Edith Lanchester and "free love"

Submitted by cathy n on 12 March, 2019 - 12:36

Edith Lanchester (1871-1966) was a British socialist and feminist, who came to prominence in the late nineteenth century for making a challenge to the institution of marriage.

Lanchester came from a prosperous family in Battersea, in south London, but committed herself to the socialist movement. She joined the SDF in 1892, rising to a position on its executive in 1895.

Her socialist feminist convictions had led Lanchester to conclude that the wife's vow to obey her husband was oppressive and that she was politically opposed to the institution of marriage. Acting on her convictions, Lanchester caused a storm when she announced that, in protest against Britain's patriarchal marriage laws, she was going to cohabit in a 'free union' with her lover, an Irish factory worker and fellow socialist, James Sullivan.

The union was to begin on 26 October 1895. Incensed, Lanchester's father and brothers barged into her house the night before, and forcibly subjected their daughter to an examination by Dr George Fielding-Blandford, a leading psychiatrist and author of Insanity and Its Treatment. After signing emergency commitment papers under the 1890 Lunacy Act, Fielding-Blandford had Lanchester imprisoned; her own father and brothers bound her wrists and dragged her to a carriage destined for the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.

The psychiatrist explained his reasoning in a contemporary news report. Lanchester "had always been eccentric, and had lately taken up with Socialists of the most advanced order. She seemed quite unable to see that the step she was about to take meant utter ruin", was in his opinion "a monomaniac on the subject of marriage" and the psychiatrist believed that "her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself."

The incident caused a national scandal and attracted much interest, with the New York Times reporting that "no penny paper had printed less than ten columns on this engrossing subject during the week." Almost immediately a meeting was called by Lanchester's comrades under the auspices of the Legitimation League, a body set up to campaign to secure equal rights for children born outside of marriage. At the meeting, a resolution was passed against Fielding- Blandford, and Lanchester's landlady, the SDF activist Mary Gray, was urged to take legal action against her tenant's brother for assaulting her during the raid on her home.

SDF members also sang the Red Flag outside Lanchester's window at the asylum to keep up her morale. After four days of lobbying by the SDF, with the help of Lanchester's local MP, the former SDF member John Burns, the Commissioners of Lunacy proclaimed her sane though "foolish" and released her.

Contemporary socialists were often squeamish about defending Lanchester, with Independent Labour Party leader Keir Hardie accusing her of discrediting socialism by associating it with 'free love'. When Lanchester spoke at a meeting in the Opretta House in Edinburgh in February 1896, a young James Connolly from the chair assured the audience of the packed room that "socialism had no connection with speculations on family life and was nowise responsible for the opinions of individual socialists on that subject." Eleanor Marx, angry at some socialists' failure to support Lanchester, took her on as a secretary in 1897, and the two became friends.

Lanchester's stand was a brave and radical challenge by a committed socialist feminist to the institution of marriage and to late Victorian society's highly constrained and patriarchal conception of femininity.

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