Socialist not because I believe it would ameliorate the conditions of the masses (though I think it would do so) but because I believe that only under communal ownership of the means of production can you arrive at the most perfect form of individual development – at the greatest stimulus to individual effort; in other words complete Socialism is only consistent with absolute individualism. As such, some day, I will stand on a barrel and preach it.

Beatrice Potter, the British heiress who ventured into London slums and dockyards, wrote these words in her diary in 1890. She was born to socialism on her first meeting with Sidney Webb, then civil servant and Fabian socialist. Or rather, as she put it in her diary, she realized then that she had been a socialist all along. There was an element of predestination in her understanding of the phenomenon: the elect were chosen from birth.

Beatrice’s two published diaries, My Apprenticeship and Our Partnership, provide insights into the psychology of a nineteenth-century Anglican collectivist. Reading her recollections, one can’t help but conclude that her illusions about the salutary effects of socialism had a lot to do with her illusions about herself. There is a running conflict with her own womanliness. She wants to commit herself to this bold project of reforming society. On the other hand, she realizes she is not cut out for it, and has painful memories of Joseph Chamberlain, “a sacrament of pain fitting me for a life of loneliness and work.” She seems embarrassed and disappointed in herself for having fallen in love.

Sidney Webb, as it turned out, would dispel this conflict. Before he could do this, she had to overcome her dislike of him. She wrote in her diary:

His tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, lack of manner, cockney pronunciation, poverty are all against him. This self-complacent egotism, this disproportionate view of his own position is at once repulsive and ludicrous.  Read More »


Famous Couples: Beatrice and Sidney Webb

January 18, 2011





Sidney Webb the socialist dined here to meet the Booths. A remarkable little man with a huge head on a very tiny body … somewhat unkempt, spectacles and a bourgeois black coat shiny with wear; somewhat between a London card and a German professor. His pronunciation is cockney, his H’s are shaky, his attitudes by no means elegant — with his thumbs fixed pugnaciously in a far from immaculate waistcoat, with is bulky head thrown back and his little body forward, he struts even when he stands, delivering himself with an extraordinary rapidity of thought and utterance and with an expression of inexhaustible self-complacency.

BEATRICE POTTER wrote these words in her diary the day of her first extended meeting with Sidney Webb in February, 1890 over dinner with others at the Devonshire House Hotel in London. The wealthy heiress, already considered a spinster at 32, was not entirely repulsed by this déclassé figure, the son of a Leicester hairdresser. She added to the above: “But I like the man. There is a directness of speech – an open-mindedness and imaginative warm-heartedness – which should carry him far.”

Two years later, after her repeated refusals and an almost constant exchange of letters, they married. 

This unlikely pair became an influential force in British politics and culture. Founders of the London School of Economics and the weekly journal The New Statesman, they were the foremost proponents of Fabianism, the idealistic strain of socialism which shaped the modern Nanny state. 

They were “two second-rate minds,” as Beatrice put it, a judgment that has been amply confirmed by posterity, especially in light of their later enthusiasm for Stalinism and their support for eugenics. Nevertheless, these architects of modern collectivism, with its bureaucratic governance by experts and gradual permeation of all institutions, were intelligent and enterprising. Their romance and marriage was a strange melding of Victorian refinement and quasi-religious political fervor. Read More »


Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard

May 25, 2010

Alexander Graham Bell, Mabel Bell and their children

Alexander Graham Bell, Mabel Bell and their children

IN MARCH 1876, after more than a year of sleeplessness, harried experimentation and a neck and neck race with a competitor, Alexander Graham Bell filed the U.S. patent for the first working model of the telephone. It was the culmination of intense and varied interest by three generations of Bells in projection of the human voice.

On July 9, 1877, the Bell Telephone Company was officially inaugurated and a new era in modern communications began. Two days later, a new era in Bell’s personal life began when he married nineteen-year-old Mabel Hubbard in the parlor of her parents’ home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. It was the first time Tom Watson, Bell’s famous assistant, wore white gloves. Bell gave his wife 1,497 shares in the telephone company as a wedding gift. The Bells’ marriage lasted for forty-five years and in that time, Mabel never once used a telephone herself. She was completely deaf.

As part of my series “Famous Couples,” I look at one of the more interesting couples in the history of modern invention.  Read More »


Lev and Sofya Tolstoy

September 21, 2009


Sofya Tolstoy peers into the station master's house where her husband lies dying

As part of my ongoing look at Famous Couples,  I examine the extraordinarily fertile and volatile marriage of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya Andreyevna. In his final decades, Tolstoy largely abandoned his literary work and became a preacher of universal love and forgiveness. This prophet of peace, who had produced the greatest novel about marriage ever written, also fashioned a domestic hell on earth. 

Clementine and Winston

August 2, 2009



As part of my ongoing series on Famous Couples, I take a backward glance at the marriage of Winston and Clementine Churchill.

Adam and Eve

May 19, 2009


Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee Would never from my heart. No, no! I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.
Paradise Lost (Book IX, 908-916)

All famous couples are better understood in light of the famous first couple. We carry within us knowledge of Paradise, as if the bowers draped with vine in which Adam and Eve consorted were our former home. We bring the expectations Paradise has aroused into this lesser world.

Read More »


Famous Couples: An Introduction

May 12, 2009

I have a philosopher friend who has his own theory of gossip. He considers gossip a form of philosophizing.

To gossip about others is to engage in a type of necessary rational analysis. This is conducive to social order as it enables people to act with reason and forethought.

It’s an interesting argument, but I disagree, holding the traditional view that gossip is evil. The problem with gossip is that it’s addictive. The faults of others cast a mystical spell over our minds and lead us to stumble around in the dark, making grandiose generalizations and false presumptions. I admit that it is fun and stimulating. As a psychologist friend of mine said about her clients who commit adultery, “It makes them feel more alive.”

There is an exception to this rule. And, that involves gossip about famous people, either living or dead. Not only are famous people immune to libel, they are immune to the normal principles of everyday discourse. In other words, we can say whatever we want about them. Gossip about famous people, provided that it stays within the realm of empirical reality, is healthy. It sublimates our desire to gossip about the people we know and helps us to deepen our ethical awareness. Or, something like that.

All this is by way of introducing you to a regular feature of this website: occasional portraits of famous couples, both living and dead, real and imaginary. There is only one criterion I will use in choosing these famous couples and that is that I personally find them interesting. I’m going to do my best to include edifying moral insights without disguising what is essentially a highbrow form of gossip.

Read More »

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