“Just the facts, ma’am,” This catchphrase from Dragnet, the crime drama about LAPD Joe Friday, kept coming to mind as I read Fiona Joseph’s biography of Beatrice Cadbury. Sergeant Friday, famed for his worldweary plea that loquacious females stick to the point, would surely have approved of this old-style, research-driven biography about one of the daughters of the world-famous chocolate empire.
What makes Beatrice Cadbury worthy of a biography is a series of radical decisions she took, along with her Dutch husband Kees Boeke, to put their life of relative privilege to use in a way that would benefit others. This extended not just to returning her fortune to the Cadbury workers whose labour had created it — for as well as being an heiress, Beatrice was a Friend (Quaker) and her privilege troubled her — but to trying to live without money altogether, even to the extent of watching her children go hungry and ill.
And there’s more.
With each chapter, the actions of these extraordinary people further amaze.
Beatrice was an exceptional woman, and her lifelong quest to create a fairer and more equal society is inspirational, if at times, bordering on self-destruction. The issues raised by her life – how the 1% of those who have most material wealth or power treat the 99% of those who have less — are timeless, and utterly relevant today. She lived a long and eventful life and in structure, Joseph favours a traditional approach, taking us chronologically through from birth to death.
You won’t find psychoanalytical or feminist theorising here. No faction. Little dialogue. A minimum of scene setting. Yet because Beatrice’s decisions are so extraordinary, and because Joseph’s writing style is so clear and engaged, this life story has the grip of a novel.
The author’s careful and caring hand turns her straightforward presentation of what happened when into a compelling biography that in the reading becomes a great deal more than the sum of its facts.
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