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  • Writer's pictureHannah Sherwood

Edith Lanchester: Fight for Free Love

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

Edith Lanchester A Biographical Essay

Edith Lanchester was born in 1873 to a middle-class family and would go on to be a suffragette as well as work for Eleanor Marx. However, in 1985 Edith was condemned by her family to a private asylum, who believed her choice to live in a Free Love union (for Edith this would mean to refuse marriage) with James Sullivan was justification for this diagnosis of insanity. Edith Lanchester acts as an interesting case study in understanding the real-life actions that nineteenth-century morality had concerning gender, class, and education.

In 1895, when Henry Lanchester Sr. learned of Edith's intentions of living with James Sullivan, a poor Irish socialist out of wedlock, he was unwilling to allow one of his daughters to live in such a way. Edith’s decision to live unmarried with James was not taken lightly and had a significant impact on her connection to the Lanchester family unit. Along with Edith's brothers, Henry obtained authority from Dr G. Fielding to forcefully remove Edith from her home and have her committed to a private asylum.[1] Edith spent four days in the asylum but during her time would face physical and emotional abuse.[2] Following her forced incarceration, her friends from the SDF (Social Democratic Federation) raised her plight to their Battersea MP, John Burns, and highlighted her story to newspapers across the country. Edith was found to be sane by the commissions on lunacy and released. She moved in with James Sullivan immediately and would live with him out of marriage until he died in 1945.

Over-education was the blame Henry Lanchester Sr. would conjure for Edith's decision to live with James out of marriage[3] and justification for having her committed. It was unusual for a middle-class woman in nineteenth-century Britain to be provided with a higher education by the family, but not for a Lanchester. The Lanchesters provided an education for all eight of their children, including the daughters Edith, Mary and Carrie an education noted as "high-pressure" and included "distinguished college and university degrees."[4] An expectation of education had been placed on middle-class families however this did not necessarily result in equal education for all middle-class children. Darznink highlights that regarding education, daughters' schooling depended on the number of sons in the family. The presumption was that the family would only be willing to spend large sums on their son's schooling.[5] While the daughters in the Lanchester family had all been provided an equal opportunity for education, Edith pursued hers further than her sisters.[6] Edith continued her education to attend the Universities of London and Cambridge as well as the College of Preceptors.[7] Edith's education had been an expectation placed on her by the Lanchester family.

Edith's extension of pushing boundaries was also seen in her choice to enter a career, becoming a teacher for a year and then secretary for Eleanor Marx.[8] This concept was not included in the Lanchester family’s plan in the lives of their daughters. However, this focus on the main concern of education provided by the Lanchester family can be seen as a mask for a far greater social problem. Showalter has highlighted the common practice in the nineteenth century for male family members to have women found insane to combat any sign of sexual rebellion.[9] Sexual rebellion, such as living with a man unmarried, such as in the case of Edith, could bring the family shame within the society. It was easier for the Lanchester family to have Edith found insane and committed than to deal with her choice to live with a man unmarried.[10]

The forceful commitment of Edith to a private asylum resulted in several articles being written about her at the time, with many newspapers returning to the story as it progressed. From a selection of the articles written about Edith, the main concerns, however, appeared to be mainly regarding Edith being "abducted…by force",[11] the little evidence in which she had been deemed insane[12] and whether she would "take any further action"[13] rather than Edith's own decision to follow the Free Love movement and live unmarried with James. Considering how severe her father’s and brothers' reaction to this lifestyle had been, it is interesting that the newspaper overlooked this. Whilst there was attention by newspapers across the United Kingdom to the story of Edith, this was often in the form of a short overview, and it was not given extensive coverage. The articles referenced above from Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Portsmouth Evening News and the Cork Constitution featured Edith's story on the classified pages and personal columns. Edith's tale was interesting enough to be included but was not provided with a feature space within the newspapers. There is almost a trivial nature and with the focus on the legal implications of her treatment. This provides a window into how society treated women from the middle-class with an offhand nature and as if they were creatures to protect.

Following Edith's higher education, she developed a passion for politics and became an active political member of her community, joining her local Battersea Social Democratic Federation (SDF) branch. It was here that she not only became aware of the Free Love union concept but also met James Sullivan, a working-class Irish socialist with whom she would choose to live out of wedlock with. During the late nineteenth century, Free Love had first become popular among a small group of middle-class Americans which focused on couples living together outside of marriage. The Free Love movement was in nineteenth-century Britain among all the social classes in British society considered an immoral act[15] , and this extended to the case of Edith and James. The two had similar views on marriage and refused to partake in the practice of marriage. This decision to live out of wedlock within Edith's middle-class social circle was unusual and seen as an immoral act. Edith exists as an interesting point in British society and an individual who was willing and able to step outside social expectations.

Edith's development had not only aided her to break from social expectations but provided connections that would help protect her freedom. Following the incarceration of Edith by the Lanchester family, organised demonstrations were held in her honour by friends from the SDF, as well as many turning to newspapers to spread Edith's story.[16] Although the connections Edith had made through the SDF had sparked the outrage of Edith's situation, the SDF refused to officially support Edith and her decision to live in a Free Love union.[17] The Free Love movement had been formed by middle-class Americans in the 1850s[18] and gained backing from the Legitimation League, who would later support Edith following her imprisonment.[19] For the SDF, they could not support Edith's case out of fear of associating themselves with the concept of Free Love. SDF leader Hyndman had "deplored [Edith's] actions on the ground that Free Love would alienate the working class"[20] to ensure continued membership growth for the organisation. Edith would gain no official support. Edith had alienated herself from formal SDF support through the act of Free Love. However, the importance of the individuals remained significant for example, the Battersea MP John Burns had worked with James Sullivan to ensure Edith's release and gained wider support for her as well as being offered employment from Eleanor Marx following Edith's release.[21] Edith had created a support network through her socialist beliefs, but the extent that Edith had pushed the boundaries was too much for the leadership of the SDF.

Women in the SDF had not been uncommon in the late nineteenth century, but Edith had pushed the boundaries further than most in her pursuit of Free Love. The Social Democratic Federation and other socialist organisations offered women equal membership to men.[22] The SDF had offered women like Edith the ability to explore their political stance and space. Contrarily Hunt argues that the SDF would often generalise women's concerns if they even considered them at all,[23] hindering the significance of women in the organisation. Women may have been included in the membership, but their concerns remained a localised problem that would often remain overlooked for women like Edith. Edith had argued that Free Love unions created a high form of marriage, where a woman would no longer be considered a man's property.[24] These new concepts had created for Edith a new sense of freedom. Although Edith was pushing against expectations with the idea of Free Love, her membership was not unique, women in socialist groups were becoming more popular by the 1890s, resulting in their diligent work in party branches.[25] However, hostile attitudes were often expressed towards the Woman Question and "priority was rarely given to issues of interest to women."[26] Women like Edith were becoming exposed to a greater degree to politics through organisations such as the SDF, but social considerations remained. Cowman, Hannam and Hunt indicate that women within the SDF remained confined to roles defined by their gender. Positions within the SDF carved out for women prominently remained associated with committees and fundraisings rather than the organisation's direction,[27] leaving women segregated from the work men were doing for the party. Edith had been experienced in a new political organisation that had helped develop her views and expectations even if this was still relatively limited. Middle-class women were becoming further involved in politics. Bland explores the expansion of those eligible for standing for elections as Poor Law Guardians to rate-paying married women in 1894.[28] Edith's landlady, who had witnessed her abduction, had previously been elected as a Poor Law Guardian.[29] Edith had been a part of a new wave of women becoming involved in the socialist movement, her pursuit of Free Love may have been unique in the group, but her role as a woman within the group remained controlled and structured.

In the late nineteenth century, expectations placed onto middle-class women revolved around their place in a marriage, a concept Edith was looking to reject in favour of Free Love. Middle-class expectations surrounded the roles of both the men and the women in the family. Lewis suggests that a family's status in society during this era came from combining the man's employment and income whilst the women's contribution was controlling the family's lifestyle.[30] Daughters, such as Edith, were expected to learn from their mothers the expectations of women to become a wife and run the household,[31] Edith had gone against these with her belief in Free Love. Traditional values remained reinforced for middle-class women, Branca suggests even after the development of movements such as women's suffrage or socialism, the 1880s remained a time for rigid social expectations.[32] This does not necessarily mean that Edith was the only middle-class woman to act against these social beliefs during the late nineteenth century. Publication of the novel The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen had focused on a middle-class woman's choice to live unmarried with the father of her child.[33] Bland suggests that this text influenced Edith's discovery of Free Love,[34] but she was not in isolation in discovering this text. Grant Allen's novel had been a bestseller, having required nineteen editions in just a single year; this had resulted in Allen receiving £100 a year in royalties until his death.[35] Edith was not alone in this discovery. The book's popularity may suggest that its ideals may have been widespread, but Warne and Colligan highlight the controversy surrounding the book due to the topics covered.[36] However, whilst Free Love had been explored through Allen's novel, advocates of its original support from middle-class Americans were beginning to dwindle. Both original advocates, Mary Nichols and Victoria Woodhull lived in Free Love unions for ten years but developed a hostility to the concept.[37] Free Love unions did not swarm society, but the book had sparked a change in the view of the expectations placed on young middle-class women. The book's popularity suggests at least an interest in its comments on marriage for middle-class women, but Edith Lanchester remained an extreme example.

Edith Lanchester had chosen to live her life in the nineteenth century in a way that would not have been predicted of a middle-class woman. Edith had come from a respected middle-class family who had ensured that she had been educated further but believed that Edith had over-educated herself. Involving herself with socialism was not unique, with women being welcomed into groups like the SDF and other political groups. Still, Edith had pushed the development of her political beliefs further by following the concept of Free Love. Edith continued to develop her opinions and stances in life further than what was expected of her, such as supporting communism in the 1920s[38] and, alongside her sister Mary choosing a vegetarian lifestyle.[39] Edith was not a unique example but was not among the majority. Little had been explored of Edith Lanchester, excluding her stand in the Free Love debate, in contrast to her brothers Henry Lanchester, Frederick Lanchester, George Lanchester, and Francis Lanchester. Edith generally exists in historiography as a woman living outside of the middle-class expectations on marriage. The abduction and commitment to an asylum for Edith had been a major event. However, it had not been the key moment that had developed and dictated her life. Instead, it was the culmination of the choices Edith had made before 1895 through her education, political involvement, and exposure to new concepts that had allowed her to develop how she had chosen to live as a woman. Edith proved that she was unwilling to accept social expectations and was ready to push the boundaries throughout her life.

[1]Elsa Lanchester, Elsa Lanchester Herself, (London: Joseph:1983), 1983, p.1.

[2] Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (London: Blooms bury:2015), p.411.

[3] L, Bland, ‘'The Married Woman, the 'New Woman' and the Feminist: Sexual Politics of the 1890s'. in Equal or Different: Women's Politics 1800-1914. Ed. Rendall, J (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.:1987) p.161.

[4] Elsa Lanchesterp.1.

[5] Y, Darznink. Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife What She Did All Day, (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2001), p.7.

[6] Lanchester, p.1.

[7] Lanchester, p.1.

[8] Lanchester, p.1.

[9] E, Showalter, ‘Victorian Women and Insanity’ in Victorian Studies, 23.2 (1980) 157 – 181. (p.174)

[10] L, Bland, p.161.

[11] Anon. ‘The Extraordinary Abduction’, Gloucester Citizen, March, 1895. p.3.

[12] Anon. ‘The Case of Miss Lanchest’ Portsmouth Evening News, 8th November 1895, The British Newspaper Archive <>, p.4.

[13] Anon. ‘Miss Edith Lancaster’, Cork Constitution, 30th October 1895, The British Newspaper Archive <> section 7 of 12

[14] Anon. ‘Edith Lanchester: Story of a Battersea Abduction’, South London Press, 2nd November 1895, The British Newspaper Archive, <> section25 of 28.

[15]Bland, p.161.

[16] Fauvel and Yeoman, p.2.

[17]N, Freeman. 1895: Drama, Disaster and Disgrace in Late Victorian Britain, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press Ltd, 2011), p. 198.

[18] C. (1994) 'A Masculine View of Women's Freedom: free Love in the Nineteenth Century' in International Social Science Review, 69 (3). (1994) 34-44, p.34.

[19] Bland, p.159.

[20] Freeman, p. 198.

[21] Lanchester, p. 3.

[22] K, Cowman. Women in British Politics, c.1689-1979, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p.110.

[23] Karen, Hunt. (1996) Equivocal Feminists: The Social Democratic Federation and the Woman Question 1884–1911. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.197.

[24] J, Hannam. & Karen, Hunt. (2002). Socialist women: Britain, 1880s to 1920s. London: Routledge, 2002. P.62.

[25] Cowman, p.101.

[26] Hannam and Hunt, p.5

[27] Cowman, p.110.

[28] Bland, p.142.

[29] Anon, ‘Socialism and Marriage’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 29th October 1895, The British Newspaper Archive <>, section 12 of 18.

[30] J. Lewis, Mothers, and daughters in the middle-class home 1870-1914, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 1986), p.2.

[31] IBID, p.8.

[32] Branca, P., 1975. Silent Sisterhood: Middle Class Women in the Victorian Home, (London: Croom Helm 1975, p.144.

[33] Vanessa, Warne, and Colette, Colligan. ‘The Man Who Wrote a New Woman Novel: Grant Allen’s “The Woman Who Did” and the Gendering 2005:21 of New Woman Authorship’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 33.1 (2005), 21 – 46, (p.21)

[34] Bland, p. 161.

[35] G, Cunningham. The New Woman and the Victorian Novel. (London: MacMillan, 1978) p.63.

[36] Warne and Colligan, p.21.

[37] Spurlock, , (p. 39)

[38] Lanchester, p. 68

[39] IBID, p.33.

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