Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.
But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.
Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.
Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.
Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston. New characters join Rowbotham’s crowded and complex tableau, among them another emigrant – the fierce autodidact William Bailie, a Glaswegian basket-maker enmeshed in a loveless marriage and with six children – and Helen Tufts, the only American-born person in the tale.
But the politics, too, seems more abstract: less connected to grass-roots struggle, more prone to high-flown theorising, with several gathering round the flame of Liberty,
the journal of Benjamin Tucker’s philosophical and individualist anarchism. Helena Born becomes an enthusiastic cyclist and wearer of the modern, freer fashions; in later life Tufts, her young American protégée, moves towards more conventional single-issue agitation, while Bailie becomes a gradualist socialist, immersed in schemes for water purification and social housing. Always an honest chronicler, Rowbotham does not shy away from the racism, anti-Semitism and nascent authoritarianism, for instance, that sit uneasily alongside Born’s high-flown Whitmanesque reflections and outspoken feminism.
As the author notes, “attempting to explore the motivations of the famous who declare themselves is difficult enough; pursuing the relatively unknown is far more testing. For even when their deeds are on record, their subjectivity is not.” Newspaper and census records supply the often intriguingly bare facts, but the writer is helped by a stream of stories, novels, poems, articles and essays written by the chief protagonists, including a slim book of essays published by Born herself, which Rowbotham first came across in the British Library in the 1970s and which triggered her interest in these interconnected stories.
Inevitably, some characters are more opaque than others. Why did the highly talented feminist and novelist Gertrude Dix abandon the busy, bohemian milieu of Bristol and London to travel thousands of miles to raise a family on an isolated Californian ranch with Robert Nicol, a man whom (it seems) she hardly knew? Rowbotham can only speculate that it was lust that took her across the globe and sheer grit that kept her there, yet there is a melancholy to Dix’s fate that one cannot quite shake off.
Rebel Crossings is a first-rate piece of social history, a well-paced and extraordinarily well-organised narrative. In many ways, it develops the themes of Rowbotham’s more recent work, from her acclaimed 2008 biography of Edward Carpenter (a man who clearly had a huge influence on most of these rebel lives) to her exploration of the “utopianism of our adventurous foremothers” in her last book, Dreamers of a New Day. Certainly, she handles the multiple ideological threads of the period with an admirably light touch.
But the book’s appeal lies, ultimately, in its illumination of character. At times, it reads like a great mid-19th-century novel, an intricate and absorbing tale of a group of intense individuals who pursue their “inner promptings”, often to the bitter, impoverished end. It is impossible, finishing this book, not to feel a debt of gratitude to so many of them for the boldness of their thinking, their activism and their defiance of hostile convention; and to Rowbotham, too, for bringing their hidden stories into such detailed, sympathetic view.
Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso (512pp, £25).
This review was first published in the New Statesman on January 12th 2017