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'The Match Girl and the Heiress' profiles an unlikely duo in search of a better world

How a factory worker and an heiress united to fight for their ideals.

The Match Girl and the Heiress By Seth Koven Princeton University Press 480 pp.

Imagine a place inhabited by growing multinational corporations, rived by polarizing social inequality, and caught up in a dizzying dance of sympathy and aggression between the haves and have-nots. That shouldn’t be too difficult. Such a place – namely, Britain from the late 19th to early 20th century – is the focal point of The Match Girl and the Heiress, a remarkable new work of biographical history by Seth Koven.

“The Match Girl and the Heiress” spins the interwoven stories of factory worker Nellie Dowell and heiress Muriel Lester. Lester was a globally known peace activist and speaker who, by the time of her death in 1968, was the grand dame of pacifism and social justice, connected to such luminaries as Mohandas Gandhi. Dowell lived only until 1923, but her relationship with Lester – complicated, codependent, and, above all, loving – was as critical and formative as it was unlikely.

Given the circumstances into which they were born, the two women should never have met. Lester was the privileged daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder. Dowell was born into a working-class family that slipped toward disaster when her father died, seeming to doom her to a life of work in a match factory.
Yet Lester and Dowell became next-door neighbors, colleagues in the fight to make the world a better place, and the closest and most lovingly supportive of friends. (Were the women also lovers? Koven speculates on this question at length – greater length than some readers may wish – but is not able to draw any conclusion.)

Lester and Dowell were both profoundly affected by the era in which they lived. Both horrified by the dehumanizing aspects of industrialism, they eagerly absorbed ideas of social justice and were attracted to a type of radical theology devoted to creating a better society based on the Sermon on the Mount. (Among other religious borrowings, Lester drew inspiration from the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper.)

In less capable hands, “The Match Girl and the Heiress” would melt down into an unreadable lump of names, dates, places, and obsolete ideas. But Koven is both a dogged researcher who can infuse every paragraph with substance and a writer with humane sensibilities who never loses sight of the real people who inhabit his narrative. Koven’s compassion for the endearing Lester and Dowell never overwhelms his will to portray them as three-dimensional people, full of faults and contradictions.

Many of the struggles of “The Match Girl and the Heiress” dovetail comfortably with contemporary fights against the destructive aspects of global capitalism and the erosion of workers’ rights. The book doesn’t oversimplify the issues, however. Dowell moves from England to New Zealand to Sweden while working as an employee of a major match manufacturer, and Koven discusses the benefits of her experiences – everything from better pay to the dramatic expansion of her horizons as she progresses from a child of the slums to a valued member of a truly globalized workforce.

Koven’s work also wrestles earnestly with Christianity – sometimes an excuse for ruthless colonization and exploitation, yet also a healing, progressive force aligned with the ideals of equality and compassion. Throughout “The Match Girl and the Heiress” Koven engages with interdependent ideas such as noblesse oblige, class struggle, and the capability of religion to liberate and/or enslave. The book is studded with intellectual knots and thorns, but Koven embraces them as opportunities to dig deeper.

“The Match Girl and the Heiress” is a tale of two intertwined lives, but it is also a story of many places, thoughtfully and richly realized. The two women eventually create the progressive and experimental Kingsley Hall “people’s house,” an institution in stark contrast to the sterile and dehumanizing Forest Gate school, which was part refuge and part prison for poor British children in the late 19th century. Yet Koven’s research is so thorough that he is fair even to Forest Gate, discovering by poring over its superintendent’s logbook records of swimming lessons and entertainment-filled outings, small but significant things that mitigate the cruelty of Forest Gate without apologizing for the damage it inflicted on its little charges.

Koven’s book is ambitious, both in terms of its scope (beyond the two fully realized portraits of its subjects, it engulfs nearly a century of time and dozens of multifaceted ideas) and its execution (the number of Koven’s sources is imposing).

But “The Match Girl and the Heiress” doesn’t read like a self-serious doorstop of academic history. At the heart of this excellent work is an engrossing, sensitive, and thoughtful story of history, theology, politics, and genuine love.
James Norton is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.

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