This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
‘You are very brave in trying to bear all your troubles alone’, wrote Ruth Slate to her close friend, Eva Slawson in 1904, ‘but I have been thinking of what our favorite George Eliot says, “until we know our friends’ private thoughts and emotions we hardly know what to grieve or rejoice over for them”’.
Ruth’s reference to George Eliot underlines Eliot’s importance, and indeed the importance of their shared reading more generally, in the extraordinary friendship between Ruth Slate and Eva Slawson. The question of women’s friendships has interested me over many years, particularly in a project I was involved in on the history of friendship over the last 2000 years! More recently, I have looked at this question from a different angle for a collaborative project on the history of women’s letters. Ruth and Eva’s friendship is one of the most moving friendships that I have come across in this work. Theirs is one of the very few close friendships between working women for which we have any record, and is documented in wonderful detail in their letters and diaries.
Slate and Slawson were intimate and affectionate friends, each seeing the other as unique and as essential to her own wellbeing. Their extensive letters address their daily lives, difficulties and disappointments, their hopes and aspirations and their sense of themselves. Theirs was a remarkable friendship that encompassed every aspect of their lives: their love of reading and desire to expand their education, their religious beliefs and doubts, their political development as both women became interested in socialist and feminist ideas and organizations, their move away from the narrow moral views of their childhood to an acceptance of new relationships that encompassed open unions and same-sex love. They provided support for each other and active assistance in their shared quest for a new and more expansive life.
Ruth Slate and Eva Slawson both came from lower-middle-class Nonconformist Methodist families. From the outside, Slawson’s situation was the more difficult as the illegitimate daughter of a woman who left her in the care of grandparents, while Slate came from a standard nuclear family. But Slawson’s grandparents were devoted to her and worked hard to support her ambitions, as did a couple of aunts to whom she was close. By contrast, Slate’s life was dominated by a mother whom she saw as cold, ungiving and punitive and who resented both her desire for further education and training and her close friendships. Her father was an unsuccessful commercial traveler constantly moving from one job and house to another, with an irregular income and what Slate described as a melancholic disposition. Both parents expected Slate to work to support them – even begrudging her the shilling she tried to keep from her own wages so that she could attend classes of various kinds.
Both Slate and Slawson completed elementary school, but left school in their early teens to go out to work. Slawson began as a domestic servant, but then learnt shorthand and typing and became a typist. Slate began working as a packer and then also moved on to clerical work. Both women benefitted from the increase in clerical work, in the period 1890-1914’. They were pleased to give up physical labour that taxed their health for office jobs. But both wished for more demanding and interesting work and felt strongly and often bitterly that they were denied recognition or adequate recompense for the work they did.
The two women met in 1902 and liked each other immediately. Each saw the other as an exceptional person who met a perceived need in her own life. ‘I feel it is a great honour to me to have such a friend as Eva’, Slate wrote in her diary shortly after their meeting, ‘for I know she is much nobler and better than I.’ A few months later, Slawson wrote to Slate about the change in her life that this friendship had made. Prior to her moving Manor park, where they met, Slate had no companion ‘and I think I grew to live very much within myself and at last I became very melancholy and morbid’. Knowing Ruth made ‘oh, such a difference to me’. Slawson wondered if she were worthy to be Slate’s friend and noted that the friendship had been good for her: ‘you have taught me lessons in self-control and truthfulness’. For Slate, who was very reserved and unable to talk about things that mattered to her at home, the capacity to unburden herself to Slawson was a great boon. ‘It is impossible for me always to speak of my deepest feelings’, she wrote in a letter to Slawson after the sudden death of a close friend who might have become her husband. ‘I have been feeling the terrible “Aloneness” peculiar to reserved natures like my own’. Slawson’s interest and admiration were particularly important to Slate, contrasting as they did with her mother’s constant carping and telling her she was selfish and ill-tempered.
Religion was important to both Slate and Slawson. They met at chapel and wrote to each other at length about religious services attended and sermons that interested them. In her search for a more expansive life and one involving active service, Ruth Slate initially thought about becoming more involved with the church, even of becoming a deaconess. But from around 1907, she like Slawson increasingly came to be concerned about social problems, to question her earlier beliefs and to seek connection with secular and political organizations, especially those connected to socialism and then to feminism.
From the start, their relationship focused on a shared desire to expand their knowledge, their skills, and indeed their lives more generally. They attended many different lectures. Both were keen readers. Slate was immersed in George Eliot when they met, following her reading of Middlemarch with the 3 volume Life and Letters edited by J.W. Cross. Slawson noted her enjoyment of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice as well as a range of popular novels. They both loved Charlotte Brontë. As they became more interested in the Woman Question, they read Mary Wollstonecraft and Olive Schreiner. Their reading extended beyond fiction: Ruth appreciated Renan’s Life of Jesus when trying to think her way through the question of Christian commitment and belief. Slawson enjoyed Aristophanes the birds, as well as books on Africa and histories of the Queens of England. ‘I have felt lately something like a traveler on a voyage of discovery – books have lately been opening up to me new worlds’, she wrote to Ruth in1907. Books did more than open up new worlds: they enabled them to articulate their understanding of their own world and to think about themselves and their situation in different ways. This was particularly the case for Slate, who often quoted George Eliot when in difficulty. The parallels between the dilemmas of favorite authors and their own problems were important to her. This on one occasion, early in their relationship when they were talking about their desire for an intimate relationship with a man – without knowing anyone whom they could truly admire or respect, Ruth wondered if they should follow the example of Charlotte Brontë, whose need for love was so great that she agreed to marry a very ordinary man.
In the course of their friendship, Slate and Slawson made all the progressive moves of their time. Both had a strong sense of their own unrecognized capacities as women and a desire for women’s emancipation. ‘I believe so strongly in the possibilities and powers of my own sex, that I deprecate all customs, though rooted in chivalry once admirable, that would retard their emancipation’, Ruth wrote in her diary in 1907. Ruth led the way in becoming involved in women’s suffrage. They sampled all the varieties of suffrage activity, deciding that it was the non-militant approaches that suited them best. As they were interested in a more comprehensive approach to the emancipation of women than simply the vote, Ruth also became connected to the group associated with The Freewoman (a feminist journal founded by Dora Marsden in 1911). Questions about marriage, same sex attraction and sexual relationships more generally became matters of great concern in the following years and both women read Edward Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age and discussed free unions. Ruth, who was always entangled in heterosexual relationships, often had great difficulty in reconciling her desire for independence with the assumptions about women made by her male friends. Eva longed for intimacy, she was concerned about the needs of single women, and the question of how to think about sex as something beyond a mere indulgence in pleasure.
Both women had very complicated personal and domestic lives. For several years from 1907–10, Ruth was involved in a very unsatisfactory engagement with a young man who seemed constantly to lead her on and then reject her – and belonged to an anti-suffrage organization. Lacking confidence in herself, it took her some time to end this relationship and her need for Eva’s support was great at this time. Ruth’s family situation also became more difficult: her sister developed consumption and needed nursing in the months before she died. After her death, however, her relationship with her parents became more and more painful and Ruth left home, finding peace and happiness living alone. Eva too faced difficulty: her grandparents were old and facing both financial and physical difficulties went into an almshouse, forcing her to move away to the country where she lived with an aunt. The physical separation caused by Eva’s move away was a source of great distress to them both, although they managed fairly frequent meetings in addition to sending frequent and long letters.
The friendship between Slate and Slawson while close was not exclusive: both made and enjoyed other friends, keeping each other informed about them. Eva was an unfailing source of support to Ruth as she negotiated various romantic relationships – and Ruth offered similar support when Eva met and became closely involved with a circle of new friends in 1912, including Minna Simpson with whom she subsequently set up home. Both Eva and Ruth felt their lives to be expanding at this time, with new relationships, expanded political and social activities and then new educational opportunities.
It was a cruel irony that the new opportunities that opened up for them came in 1914. At the start of the year, Ruth got a scholarship to Woodbrooke Settlement. This Quaker College combined religious and social study. Its offerings were coordinated with the University of Birmingham, allowing students to complete a Social Work qualification. Ruth loved it and the combination of academic study practical social work was exactly what she wanted. She was one of the first students to gain a diploma in Social Work through Woodbrook. Eva’s life changed dramatically too: Minna’s husband died and she and Eva entered into a passionate relationship when Eva began to live with her and her children. The outbreak of the First World War cast a pall on everything. Both women were pacifists and appalled by the war.
The promise of a new life for them both was not to be fulfilled. Ruth continued her study, although it took a little time and she had other problems to deal with, after she left Woodbrooke, Ruth found satisfying work in 1916 as a Welfare Worker in Rowntree factory. She had found the opportunity to continue her education her time at Woodbrooke so valuable that she worked hard to enable Eva to have the same opportunity and Eva began her time there at the start of 1917. She found it hard at the beginning, but soon she too began to enjoy the possibility for growth and expansion that the settlement offered.… On 27 February, she wrote to tell Ruth that she was now ‘throwing myself into the life here, for I feel the need for the social element quite as much as anything else.’ Sadly, this letter, filled with expressions of ‘tenderest love’ was Eva’s last: she died suddenly a week later from undetected diabetes, leaving Ruth feeling ‘that the very foundation of my life has been shattered.’
Eva’s death also ended Ruth’s extended writing. Although she made brief notes in pocket diaries that make it possible to trace her subsequent marriage and its difficulties, her working life, interrupted as it was by the marriage bar, and her political and social activities, there is none of the introspection or detail of her reading or her ideas the earlier diaries and no significant correspondence. Fortunately, Ruth kept Eva’s diaries and all their letters, possibly planning at some stage to write about Eva. But this was not to be, and it was after Ruth’s death in 1953 that her husband found the papers and began the process that led to their publication. The result is a record of a powerful and nourishing friendship between two remarkable women who sought and struggled to find new and fuller lives.
Barbara Caine is a Professor of History at the University of Sydney. Much of her research has focused on the history of feminism and on questions about the relationship between biography and history. Her publications include Biography and History ( Palgrave, 2019), Bombay to Bloomsbury: a Biography of the Stracheys, c 1850-1950, (OUP, 2005 ), Victorian Feminists, (OUP, 1992), and Friendship: A History (Routledge, 2014). Barbara is currently working on a history of women’s autobiography from the mid 18th century to the present.
Tierl Thompson (ed.), Dear Girl: The diaries and letters of two working women (1897-1917), (London, 1987)
Barbara Caine (ed.), Friendship: A History (Abingdon-on-Thames, 2014)