My Apprenticeship

by Beatrice Webb. NewYork: Longmans, Green & Co. 1926. 8vo. xii+436 pp. Illustrated. $6.00.
THE current vogue of memoirs throws a false light on a book like Mrs. Webb’s. It has become possible to demand a hearing for personal narratives of which the references are extremely special and the implications simply private. My Apprenticeship is, not merely by inference, but by design and treatment, the history of an intellectual generation as seen through the eyes of one of its leaders, and its significance is spacious in its impersonality. Mrs. Webb has told nothing less than one crucial chapter in the story of the modern mind.
Not that the book is not exceptionally rich in personal detail and full in self-revelation. Readers who think of Beatrice Webb as one of the leading statisticians in the Labor movement, as joint author with Sidney Webb of laboriously documented works on local government, tradeunionism, and coöperation, will be unprepared for the sheer literary power with which she here records her memories of the great men she has known — from the time when she was pretty Beatrice Potter, daughter of Richard Potter, the great industrialist and freethinker—and the picturesque situations into which her social investigations led her.
The most impressive portrait that emerges from the book is that of Herbert Spencer, who was an intimate friend of her father, and her chief intellectual guide in youth; it is a portrait drawn with the nicest strokes of representative skill — with detachment but without malice. And in Mrs. Webb’s accounts of other men and women — such as Francis Galton, Charles Booth, and Alfred Marshall — as well as in her narratives, quoted from her diary, of East End and mill-town adventures, there is enough descriptive animation to prove that if she had become a novelist, as she confesses she often felt an impulse to do, she might have been the George Eliot or at least the Mrs. Gaskell of a later generation.
What she did decide to do was sufficiently remote, in every superficial aspect, from the task of the novelist; yet in an important sense it was perhaps not fundamentally dissimilar — to understand human beings as they live together in society and to describe as faithfully as possible the facts of their common life. Brought up in the atmosphere of Victorian prosperity to think of profit-making as the inalienable prerogative of a small and powerful class, and of Labor as a mechanical quantity, — ‘Water plentiful and Labor docile,’ — Beatrice Potter came early to see that the great Victorian scheme was not based, in spite of its worship of science, on any genuinely scientific knowledge of human behavior, and that the rôle of her generation was today the foundations for such a knowledge. With the humility and the patience that are typical of the modern mind at its best, she set about what she calls her apprenticeship as a student of social phenomena, and this book is the record of her experiences in acquiring the tools of her craft. The whole work of evolving a scientific humanism — of ‘humanizing knowledge’ — is not yet done; but few careers have contributed so much to its realization as that of Beatrice Webb. When the sequel, Our Partnership, is given to the world, we shall have the whole story of a personal adventure that is also a parcel of our general estate.