Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Louisa Sarah Bevington's Letters to Ethel Rolt Wheeler: A Catechism in Communist Anarchy

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Louisa Sarah Bevington's Letters to Ethel Rolt Wheeler: A Catechism in Communist Anarchy

Article excerpt

Although not a household name either in her own time or in ours, Louisa Sarah Bevington (1845-95) was a writer who gained some recognition in late nineteenthcentury England for both her poetry and her political writings, and is currently enjoying a renaissance of interest - particularly for her essays on anarchism, a collection of which was published in 20 10.1 This article presents, for the first time, an important series of letters Bevington wrote in the last two years of her life.

The recipient of the correspondence was Ediel RoIt Wheeler (1865-1958), an aspiring author. In the letters, Bevington, an avowed revolutionary, explains in detail her commitment to anarchy in an effort to persuade her younger friend to join what Bevington describes as a growing and vibrant movement against the repressions of state and church. The sixteen letters are now part of Mark Samuels Lasner's collection of Victorian materials on loan to the Morris Library of the University of Delaware, and have not been published. They bear dates from 1893 and 1895. Oddly, there are no letters dated in 1894 in the collection, probably because they are lost, since it seems unlikely that the correspondence took a year's hiatus. Wheeler's letters to Bevington are also not extant, although she obviously wrote several to the author of many essays and pamphlets that shaped the definition of anarchism in late nineteenth-century Britain. Indeed, Bevington's letters echo the arguments made in her published pieces as she defends her generally (though not exclusively) non-violent approach to uprooting a system she finds unnatural, devoted solely to Mammon, and inimical to human development.

Bevington's letters to Wheeler present a number of editorial challenges. Several are not dated. Two in the Samuels Lasner collection are not addressed to Wheeler, and two are not by Bevington. One of these two is a brief, discursive note railing against government oppression. It ends with a signature that is illegible, although the French closing - 'Vive lanarchiel' is clear enough. The last letter in the grouping is from George Lawrence, Bevington's comrade and housemate, informing Wheeler of Bevington's death.

Another problem is Bevington's handwriting, which is often difficult to decipher. Her cramped style was designed to fill each page of her octavo paper with as many words as possible. She wrote on the margins, and occasionally she amended the letters with red ink, inserting new observations or commenting on her own remarks. There is, in effect, virtually no white space on the letters.

What I propose here is not to offer the text of the letters, but to explore their content in terms of Bevington's belief in the wisdom of anarchy, her thoughts on other major figures in the movement, and her responses to Wheeler's correspondence. RoIt Wheeler went on to be a prolific, successful writer, the author of seven volumes of verse published between 1903 and 1937, and a contributor to periodicals such as the Dome, the Academy, Harper's, and the Theosophical Review. She devoted much of her energies to London's Irish Literary Society (founded in 1891 by her friend WB. Yeats and others), and was also an ardent supporter of women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. But, despite Bevington's urgings, she did not become a communist or an anarchist.


Louisa Sarah Bevington was born into a well-to-do Quaker family on 18 May 1845, at St. John's Hill, Battersea. She grew up in comfortable as well as intellectual surroundings, the eldest of eight children. She began writing poetry at an early age, publishing her fist book of poetry, Key-Notes, in 1876 under the name of Arbor Leigh. Her second volume, Poems, Lyrics and Sonnets, appeared in 1882 under her own name. Louisa's father had encouraged her to steep herself in nature's laws and appreciate all living things, and references to nature occur not only in her poetry, but in Bevington's political essays as well as in her letters to Wheeler. …

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