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 »