Edith Simcox, George Eliot and Community Building
Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi (Bath Spa University)
In 1875, Edith Simcox and Mary Hamilton founded a women’s co-operative shirtmaking enterprise, Hamilton and Company, to employ women in decent working conditions. Simcox managed the day-to-day work of the business in London’s Soho District for nine years and worked with Emma Smith Paterson to promote trade unionization for women and men, gathering data, organizing meetings, and negotiating strikes.
Drawing on the various facets of Simcox’s participation in the national co-operative movement (retail, education and political), this paper aims to show how the type of ‘community’ she envisioned worked against the grain of the very literary narrative that, as is well known, inspired her co-operative shirtmaking enterprise: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872). In this novel, Eliot reworks Robert Owen’s ‘complete community ideal’ which comprised men and women living and working together to meet their own needs. Simcox’s struggle with this ideal in her attempt to create a ‘practically’ self-employing community in The Autobiography of a Shirtmaker reveals that notions of community can become divided and undergo internal conflict. ‘Veering from one ideal to another’, as Rosemarie Bodenheimer points out, Simcox’s writing ‘dramatizes the lived struggle of her quest for a story, affording us a view of a woman – perhaps even a generation of mid-century women – for whom the George Eliot model of sympathetic womanhood was both fatally compelling and deeply flawed.’ Exploring the multi-layered nature of co-operative membership in the women’s shirtmaking enterprise set up by Simcox, the paper as a whole argues for the shaping role that the language of art, dress and industry played in the struggle with defining the principles of community building as socialist activists.