Marriage, Love, and Friendship


Isabel's two eldest children, Lancelot Giberne Sieveking and Elinor Beatrice Sieveking, lounging outdoors with a Miss Dingley. The family employed many nannies and governesses. Miss Dingley appears to have assumed the mantle during the family's move to St. Leonard's around 1903.

Just as Isabel Sieveking blended feminist principles of education with traditional idealizations of motherhood, she held seemingly conflicting views on marriage as a conventional institution. On April 25, 1891, a 33-year-old Isabel married the 25-year-old merchant, Edward Sieveking. Although they remained married for the rest of both of their lives, there is very little record of their relationship or even of Edward himself, apart from, as the Epsom History Website snarkily notes, one recorded ticket for bicycling without proper lights in 1907.

However, her public views on marriage as an active participant in the Suffragette movement were far less mainstream for either the Victorian or the Edwardian eras. A frequent columnist for her local newspaper, the Hastings and St. Leonard's Observer, she was adamant that "The highest ideal was not marriage. It could not be when sex was purely temporal" (3 December 1910). Elsewhere she stated that women were outgrowing the need for marriage financially and that men, hampered by their conservative upbringing, were not fulfilling their need for lasting companionship either. For Sieveking, celibacy had thus become an ever more attractive option for the modern Englishwoman.

For intimate companionship, and possibly for erotic passion as well, Sieveking turned to intense friendships and relationships with women. Letters received clearly show strong lifelong attachments to her cousins, particularly Millicent and Kate Hopkins, as well as confidants like Mildred Hodges, who frequently wrote about her mission work nursing in India and about her urgent yearning to be reunited with Isabel once more. Isabel also received many even more passionate missives and declarations of love from the nanny of her children, Gwendoline Edwards, known in their exchanges as "Cherry," and it seems the two frequently planned "honeymoon" vacations together. 

As Sharon Marcus has recently noted, such "marriages" between women were much more socially accepted than similar arrangements between men during the time, largely due to male lawmakers' fundamental misunderstandings about female sexuality and beliefs that such a love was impossible to consummate. Passionate attachments and even courtship behaviors, such as kissing and cutting locks of hair, were in fact encouraged between female friends partly as crucial preparation for marriage with men, with whom women were not allowed much if any contact with prior to the wedding. However, Marcus also asserts that the presence of such egalitarian, intimate relationships in women's lives helped to prompt feminist calls for companionate heterosexual marriages founded on mutual love and respect rather than economic exchange later in the nineteenth-century.