Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), along with her husband, Sidney, devoted her life to social reform in England beginning in the late 19th-century, particularly through research and writing and the promotion thereof. The Webbs were leaders of the socialist Fabian Society, of which Russell was briefly a member. Through the Society, the Webbs were co-founders of the London School of Economics. It was at the newly established LSE that Russell gave a series of lectures that would later be published as his first book, German Social Democracy (1896). The Webbs also founded The New Statesman, the political weekly that—in its early years—featured articles by Russell and, from Russell’s circle, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, and many others.
Russell became acquainted with the Webbs largely through the family of his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith. Beatrice liked what she saw in the Russells. While staying with the Pearsall Smiths in July 1901, she observed in her diary: “The Russells are the most attractive married couple I know. Young and virtuous, they combine in the pair personal charm, unique intelligence, the woman having the one, the man the other, in the superlative degree. Romantically attached to each other, they have divine interests; Alys concerns herself with social reform, Bertrand with the higher mathematics. The scheme of their joint life is deliberately conceived to attain ends they both believe in, and persistently yet modestly carried out.”
A year later, in the summer of 1902, the Webbs were visiting the Pearsall Smiths again, and Beatrice observed that something was amiss with the Russells: “A consciousness that something is wrong between them has to some extent spoilt our sojourn here, both Sidney and I being completely mystified.” Acting out of concern for her friend (and wanting to get to the bottom of things), Beatrice took Alys on a ‘rest cure’ in Switzerland where she received the full story. Alys recounted that earlier in 1902 Russell had declared he no longer loved her, while her own feelings of love for Russell had not subsided. Webb was shaken by this news about the couple she so greatly admired, and her view of Russell was diminished.
Nearly a decade later, Russell and Alys were still living together, though in a state of misery. They separated only after Russell began his affair with Ottoline Morrell in 1911 (see see letter from Ottoline). At the time of writing the letter displayed here, dated 11 October 1912, Webb was aware of the separation but not of the affair that had prompted it. She expresses her concern for both Russell and Alys and assures Russell that she and Sidney still consider Russell a friend because “Alys wants us to be friends with you” and “that is also my own instinct.”
To their credit, the Webbs did maintain a friendship with Russell, even after his second marriage to Dora Black in 1921. On meeting Russell and Dora in 1922, however, Beatrice commented: “When one remembers the Bertrand Russell of twenty years ago, with his intense concentration on abstract thought, his virile body and chivalrous ways, his comradeship and pleasant kindly humour, the perfect personal dignity with a touch of puritanism, it is melancholy to look on this rather frowsy, unhealthy and cynical personage, prematurely old.”
Russell wrote at length about the Webbs in his Autobiography. Their view of marriage, he contended, had no element of romance or passion at all but was rather “a social institution designed to fit instinct into a legal framework.” But, like Beatrice’s view of him, Russell found much to admire about her. “I both liked and admired Mrs. Webb. … I admired first and foremost her ability, which was very great. I admired next her integrity: she lived for public objects and was never deflected by personal ambition, although she was not devoid of it. I liked her because she was a warm and kind friend to those for whom she had a personal affection.”
However, Russell then continued: “I disagreed with her about religion, about imperialism, and about the worship of the State.” It was disagreements about “the State” that would prove impossible for the old friends to overcome—though they shared socialist sympathies, the Webbs’ Fabianism emphasized the centrality of the state, while Russell preferred a decentralized guild system. He was not impressed by the brand of socialism he saw in Soviet Russia when he visited in 1920 and wrote a highly critical analysis that was published later that year as The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. The Webbs were dismissive of the work. They were great admirers of Russia and remained so even after Stalin’s rise to power and their own visit there in 1932, which led to their massive publication Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935).
Despite these differences, Russell and Beatrice would remain in correspondence until her death in 1943. In a letter to Constance Malleson that year, Russell said that Beatrice’s death “made me very sad.”
Three of Beatrice Webb’s letters to Russell—including the one displayed here—have been published in his Autobiography.
Sources: (1) Bertrand Russell. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914 (Volume I) and 1914-1944 (Volume II). London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1967 and 1968. (2) Beatrice Webb. The Diary of Beatrice Webb (Volumes 2 and 3), edited by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983-84. (3) Letter from Bertrand Russell to Constance Malleson, 16 August 1943, Bertrand Russell Archives, Box 6.68, Document 200826.
41, GROSVENOR ROAD,
My dear Bertrand,
I am so sorry not to see you when you called the other day, and I feel that I cannot let your visit pass in silence.
Now don’t be angry with me, if I
ask you to put yourself in our place. Supposing you and Alys were living in absolute happiness in complete comradship [sic], and you became aware that Stanley had repudiated me, and that I was living on
in a state of dark despair. Would you not, both of you, feel rather sore with Sidney?
I know nothing of the cause of your estrangement – all I Know is that Alys wants us to be friends with
you. And that is also my own instinct. I have always admired your very great intelligence, and tho’ I have sometimes had my doubts about the strength of your character, I have always felt its peculiar charm.
So don’t think that
I have withdrawn my friendship; and if, at any time, I can be of use to you, with or without your complete confidence, let me know and come and see me. And now
that I have expressed quite frankly what is in my mind come and see us, if you feel inclined, and talk about the world’s affairs
without reference to your and Alys’ troubles.
We had a delightful time in the Far East and India – there are wonderful new outlooks in Human Purpose and Human Destiny, both in Japan and among
the Hindus in India. We were wholly unable to appreciate China and found ourselves unsympathetic to Mohamedan [sic] India.
Now we are again immersed in British problems: but the memory of our travels is a constant refreshment. Why don’t you go for a long holiday
[top left corner of fifth page]
and complete change of thought?
Ever your friend
 The year was 1912.