The following passage comes from the author's The Match Girl and the Heiress (2014), which is reviewed elsewhere in the Victorian EWeb. — Susan Guralnik]

Clara Balfour rightly observed that it was a "great mistake" to assume that schools and schoolmasters monopolized the education of children. "Every place is a school where we learn anything, and every person is a schoolmaster or mistress who teaches us anything." Perhaps the hardest challenge that Muriel Lester and Nellie Dowell faced was unlearning the lessons of and about childhood that so many different teachers—including those who wrote poems and novels, delivered sermons, and produced visual images—had taught them. These teachers urged girls like Muriel to befriend orphans and waifs while expecting poor children like Nellie to express gratitude and deference to their betters. Such lessons constitute one of the deep structures of thought and feeling that eventually brought Muriel and Nellie together. . . . In all sorts of ways, Muriel enjoyed a heterodox education. It equipped her with potent resources to use as she pondered works like Clare Linton's Friend, which consolidated prevailing understandings of class and gender, power and poverty. Not only was she trained to question, critique, and lead, she also read compelling works of literature and Christian thought that acted like solvents upon the cultural, social, and economic foundations of late-industrial capitalism.

Muriel's self-directed curriculum at the turn of the century included Olive Schreiner's Dreams (1888) with its impassioned analysis of the sins committed by well-intentioned "ladies" whose spotless purity depended upon the existence of an impure class of prostitutes. Schreiner's Dreams, Muriel later remarked, had awakened thousands like her to feel "shame rather than pride in possession of riches." According to Schreiner, it was not enough for the altruistic bourgeois narrator of the tenth "dream"—"I Thought I Stood"—to sympathize with her fallen sister. She can only claim genuine moral authority and receive spiritual grace after she lies down in the filthy streets and rises up mud-spattered with the abstracted character Woman. Schreiner calls for a transformation of sympathy, predicated on class distance, into a new and deeper form of identification in which all women join together in the messy struggle against the gender and class formations that produce prostitutes and prostitution. Such an approach to cross-class sisterhood anticipated Muriel's later embrace of the practice of identifying with the dispossessed, to which Rosa Waugh introduced her when Rosa joined May Hughes as Kingsley Hall's first two residents in 1915.

Nellie always faced a much-harder challenge than Muriel. Her experiences at Forest Gate drilled into her the necessity of deference and hard work, while teaching her that remaining free from the Poor Law was the single most important thing she could do. She knew only too well the human costs of becoming a dependent pauper ward of the state. For the next twenty years of her life, Nellie had to find a way to secure her financial independence and help support her mother while mustering the wherewithal to critique the social, economic, political, and gender formations upon which her day-to-day life was built. This proved to be a formidable—and ultimately, unfinished—task in her life. If she retained the rebellious streak of the little girl who initially bucked Forest Gate's regulations, she also became a woman highly adept at accommodating existing power relations to preserve her independence under difficult circumstances.


Koven, Seth. The Match Girl and the Heiress. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014 [review by Susan Guralnik].

Last modified 15 May 2015