The Development of Vernon Lee’s Politics, by Phyllis Mannocchi

The Development of Vernon Lee’s Politics

By Phyllis F. Mannocchi

In the scholarship on Vernon Lee, not much attention has been paid to the fact that as she approached late middle age, Vernon Lee seemed to discover her voice as a political “radical,” a supporter of women’s suffrage, a participant in the anti-war movement, and an expert in international relations. Vernon Lee’s “radical” politics were “natural” to her. After all, she was a “born internationalist,” who had lived in France, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Italy, and was multi-lingual.  After expressing her opposition to the Boer War (1899 – 1902), Vernon Lee began to write more often on social, political, and international issues. Why is it that we know so little of her writing on these issues during this later period of her life?

A.J. P. Taylor, author of a famous study of Britain’s radical tradition, points out that during a popular, patriotic war like World War I, “radicals” were completely ostracized, sometimes even physically threatened. Since many supporters of the war considered those who were anti-war, sympathizers with the enemy, their “political” arguments and activism were viewed as heresy. After the war, the efforts of the anti-war movement were erased from popular memory. Vernon Lee’s writing seems to have shared this fate. Who could be more easily silenced than a “radical woman” like Vernon Lee, one who had been so outspoken?

What had led Vernon Lee, once praised by Bernard Shaw as representing “the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism, “ to become a dissenter against a patriotic war? One explanation for her anti-war stance can be found by tracing Vernon Lee’s political development from its origins in her youth, through her friendships with other outspoken anti-war, suffragist women, and finally, to her wartime role in the Union of Democratic Control and the full-flowering of her politics. I cannot, in this paper, re-create for you the entire story of Vernon Lee’s evolving politics. But I can give you a detailed look at one important stage of her political development –her friendship with Isabella Ford.

Vernon Lee was in England when war broke out. She stayed in England throughout the war, dividing her time between rooms in London and stays at Adel Grange, the country estate of the Ford family outside of Leeds in Northern England. Isabella Ford, one of Vernon Lee’s closest friends, came from a well to do Quaker family who had, for years, been active in social reform and philanthropic causes among the mill and factory workers of Leeds. Since the Ford family was known for its hospitality, Adel Grange was always crowded with weavers and tailoresses, prominent social reformers, labor leaders, suffragists, and Radical Liberal, Socialist, and Anarchist politicians and political thinkers. Following Quaker principles, at Adel Grange, everyone was treated equally.

It was at Adel Grange that Vernon Lee wrote The Ballet of Nations (1915). Shewould read The Ballet of Nations before a meeting of the Union of Democratic Control, the prominent anti-war group Vernon Lee had just joined. Kit Anstruther-Thomson, another member of the U.D.C., chaired the meeting at which Vernon Lee read, and Vernon Lee remembered the meeting as “Kit’s and my last act of collaboration.”

Isabella Ford spent a great deal of time with women workers at their workplaces and in their homes and became nationally recognized as an expert on women’s working conditions. All year round, Isabella Ford took on an exhausting schedule of public meetings during which she often spoke from the back of a farmer’s cart about the benefits of unionizing.  She became so well respected that she was the only woman voted on to the Executive Committee of the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of Britain’s Labour Party. As she grew older, Isabella Ford continued to work tirelessly as an organizer for the labor, women’s suffrage, and peace movements, right up until her final illness.

During Vernon Lee’s visits to Adel Grange, Isabella and her sister Emily would educate her about the life of the working class whom both sisters served. Emily took her to the evening school for working class women that the Ford family had established and to the slums and factories of Leeds where Vernon Lee witnessed the devastating consequences of nineteenth-century industrialization on workers’ lives. In the correspondence Isabella Ford exchanged with Vernon Lee, Isabella Ford would sometimes describe in great detail what she observed as an organizer, utilizing the descriptive skills she revealed in her novels of working class life. Vernon Lee often responded with money for the people and causes Isabella Ford reported. In one case, Vernon Lee paid for the musical training of a young working class woman with a beautiful voice; in another, she sent Isabella Ford money for a young tailoress who was dying of consumption.

In 1907, after years of union organizing, public speaking, and writing on trade unionism and working-class women, Isabella Ford decided that the Independent Labour Party and the unions were failing to fulfill their promise to support women’s suffrage. Angered by their desertion, she “shifted the emphasis both of her analysis and her practical work away from trade union organization towards political action and socialist propaganda.” As a Socialist propagandist, she wrote the widely read pamphlet, Women and Socialism, in which she tried to weave together socialist and feminist theory. This synthesis became a goal to which she devoted her writing and public speaking for the rest of her life.

Beginning with feminist theory, Isabella Ford tried to reconcile the two opposing perspectives on the ”woman’s question.” One perspective emphasized the need for women to first overcome economic oppression because economic equality would mean political equality. This argument had been advanced by the popular work, Women and Economics (1898), by Charlotte Perkins Stetson/Gilman, the American Socialist and writer, who was Isabella Ford’s friend. Vernon Lee, who admired Gilman’s focus on economic analysis, also became her friend. The second perspective on “the woman’s question” was rooted in early Victorian feminism and emphasized women’s special “natural being” as a mother figure who was limited to a domestic role. Once given the vote, women could step out of the kitchen and bring their special virtues like nurturing and selflessness to the advancement of society. In her attempt to blend these two perspectives, Isabella Ford asserted the positive value of women’s special qualities, but also equated women’s oppression with economic inequality. Like others before and after her, Isabella, however, never quite succeeded in weaving the two strands of feminism together.

Also by the end of 1907, Isabella Ford had come to believe that women’s political equality must be secured before a socialist state could be established. She, therefore, decided to put all of her efforts into the movement for women’s suffrage, joining the NUSS (National Union of Suffrage Societies), a relatively conservative organization, dedicated to traditional activism, as opposed to the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), which adopted militant actions like chaining themselves to railings before government buildings or refusing to eat when imprisoned. It is interesting to note that Alice Abadam, Vernon Lee’s first cousin, became a suffrage militant, practicing what Vernon Lee called “hooligan suffragettism.”

Vernon Lee joined neither suffrage group, because, as she first made clear in her preface to the Italian translation of Women and Economics, she believed that women’s fight for the vote should not be solely a woman’s issue. Instead, it ought to be more inclusive — a “human cause,” whose goal would be a collective and collaborative society. For Vernon Lee, society had focused for too long on the individual, rather than the collective, will. Now Vernon Lee felt it was time for all citizens to understand the responsibilities of citizenship and to act on them. In August 2012, Barack Obama in his nominating speech at the Democratic Convention echoed Vernon Lee’s call for societal change based on the responsibilities of citizenship, not on decisions of government.

In 1907, Vernon Lee clarified her views on the “woman question” in a Westminster Gazette letter to the editor, entitled, “Why I Want Women To Have A Vote.” Her main argument was based on the fact that “democracy requires that the number of people habitually recognizing duties larger and more complex than those of family life, that is, the number of ‘efficient’ citizens, should increase steadily . . . ”

Although undeserving now, women could work on becoming so by being given the vote. Only then would they feel motivated to step beyond motherhood and their domestic duties and learn how to fulfill their civic duty as “efficient citizens,” that is, as responsible and contributing citizens.

 In another 1907 letter to the editor of the Westminster Gazette, Vernon Lee identifies herself as a suffragist as well as a member of the Liberal Party. Specifically, her letter is intended to declare her opposition to a policy decision of the militant suffrage group, the WSPU. WSPU members had voted to work against the Liberal Party in the next election because the party had not worked hard enough for suffrage. In contrast to the WSPU, Vernon Lee identifies as a suffragist who wants to stay with the Liberal Party and believes she is not alone. There are other women, she writes, who “have political opinions sufficiently strong to make them stick to their party, even if it should never give them the vote.” Vernon Lee’s declaration proved uniquely her own. What she was really declaring in this letter is that she did not need the vote; she was still able to voice her own strong opinions criticizing the government.

In August 1914, when World War I began, Isabella Ford was 59, while Vernon Lee was 58. Despite their ages and their health issues, both of them as pacifists, Isabella as a Quaker, Vernon Lee as an “internationalist,” recognized that they had to find others like themselves who were willing to protest the war. In the fervor of patriotism that had accompanied the declaration of war, both major suffrage organizations, the WUSS and the WSPU, voted to suspend their suffrage work and dedicate all of their efforts to supporting the war.

In November 1914, a handful of peace crusaders began to organize under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, the chair of the Independent Labour Party. The initial membership was made up of Liberal, Radical Liberal, and Socialist male intellectuals. Known as the Union of Democratic Control, the group was “convinced that democracy must be based on the equal citizenship of men and women,” and so they also issued a call for women to join them in their peace efforts. Along with Isabella Ford and Vernon Lee, major suffragists wanting to work for peace, but finding no support from suffrage groups, joined the U.D.C.

By February 1915, on behalf of the U.D.C., Isabella Ford and Vernon Lee “distributed leaflets and addressed open-air meetings, often facing abuse from the audience.” Their efforts are reported in Isabella Ford’s biography. It is the first mention I have found of Vernon Lee’s public activism. Isabella Ford was used to hostile crowds and “being ‘stoned and pelted’ . . . for her labour and suffrage views,” but Vernon Lee had never before experienced such hostility.

A month later, in March 1915, Vernon Lee wrote an open letter to the leadership of the U.D.C. in which she attacked the “journalistic character” of all of the current main stream writing for its anti-German bias. Only German music was still celebrated through performances in England and not boycotted like most else that was German. Vernon Lee often lamented the fact that the current belligerents in the war had readily forgotten the international cultural heritage they shared. For Vernon Lee, such cultural amnesia was one of the most painful facts of the war.

The U.D.C. had been founded on 5 Cardinal Points that were meant to serve as the foundation of British foreign policy and of the peace treaty to come: 1) no country could be transferred from one country to another without a plebiscite of the people of that country; 2) no treaty could be put in place without the sanction of Parliament; 3) the foreign policy of Britain should give up “Balance of Power” politics and instead, aim to establish a Concert of Europe where all discussions were public; 4) Great Britain should agree to a settlement of the war that demands drastic reduction of armaments and the nationalization of the manufacture of armaments; 5) once hostilities ended, war should NOT be continued through economic means like unrealistic reparations.

This fifth cardinal point regarding the reparations that might be required of Germany in a peace settlement is one of the most recurring themes of Vernon Lee’s anti-war writing; this conviction reveals just how far-sighted she was. She would explore the issue of reparations in her first publication for the U.D.C.  – Peace with Honour: Controversial Notes on the Settlement, a 64-page pamphlet, published in 1915. All of the pamphlets that the U.D.C. published were aimed to educate the general public about their Cardinal Points so that Peace with Honour is presented as a syllabus “intended to facilitate its use for Study-Circles.”  The syllabus is divided into chapters on the major issues that must be considered in drawing up a settlement, such as: “Compensation To The Victor From The Vanquished”; “The Rights And Duties Of Neutrals”; “The Militarist Spirit”; “International Tribunes.”

Bold headings in each chapter indicate the major points of each issue to be discussed, followed by Vernon Lee’s analysis, often based on lessons from history. Throughout the pamphlet, Vernon Lee demonstrates an impressive mastery of world history and an exceptional clarity of style. Unlike Charlotte Stetson/Gilman’s Women and Economics, Vernon Lee includes footnotes that help support her analyses. In an eloquent preface to the syllabus, Vernon Lee describes her view of a lasting settlement:

“And give also to ‘Peace’ the additional significance, not of a mere temporary adjustment, extorted by force of arms or diplomatic haggling . . . but of a Settlement based in the recognition of human nature’s universal claims and strivings, and in the respect for the improving standards of human justice.”

Among its most significant contributions, according to UDC historian, Sally Harris, Vernon Lee’s Peace with Honour emphasizes the need to recognize “the distinctive lines” between a government’s foreign policy and the rights of its people. Governments want more power through territorial expansion, but as Vernon Lee insists: “Only the inhabitants of a territory should be its real possessors,” and “only the citizens constituting a nation should have the responsibility for war and peace and everything determining the one or the other.” With her internationalist expertise, Vernon Lee also addresses “the folly of attempting to establish new boundaries containing minorities of differing languages, traditions, religions and cultures.” In her conclusion, Vernon Lee recalls John Bright’s metaphor of war as the “grave of good.” One of the most terrible deaths “is that of the mutual understanding, the necessary collaboration of those who, in every country, can alone work towards a lasting, because a rational and humane, peace.” She emphasizes that without an international discussion of the “terms of the settlement and the principles underlying them,” Europe might “be delivered up once more to the mercies of the militarists and diplomatists [diplomats] who have made this war against the will, and behind the backs, of all the peoples without distinction.”

Towards A Lasting Settlement, published by the U.D.C. in 1915, contains essays on the future peace treaty by several of the U.D.C.’ s most illustrious members. Vernon Lee’s contribution, entitled, “The Democratic Principle and International Relations,” calls on the reader “to think out some of the principles which should control the international relations of democratic countries.” Looking forward to a future of an increasing number of democracies, Vernon Lee describes how “democratic ideals make for peace.” She first defines the “democratic principle”  “as that of consent against compulsion; agreement (with its correlate disagreement) as against obligatory authority; and self-direction as against direction by others; equality of judicial and civic rights being among the necessary guarantees of this threefold first principle.” The main focus of the essay becomes “the application of this principle to politics,” especially how the democratic principle will guide the relationship of nations to each other:

 “For the very essence of democracy being the admission of greater and greater numbers to self-government and consequently the better and better equipment . . . for self-government, it is evident that methods of conciliation and co-operation must be perpetually on the increase, and methods of compulsion and one-sided exploitation on the decline.”

Thus, a lasting settlement, founded on the democratic principle, would bring about greater opportunities for conciliation, co-operation, and collaboration among nations.

Following the examples of Frances Power Cobbe, Charlotte Stetson/Gilman, and Isabella Ford before her, Vernon Lee would try to publicize her views as widely as possible, placing articles in the popular press and in more specialized or scholarly newspapers and journals like publications of the women’s suffrage movement, of the Independent Labour Party, the Liberal Party, and the Socialist Party. She published throughout Europe and the United States, writing in English, French, German, and Italian. I have recently discovered 18 of her previously unknown short articles in the main stream press and suspect there are still more to be located.

Vernon Lee earned a vital place within Britain’s distinguished radical tradition during World War I, by taking on a bold new role. With the power of a religious dissenter and in an impassioned public voice, she denounced her government’s conduct of international relations and joined with like-minded intellectuals in a “radical” organization for peace. In her writing, she proposed a new vision for conducting international relations and for negotiating for peace. She reviled the long history of secret diplomacy, based on the traditional British paradigm of elitist power and authority. In its place, she foresaw a “Concert of Europe,” based on the democratic principle and operating through international collaboration and cooperation. Vernon Lee strongly believed her vision of a new foreign policy, more firmly grounded in the democratic principle than the old, would guarantee future peace among nations.

Vernon Lee took all that she had learned from her brother, her friends, and her colleagues, then added the insights she had gathered from her own experience. Re-shaping her analysis and pointing it toward the future, Vernon Lee became both a peace theorist as well as a visionary, although tragically, one whose views were all too quickly forgotten.

 Phyllis F. Mannocchi

Professor of English

Colby College

Waterville, Maine

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