‘A Socialist Romance’: Edith Lanchester and the perils of over-education

By the autumn of 1895, Edith Lanchester was 24. Born into a prosperous middle-class family, she had studied at London University and Birkbeck and was earning her own living as a clerk at the Cardiff (New South Wales) Gold Mining Company. She was also was already a seasoned socialist campaigner whose ringing voice, it was said, could command the attention of even the most hostile of crowds.

It was through the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation, an early British Marxist party, that she met a factory worker named James Sullivan. They opposed the institution of marriage and planned, in the phraseology of the day, to start housekeeping together on Saturday 26 October. Lanchester wrote to her parents to announce the fact.

On the morning of 25 October, she was eating breakfast at her lodgings in Battersea before leaving for work in the City. Her father burst in, accompanied by three of her brothers and Dr Fielding Blandford, one of the country’s leading mental health experts.

Blandford asked her if she would consent to marry Sullivan. Lanchester refused. I object on principle to becoming the chattel of any man, she said.

After half an hour’s conversation, Blandford left the room. “Dear, dear, I can do nothing with her,” she heard him tell her father.

Suddenly Lanchester’s brothers seized her, tied her hands together, and dragged her screaming out of the house and into a waiting carriage. Her landlady tried to restrain them but was pushed aside, receiving a black eye for her trouble. She sent her daughter for the police, but Lanchester’s father prevented her from leaving.

In the carriage, her brothers held her legs to stop her kicking. They pulled down the blinds so she couldn’t see where she was being taken. It was a several days before anyone knew; but her destination was The Priory in Roehampton, then a private lunatic asylum. Blandford had arrived in Battersea with commital papers completed and signed.

The abduction caused a national outcry. Most newspapers, under headlines such as ‘A Socialist Romance’ and ‘The Socialist Sensation’, were sympathetic. Even those who thought Edith foolish were appalled at the abuse of the lunacy laws; “that she should ever have been incarcerated at all is an intolerable outrage” thundered the London Evening News. Everyone had an opinion; the Marquess of Queensbury wrote to offer advice and financial support. The story even made the New York Times.

Blandford defended his actions. “If she had said that she contemplated suicide a certificate might have been signed without question,” he wrote. “I considered I was equally justified in signing one when she expressed her determination to commit this social suicide.”

Lanchester was released after four days. What cause of insanity had Blandford given on the committal papers? ‘Over-education’, according to her daughter, the actress Elsa Lanchester. Certainly Edith’s father, writing to The Times to defend his actions, claimed she was ‘not of sound mind [due to] the effects of over-study’.

Edith never spoke to him again.

This piece first appeared in the October 2021 issue of History Today.

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