cover image The Match Girl and the Heiress

The Match Girl and the Heiress

Seth Koven. Princeton Univ, $35 (480p) ISBN 978-0-691-15850-1

Rutgers University historian Koven (Slumming) has fashioned a scholarly yet highly readable jewel that tackles the big issues of early-20th-century England in an intimate way. Through the lives of Muriel Lester and Nellie Dowell, he brilliantly illuminates the growth of global capitalism, a revolutionary “God is love” Christian theology, war and pacifism, feminism and sexuality, and class and gender relations. Lester grew up in comfort, the beloved daughter of a self-made man who amassed a fortune in shipbuilding and took his Christian obligations seriously. Dowell, no less a beloved daughter, was born into a working-class family that was doing well until her father, a mariner, died at sea. In Dickensian fashion, the Dowells slipped further down the economic ladder, until Nellie was taken away to an industrial school to prepare her for a life of factory work. Meanwhile, Lester played with dolls and received an education, which led her into social justice projects. Dowell took a job in a match factory, joined the Factory Girls Club, and happened to meet Muriel. They forged an intimate friendship and partnership, “engaged in social, religious, and political work.” Against the socio-economic complexities of the Victorian Era, Koven astutely shows how the pair “strove to make themselves—and modern life—moral.” Illus. (Jan.)