On 25 October 1895, Edith Lanchester was kidnapped by her father and brothers, sectioned, and forcibly incarcerated in a lunatic asylum – her punishment for announcing her plan to live unmarried with her lover.
Only a couple of weeks ago, an appeal judgment in the Supreme Court ruled that the 2004 Civil Partnership Act 2004 – which only applies to same-sex couples – is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, a ruling that may open the door for heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships, instead of getting married.
What about those of us who want to continue living in sin?
Cohabiting, living without any formal recognition by church or state, is now much more common, and pretty much accepted in most quarters. But its not quite respectable, and there are plenty of carrots and sticks like tax breaks for married couples, legal problems with inheritance and passportry, that lean heavily on unmarried couples.
Less than a century and a quarter ago, it was enough to get you locked up in an asylum and tortured – if you were a woman. Particularly a socialist and feminist, questioning patriarchal marriage and class society…
Living with a lover/partner and not getting married is of course a practice as old as humanity; marriage may have evolved as a way of celebrating/announcing that you were bundling. But aeons of male domination had certainly overlaid the institution of marriage with the patriarchal meaning – this woman in my property, hands off (to other men), and learn your place, b****.
Most religions reinforced this with violent denunciation of ‘living in sin’ – sex, conception outside of ‘holy matrimony’ were abominations and could get you a one way ticket to Satansville. Sex and sharing of lives outside of marriage, opened up the chances of women and men refusing to submit to control in other areas, for one thing, like obeying lords, kings and bosses. Men also feared that women who refused to be branded as property were emasculating them – for some reason many supposedly celibate churchmen were particularly hot on this.
However, resistance to marriage remained powerful, most especially among the poor. Aristos and royal families used marriage as a currency – posh women were traded, sold, to seal alliances, etc. The high profile nature of upper class relations and the belief in the divine superiority of the ruling elites meant that breeding, bloodlines, purity, and the ceremonial pomp of marriage were essential. Not so much for the lower orders, among whom relations conformed a lot less strictly to church and state diktat. Getting together and living with someone, maybe breaking up, leaving a husband and shacking up with someone else, having several partners, were all very common. Marriage was too limiting in a short-lived world where famine and poverty meant a high death rate; where constant war (and forced impressment of men) could mean a husband or partner were sent off to fight/to sea for years… Where you had to pay the church to get married.
[And abuse, selling of women, violence and adultery, abandonment were common too, just as IN marriage – not to see it through rose-tinted glasses.]
This didn’t mean the laws and conventions on marriage were being enforced – that the unmarried weren’t being lectured, shamed in church sermons, sometimes arrested – they were. But the resistance went on, just because co-habitation fitted with many people’s practical needs and desires.
Puritanism, from the 16th century, campaigns for moral reform, from the 17th, and the growth of capitalism, pushed hard at the social relations of co-habitation, and combined to alter the nature of the family. A woman’s role was to give birth to children, raise them, take care of the home, obey her father and then her husband and all other lawful (male) authority.
By the mid-19th century it was forbidden among polite society to cohabit, although it continued quietly among the labouring families of rural communities and also in the poverty-stricken slums of the big cities.
“Among the middle and upper classes, and the ‘respectable’ working classes who imitated the genteel social habits of the class above them, to openly cohabit was considered to be extremely sinful. The scandal damaged the reputations of both parties, though it was much worse for the women, whose ‘reputation’ would be completely ruined.”
Even some early feminists did not approve of ‘living in sin’ – all the risk and danger (especially the chance of having an ‘illegitimate’ child) fell on the woman’s shoulders. Marriage was thought to protect a woman, give her increased respectability, social standing and security.
Edith Lanchester was a feminist, socialist, a member of the early British Marxist grouping the Social Democratic Federation. In 1896 when she announced she intended to live unmarried with her lover, James Sullivan, her family had her forcibly locked up in a mental hospital. A loud campaign by socialists and freethinkers got her released after 4 days.
Born in Hove, Sussex on 28 July 1871, Edith, often known to family and friends as ‘Biddy’, was the fifth child of a well-to-do architect Henry Jones Lanchester and Octavia Ward.
Edith was part of the first generation of middle class women who broke out of the straits of Victorian social control, refused to be used as a bargaining chip or adornment, who fought to get access to education, to find financial independence, get jobs, have careers, determine their own lives.
After attending the Birkbeck Institution and the Maria Grey training college, she worked as a teacher, then as a clerk-secretary for a firm in London.
But in tandem with gaining control over her own destiny as a woman, Edith also developed a socialist politics – not unusual at that time, when the movements of early feminism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, and others overlapped, influence each other, argued and evolved. Her socialist feminist convictions had led Edith to conclude that the wife’s vow to obey her husband was oppressive and immoral and she did not wish to lose her independence. She was politically opposed to the institution of marriage.
By 1895 Edith was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the early British Marxist organisation. She had developed her freethinking to the point that she was prepared to defy the narrow conventions of her background, when she met and fell in love with James (Shamus) Sullivan, a Irish labourer and fellow socialist; in social terms, someone far enough ‘beneath’ her in class position that even marriage would be considered impossible. Marriage, however, was not on Biddy’s mind…
In 1895 she informed her family that, in protest against Britain’s patriarchal marriage laws, she was going to cohabit with Shamus. This didn’t go down well with her family, who had frowned upon her involvement with the dangerous socialists. This was truly shocking stuff for a wealthy professional family, a challenge to all the respectable values that kept society from falling apart and made Britain capital of the world.
Her family tried every argument to dissuade her from this rash act, including the line that she was devaluing herself as a woman, losing her good name, a respectable woman’s most valuable commodity, and that any children would be illegitimate – considered a shameful and despised state for them. In an attempt at compromise, Edith even offered to change her surname and live abroad, but would not agree to marry.
Unable to change her mind, the Lanchester family resorted to asserting male property rights over the rebellious female. On Friday October 25th 1895, Biddy’s father and brothers invaded her house (in the then working class neighbourhood and radical hotspot of Battersea), argued wither, assaulted her when she tried to physically resist, and forcibly subjected her to an examination by Dr George Fielding-Blandford, a leading psychiatrist and author of Insanity and Its Treatment.
The good doctor immediately signed emergency commitment papers under the Lunacy Act of 1890, on the grounds that she must be mentally disturbed to even plan such a union – if she could not see that living unmarried meant ‘utter ruin’ and ‘social suicide’ for a woman, she was of unsound mind and needed to be locked up for her own protection. For her own protection, Edith’s father and brothers tied her wrists and dragged her to a carriage, in which she carted off to the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.
Dr Fielding-Blandford explained his reasoning to the press:
“Lanchester had always been eccentric, and had lately taken up with Socialists of the most advanced order. She seemed quite unable to see that the step she was about to take meant utter ruin. If she had said that she had contemplated suicide a certificate might have been signed without question.
I considered I was equally justified in signing one when she expressed her determination to commit this social suicide. She is a monomaniac on the subject of marriage, and I believe her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself.”
Thus showing how social and economic ideas that questioned the existing order were labelled as a mental health problem… An advance on the medieval diagnosis, of oppositional thinking or lifestyle choices being the work of the devil and getting you burnt as a witch or heretic? Possibly. Just not much of an advance.
The abduction also illustrated the fear among traditionalists that social change had eroded the boundaries that maintained society in its ideal state, and that allowing women to get educated, think for themselves and act on their own behalf was a terrible error that was leading to all sorts of newfangled monstrousness. ‘Over-education’ was written on the Certificate as cause of Edith’s madness: women should just not be allowed to learn anything that could distract their pretty little heads from serving men’s needs. Its worth noting that the British Medical Journal and the Lancet both felt Blandford may have gone too far by actually signing a medical certificate diagnosing insanity, but still felt socialism was a dangerous influence on women who they saw as ‘mentally weaker’ than men and thus more easily influenced by mad ideas like equality.
After being imprisoned in the Roehampton Asylum, Biddy was subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse. Tortured.
This forcible abduction caused an outcry. Mr Lanchester wrote to the Times, pointing to Edith’s behaviour as evidence of her madness, and raising the mental instability he claimed was in the family, and her ‘overstudy’ and ‘natural impressionability’. However, if the Lanchester family felt justified in violently sectioning Edith, and that rubberstamping her torture would eventually defeat her plans to bring shame on the family name, they had miscalculated.
The abduction blew up into a national scandal that dominated the press for days. The New York Times reported that the affair had “rivet the attention of three kingdoms” and that “no penny paper had printed less than ten columns on this engrossing subject during the week”.
John Burns, MP for Battersea, (and a sometime socialist himself who may well have known Edith personally) intervened on her behalf. Left-leaning papers Reynolds News and the Clarion supported Edith, the latter asserting that ‘a woman has a perfect right to do what she likes with her own body’.
The Marquess of Queensberry offered Edith his support, of a kind, putting up a cheque for £100 as a wedding present if she would go through the legal marriage ceremony but under protest, and then repudiate the ceremony afterward. He justified this by stating:
“I do this because I wish personally to be associated with what will be a strong protest against our present marriage laws, and should be delighted to give such a brave woman a wedding present.”
[Yes, that Marquess of Queensberry, the one who got Oscar Wilde sent to prison for being gay. A very contradictory character: an outspoken atheist – which got him excluded from the house of Lords – promoter of working class boxing – virtual inventor of the modern rules – violent homophobe… brutal towards his children and wives… questioner of the patriarchy?!]
Protests against the sectioning and torture of Edith began immediately. Some of her SDF comrades joined with the Legitimation League, an organisation set up to campaign to secure equal rights for children born outside of marriage, and organised a public meeting, where a resolution was passed against Fielding-Blandford, and Lanchester’s landlady, SDF activist Mary Gray, was persuaded to being legal action against Edith’s brother for assaulting her during the raid on her home.
Shamus and a group of SDF supporters sang The Red Flag from outside the asylum’s walls and beneath Edith’s barred window on the evening of Sunday 27th October.
Under Section 11 of the 1890 Lunacy Act, Biddy could be detained for up to a week, but further incarceration would require another certificate. After four days of lobbying, by the SDF, with the help of John Burns, Edith was seen on Monday 28th October by two Commissioners of Lunacy, who proclaimed her sane, although they labelled her ideas “foolish”, and ordered her released. She was let out the next morning. She would never see her father alive again.
Although some of her socialist comrades had stood by her, supporting but her “brave and radical challenge by a committed socialist feminist to the institution of marriage and to late Victorian society’s highly constrained and patriarchal conception of femininity”, other radicals, mostly men, were not so helpful. The SDF in fact shied away from officially supporting her in case she brought them into disrepute (?!) As an organisation the Federation never quite got women’s rights or women’s liberation. SDF activist and Marxist theorist Ernest Bax publicly dismissed Edith’s views on marriage from a bourgeois moralistic standpoint. Independent Labour Party leader and sainted Labour guru Keir Hardie accused her of discrediting socialism, worried that ‘the public’ would associate socialism with sexual immorality.
One socialist who did stand in solidarity with Edith was Eleanor Marx, who had been disgusted by the misogynistic failure of male socialists to support and defend Edith’s position, and had herself struggled to enlighten male chauvinist lefties as to the class dimension of the feminist struggle, and the female element in class politics.
She denounced comrade Belfort Bax in a public letter to an open debate on “the woman question”, but Bax, being scared of Eleanor, declined the challenge. Bax was a repulsive early men’s rights activist, who denounced feminism, thought capitalism was bad largely because it subjected men ‘under the heel of women’. Which shows that an expensive private education and inculcation of bourgeois standards can bring you to ‘socialism’ but it can’t necessarily teach you to look around you and see the world as it is. What a prick.
Eleanor Marx hired Edith as her personal secretary, and sheltered her at her home in 1897 when she gave birth to her first child with Shamus, Waldo Lanchester. Press attention again circled the arrival of this ‘love-child’ of controversial parents.
Other female suffragists also rebelled against marriage. Elizabeth Wolstenholmeinitially refused to marry her boyfriend Ben Elmy because they both objected to the anti-woman marriage laws. They cohabited in secret, but when she became pregnant her suffrage colleagues persuaded them to marry because it would severely damage the suffrage movement to be associated with such ‘immorality’.
But there were Victorians in the upper echelons of life who cohabited, and some who made no secret of it. The parents of prominent feminist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon Bodichon never married, despite having several children (who took their father’s surname). Historians believe this is the reason their children were shunned by their cousins, who included Florence Nightingale.
In spite of the disapproval of bourgeois society and its continuing hold on some of the so-called radical left, and spiting the predictions of the press that he would abandon her and she would end in the workhouse or on the game, Edith and Shamus’ relationship was not a youthful fad – they remained together until his death in 1945. In 1902 Edith gave birth to her second child Elsa. By this time the family were living at 48 Farley Road, Catford.
During World War I, Biddy and Shamus opposed the slaughter, from both internationalist and pacifist principles of Quakerism. Her daughter, Elsa recalled that Biddy and Shamus were “violently anti-war” and that pacifism ‘roared through’ the house.
When their son Waldo was conscripted he registered as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for a year. By 1917 Edith identified politically as a communist, denouncing the ‘socialists’ who had supported the war as ‘practically Tories’ who had betrayed the working class. She remained associated with the Communist Party for a number of years.
The bohemian and freethinking atmosphere that Edith and Shamus were a part of, and the creative and rebellious spirit that had sustained her against her family, passed on to their children.
Upon his release Waldo was supported by his mother to become a puppeteer and weaver. He would become one of the most innovative and well-known puppeteers of the twentieth century.
His sister, Elsa, became even more well-known… a liberated, self-determined and provocative woman, which in itself serves as a further two fingers to the conservative men who locked up her mother. She became a music hall star, singing songs laced with sexual innuendo, then and actress, having trained with dancer Isadora Duncan (but disliked her autocratic and pretentious approach), founded the Children’s Theatre in Soho, in 1918, and later became a Hollywood name… She had her radical moments, too, being a lifelong atheist, a member of the Independent Labour Party after World War 1, and her participation in the London avant-garde dance, theatre, film and performance scenes in the early 1920s. She ran an artistic nightclub, the Cave of Harmony, on the edges of London’s West End, where “Bohemianism, modern dance and musical comedy opened up new identities and spaces for female self-exploration.”
“In 1920 she made her London debut in a music hall act as an Egyptian dancer. About the same time she founded the Children’s Theatre in Soho and taught there for several years. In 1924 she and her partner, Harold Scott, opened a nightclub called the Cave of Harmony. They performed one-act plays of Pirandello and Chekhov and sang cabaret songs. Performances at the Cave were semi-improvised and often included odd ditties such as ‘Rat Catcher’s Daughter’ that Lanchester had dug up out of the magnificent resources of the British Library. The Cave of Harmony became a popular meeting place for London artists and intellectuals, including H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and James Whale (who would direct The Bride of Frankenstein). A local journalist was the first to immortalise the ‘naughty lady’ in song, fatally struck by her bronze hair and her brassy behaviour. His words make one wish to have known her:12 I may be fast, I may be loose, I may be easy to seduce. I may not be particular To keep the perpendicular. But all my horizontal friends Are Princes, Peers and Reverends. When Tom or Dick or Bertie call, You’ll find me strictly vertical!
Simultaneously, Elsa Lanchester joined a group of radical socialists called the ‘1917 Club’ and became something of their mascot. It fixed her image: a bohemian socialist with loose morals, outrageous behaviour, and brightly coloured unmentionables (the famous pink drawers she claimed never to have owned). Geoffrey Dunlap wrote bitterly about her:13 Pink drawers alas — why should her drawers be pink Their colour gives me furiously to think — Pink drawers — and do they never turn red Flushed at their mistress’ sin while she’s in bed. No they are pink, and peonies in their fair hue Their innocence remains forever new.
During a 1926 comic performance in the ‘Midnight Follies’ at London’s Metropole, a member of the British Royal family walked out as she sang, ‘Please Sell No More Drink to My Father’. Elsa closed her nightclub in 1928 as her film career began in earnest. She later noted that art was ‘a word that cloaked oceans of naughtiness’, and she had her share of it, working as a nude model by day and a theatrical impressario by night.” (from Underground London: From Cave Culture Follies to the Avant-Garde, Jaap Harskamp)
Later Elsa married actor and director Charles Laughton; there has for decades been a suggestion, fuelled by her own writing, that she was his beard, Laughton being at least bisexual and possibly gay, and that the marriage was designed to mask this. This she have discovered after they married, and she wasn’t best pleased to find it out, but tried her best to accommodate him and support him.
(However, other friends of Laughton have contended that these rumours were not true…)
Elsa’s most famous film role was as the Bride of Frankenstein in the classic 1935 film…
Edith Lanchester died in 1966.
Civil ceremonies, queer marriage legalised, married persons tax breaks – HAH! You can do it if you really want but – We salute the spirit of Edith Lanchester.
In the USA they have a brilliant holiday. Loving Day, which celebrates the legal fight of a mixed race couple to beat the racist laws against mixed marriages…
We love that, but also suggest celebrating those of us who choose to live and love without submitting to any nonsense from church or state. We don’t need your vows, stamps, or bits of paper to tell us how to freely share our lives. Neither of us obeys or owns the other.
Past Tense would like to humbly propose 29th October as a candi/date when we can hold an annual ‘’Unmarried Love Day’…
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar