In this book, Seth Koven has used the friendship between two women, one middle class and wealthy, the other a poor factory worker, in order to explore a number of historical themes that were part of “the transition from Victorians to moderns.” (19) In particular, he wishes to examine the shift between “High Victorian Christian moral paternalism and twentieth-century rights-based social justice ethics and politics.” (19) This is an important story, and Koven’s explication will be welcomed by historians of the period. Muriel Lester was the privileged daughter of an affluent shipbuilder living in suburban Loughton. She spent her childhood in upper-middle class comfort within a deeply religious, but free-thinking nonconformist family. Nellie Dowell was a working-class East Ender whose family was pitched into destitution after the death of her mariner father when she was about five. Her mother was unable to support all five of her children, so Nellie and her sister were sent to live at a notoriously bad poor law school, Forest Gate, and she subsequently went to work at Bell’s match factory at age twelve.
While Koven is unsure how Lester and Dowell met, he uses their friendship to frame his exploration of radical Christianity. Lester rejected the condescending Lady Bountiful model that had characterized Victorian philanthropy and instead, following a girlhood epiphany, sought to remake society in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. She and Dowell tried to create just such a society at Kingsley Hall, the community centre Lester and her sister founded in the slums of Bow, a “People’s House” as they called it. (3) Kingsley Hall was meant to enact “a Christian revolution in everyday life” (257) that was predicated on love for and non-judgement of others, reconciliation, pacifism, shared resources, and shared responsibilities for housework (which was meant to help to minimize the class distinctions of residents).
Koven is commendably wide ranging and thorough in his research. The book’s first three chapters focus on the two women’s childhoods, capitalism as experienced by match girls, and new Edwardian notions of Christianity that centred on a loving God rather than a punitive one. The fourth chapter analyses the friendship, based largely on a packet of letters from Dowell to Lester, and several biographical fragments that Lester wrote about Dowell. The fifth chapter explores what Koven calls the “Christian Revolution,” as Lester and Dowell enacted it throughout their quotidian lives in East End London. In the course of telling this tale, Koven touches on a variety of fascinating, and at times eccentric, topics: unionism and the match girl strikes (including the rhetorical migration of the pathetic match girl stereotype from street sellers of matches to factory workers), the suffrage agitation and its factionalism, the international pacifist movement (the highlight being a visit by Gandhi to Kingsley Hall), and new theology (including Madame Blavatsky and theosophy, and Leo Tolstoy’s ethical and spiritual writings). Will Crooks, George Lansbury, Rabindranath Tagore, Sylvia Pankhurst and Annie Besant all figure in the story, as well.
Koven’s book is a detailed and nuanced exploration of sincere attempts by dedicated Christians to find better and more equitable ways to live. Whether these attempts should be seen as revolutionary, however, is certainly debatable. “Utopian Christianity” seems a more apt descriptor, since (as Koven readily admits), Lester and company had no idea how to supply “the precise mechanisms by which [End Page 277] a purifying worldwide Christian revolution would unfold.” (260)
In spite of their attempts to establish an egalitarian community at Kingsley Hall, moreover, Lester very much remained the mentor and leader – and a micro-managing one at that, who even criticized bits of toothpaste being left in the wash basins. Nor did East Enders adopt the Kingsley Hall way of life. Rather, they used its programs, and the skills learned from them, as stepping stones to social mobility and out of Bow. Even the friendship itself between Lester and Dowell was never based on equality: Lester remained the gracious lady while Dowell was deferential and adoring, and determined to...