I was first drawn to the voice of Beatrice Webb when she was
quoted in another historical text, saying of the “well-to-do women” of Australia: “certainly these colonial women are in an unpleasant stage
of development…vapid in talk without public spirit or intellectual sympathies” they were “uncommonly inferior to the men” and “the least
worthy product of Australia”. The weird misogyny of this statement felt familiar and historically true, and its absurd almost Wildean turn
of phrase made me laugh out loud. I immediately started searching for the source text.
Beatrice and Sidney Webb were well-known British public intellectuals. They were socialists and labour reformers; affluent leftists
who co-founded the London School of Economics. The Webbs took great interest in the colonial “experiment”, and during their journey to
Australia in 1898, met and spoke with almost all the leading political and social figures of the time. The Webbs’ Australian Diary 1898
is their travel journal, published posthumously in the 1950s.
The diary is, as I had hoped, a gold mine of found-words. Beatrice Webb’s impressions of Australian society, its ruling class, its
political leaders and industrial barons, are expressed in anachronistic language that frequently tips into camp. But her expertise as a
sociologist and political scientist means that even her blatant bad-moodism carries historical weight.
As it turns out, it was not just the wealthy colonial women who gave Beatrice Webb the shits during her visit. Almost everything else did
too. As I worked with the text of the diary, I found myself identifying with her cranky observations about the “rather gross” materialism
of the emerging society—exceedingly rich and anti-intellectual, gorging on mining, led by dull men. Her frequent “relapse into
irritability” reminded me of my own despairing moments over the contemporary social and political climate. In this way I began to
identify with Beatrice Webb’s voice, and her
straight-talking insults even as I disagreed with her views on women, on race and her obvious acceptance of the colony as ‘terra
Lucinda Strahan, 2023