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A Revolutionary Duet

Cultural confines, classifications, and corsets are shed

The Match Girl and the Heiress is an unconventional love story at the heart of a great social-justice crusade that began roughly a century ago. While this new scholarly work presents as a post-Dickensian novel, the power of its authenticity makes it resonate more than fiction. Two women crossed over class privilege and wealth, the widest gulf in England, to express deep feelings and take care of each other, in sickness and health—till death did them part. 

Was it what we now call “same-sex desire?” This window to the past could hardly be more timely. 

Seth Koven ’78, a historian who teaches at Rutgers University, invites the reader to early 20th-century London as it shed the cultural confines, classifications, and corsets of Victorian England even as global capitalism bore down hard. The book’s focus is Bromley-on-Bow, the teeming Cockney district of East London where a massive match factory, Bryant and May, was located. This is where the sprightly Nellie Dowell, born into next to nothing, worked filling boxes of matches as part of a mostly young female army. In any case, the factory workers were “girls.” 

Nellie emerged vividly for Koven in his research travels, and he deftly handles specifics of her working-class experience, illuminating a life that would otherwise be lost to history. As a young woman, she was hospitalized and then treated as just another  “pauper lunatic” at the Whitechapel Asylum. Like millions, she lived at the mercy—or lack thereof—of the Poor Law. 

Who was Muriel Lester? Famous in her day, way ahead of her time, she was a global pacifist humanitarian Christian revolutionary with a lovely upper-class aura, voice, and “white clean hands,” which Nellie spoke of admiringly in her letters. Those hands seemed to symbolize the distance between them that could not be bridged: Nellie’s hands were hurt by factory work. 

Committed to improving poverty, Muriel eventually “gave back” part of her family fortune to support Nellie and to enrich and organize the Bromley-on-Bow community. She became a central part of it by building Kingsley Hall, similar to Jane Addams’ Hull House. As Koven tells us, she came to see residents less as charity cases and more as “rights-bearing citizens.”

Muriel and Nellie were at the forefront of the era’s union and suffrage struggles. And as the guns of the Great War resounded, denizens of the movement they built stood with conscientious objectors. 

After the war, the avant-garde Kingsley Hall gained wider renown. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi came to call at the hall. 

Koven quotes often from Nellie’s inventive, compelling correspondence, for example, “You have been my best friend on this earth, and I always feel I belong to you somehow. …” Nothing, however, is saved from Muriel’s end. His hope of capturing the “loving mates” in epistolary conversation is lost. What remains in the archives is Muriel’s biographical account of Nellie. From her voluminous annals, we can almost hear her bright voice saying of her partner, “She cherished it [the hall], helped it to grow, made it seem real.”

The heiress, who died in 1968, outlived the match girl by 45 years. 

Koven expresses the painful reality that, in the end, Nellie left this earth with much less of everything than her beloved Muriel. Absent a clear proclamation, it’s hard to precisely chart the coordinates of desire. That is not the end game, however, when their intimacy is the true story. By investigating the revolutionary duet in class, politics, social change, love, and friendship, he has given each their just due. In Koven’s elegant narrative, he also enlightens all of us. 

—Jamie Stiehm ’82, a history major, is a Washington, D.C., columnist on politics and history. She writes for Creators Syndicate and has contributed to Disunion, the Civil War series in The New York Times.