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 teaches history at Rutgers University. He is the author of Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton) and the coeditor of Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States.
"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 beautifully written and exquisitely researched book illuminates, with brilliance and great perception, issues of class, capitalism, empire, gender, and love in early twentieth century Britain."--Jane Shaw, Stanford University
"A brilliantly told tale of the unlikely love of two women divided by class but empowered by the ideals and practice of radical Christianity. This 'intimate history' transforms conventional narratives about charity, class, gender, and labor in the early twentieth century."--Lynn Hollen Lees, University of Pennsylvania
"Seth Koven's luminous account of the unlikely chemistry between Muriel Lester (self-abasing slumming lady) and Nellie Dowell (self-improving match factory girl) sheds new light on their shared milieu of Edwardian Christian radicalism: a counterculture of religious modernism founded on a theology of love, with revolutionary opportunities for pacifism, feminism, and anti-imperialism. A rare and brilliant history of the ethical subject."--Leela Gandhi, Brown University
Table of Contents
Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Seth Koven: