Nellie Dowell was a match factory girl in Victorian London who spent her early years consigned to orphanages and hospitals. Muriel Lester, the daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder, longed to be free of the burden of money and possessions. Together, these unlikely soulmates sought to remake the world according to their own utopian vision of Christ’s teachings. The Match Girl and the Heiress paints an unforgettable portrait of their late-nineteenth-century girlhoods of wealth and want, and their daring twentieth-century experiments in ethical living in a world torn apart by war, imperialism, and industrial capitalism.
In this captivating book, Seth Koven chronicles how each traveled the globe—Nellie as a spinster proletarian laborer, Muriel as a well-heeled tourist and revered Christian peacemaker, anticolonial activist, and humanitarian. Koven vividly describes how their lives crossed in the slums of East London, where they inaugurated a grassroots revolution that took the Sermon on the Mount as a guide to achieving economic and social justice for the dispossessed. Koven shows how they devoted themselves to Kingsley Hall—Gandhi’s London home in 1931 and Britain’s first “people’s house” founded on the Christian principles of social sharing, pacifism, and reconciliation—and sheds light on the intimacies and inequalities of their loving yet complicated relationship.
The Match Girl and the Heiress probes the inner lives of these two extraordinary women against the panoramic backdrop of shop-floor labor politics, global capitalism, counterculture spirituality, and pacifist feminism to expose the wounds of poverty and neglect that Christian love could never heal.
Seth Koven is professor of history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton).
"In The Match Girl and the Heiress, inspired by a cache of private writings that reveal a profound relationship between two women activists, [Koven] delves deep into the historical record to build an intriguing story of cross-class devotion--between the social reformer Muriel Lester and 'a half-orphaned Cockney' factory worker named Nellie Dowell."--Nina Burleigh, New York Times Book Review
"[M]eticulously researched."--Caroline Moorhead, Times Literary Supplement
"Rutgers University historian Koven (Slumming) has fashioned a scholarly yet highly readable jewel that tackles the big issues of early-20th-century England in an intimate way. Through the lives of Muriel Lester and Nellie Dowell, he brilliantly illuminates the growth of global capitalism, a revolutionary 'God is love' Christian theology, war and pacifism, feminism and sexuality, and class and gender relations."--Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Koven demonstrates how these women changed the world's attitude toward the poor."--Kirkus
"Koven's book sets Nellie and Muriel's relationship in the context of the religion and politics of their era. . . . [T]he most memorable parts are about the unique relationship between these two women. It also serves as a timely reminder of how cruel life was for the poor when there was no welfare state to act as a safety net."--Rachel Trethewey, Independent
"Koven's book sensitively uses a personal relationship to examine both the hopes and the failures of the attempts to cross class boundaries at a time and place where they ruled supreme."--Margaret Quamme, Columbus Dispatch
Table of Contents
Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Seth Koven: