- 02 Oct 17
Persecuted for her political and social views, the treatment of activist Edith Lanchester highlighted sexist male attitudes in Victorian London – some of which still persist today.
Edith Lanchester was widely known as a terrible woman altogether. That’s what George Bernard Shaw is said to have said about her, anyway. She was the daughter of a prosperous London architect and poised for a high life in grand society before 1890, when she discovered socialism and went mad. Edith’s lunacy was detected when she announced that she proposed to live with her boyfriend Jimmy Sullivan without getting married. Unmarried cohabitees were by no means unknown in the London of the period. What made Edith different was that there was no impediment to her marrying Jimmy: she had no excuse. Nor was she merely a blithe spirit defying convention. She explained to anyone who’d listen that she rejected marriage as a social construct designed not only to keep women subservient and under scrutiny at home, but to shut them away from public affairs, thereby preventing their discontent from finding a political expression.
Edith was a leading member of the Battersea branch of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, where she had met Jimmy. She left her job as a teacher to become secretary to Eleanor Marx. At meetings of the SDF, she spoke often of the function of patriarchy within capitalist society. In the memory of one SDF member, her passion was “frightening” when she talked of the wedding requirement that women vow to obey their husbands for the rest of their lives.
Eventually, her father, Henry, had had enough. Not only was Sullivan without a penny to his name, he was a socialist and, worse, Irish. More than flesh and the Lanchester bloodline could stand. So Henry and two of Edith’s brothers barged into her house accompanied by leading London psychiatrist George Fielding-Blandford. Father and brothers held her down in a chair while Blandford circled, barking questions.