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The Match Girl and the Heiress
Princeton University Press, 2015
464 pp., $35.00
"Christian Revolutionary Love."
Rampant gentrification has made the grimy terraces and grand squares of East London's Bow neighborhood too expensive for most of the historians who study it to live there. The Bryant and May match factory which employed while ruining the health of so many of Bow's residents has long since been converted into the "Bow Quarter," a gated community of "luxury" flats which pose as Manhattan lofts. Nonetheless, Bow today is still airless and congested enough to recall the incipient slum that it once was, a hardscrabble district whose working-class inhabitants worked flat out to retain the vestiges of "respectability." How could anyone ever have seen in Bow a paradise on earth? What could possess a wealthy and leisured person to trade space and quiet for its cramped streets? For Seth Koven, the answer is "love."
Muriel Lester, a shipowner's daughter, left her family home at Loughton in Essex to live in rooms at Bruce Road in Bow. She did so because she was a nonconformist Christian who had fallen in love with the poor during visits to Bow and more specifically with Nellie Dowell, a sickly Bryant and May worker who became her close collaborator and neighbor in Bruce Road. The Match Girl and the Heiress, Koven's account of their "reciprocal, unequal, and asymmetrical" relationship, works on several levels. It is a detective story that chases Muriel and Nellie's love affair through scattered and sometimes exiguous archives. It uses their lives to provide gripping evocations of places and their moral micro-climates, from Bow to Loughton, a kind of Essex Hampstead where writers and nonconformists camped on the fringes of Epping Forest. It is also a profound attempt to ask what it meant particularly for women to be Christian in late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain, a period often lazily thought to have witnessed a stasis or recession in Christian moral thinking. Muriel's attempt to realize within a massively ...