Spoiler alert — and the biggest spoiler perhaps is that as fiction this book is actually, and so sadly, really terrible. Except for the accidental hilarity of some of the prose. Stolid, worthy, and yet also raising all of my class hackles. And I mean ALL of them. But she’s a Victorian woman living on her own in the East End and writing about it, which makes her interesting.
The excellent introduction from Bernadette Kirwan gives what background we have on Margaret Harkness, a distant cousin of Beatrice Webb Potter, born in 1854, her father a rector from Upton-on-Severn in Worcerstershire. She moved to London in 1877 and trained as a nurse, but soon changed to a literary career, writing articles for various publications and three novels of East End life of which this is one. The first was A City Girl, criticised by Engels for not being realistic enough and portraying the working classes as too passive. The third, Captain Laboe: a story of the Salvation Army. She was also a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and Beatrice Webb Potter noted her utopian ideals and impatience with theory, making this a fraught political relationship. It could not have been too much of a surprise when she later moved closer to the Salvation Army and then dropped out of political organising (and our view) completely.
The novel opens in a Wesleyan Chapel, and this strange thread of religion continues through the book — highly descriptive and very judgmental, yet I don’t think the judgment is quite the same as my own nor altogether negative. What I loved about this book are the details that are surely drawn from her observations (mostly after her own judgments have been expunged), like this verse from the service:
God, the offended God, most high.
Ambassadors to rebels sends
His messengers His place supply,
And Jesus begs us to be friends.
While the wicked are confounded.Doomed to flames and woe unbounded,
Call me with Thy saints surrounded,
O God of love! (9)
I couldn’t make that kind of terrifying religious view up. Nor this other kind of view of Whitechapel streets from a middle-class perspective:
They went through back streets, full of trucks covered with unwholesome looking fishes, fishes whose names are unknown in polite society, whose huge heads and minute bodies are only appreciated in Whitechapel. Tubs of pickled cucumbers stood on moveable tables, and by these were stalls covered with cockles, pigs’ feet, and large tins of eel broth. The inhabitants of the slums were holding a Sunday picnic, indulging in dainty East End dishes,which they bought at low price, and washed down with draughts from a neighboring public house.
“Hokey-pokey! who’ll buy it?” cried a man. He was wheeling a tin down the middle of the road, a tin full of ice, cut in squares and wrapt in paper. The ragged boys and girls flocked round him, for they enjoyed ice-cream more than sour cucumbers, and hokey-pokey seldom made its appearance on week-days, but always came on Sundays to furnish a dessert to the picnic, an “end-up” to the out-door repast. How the dirty little feet danced! How the grimy little hands clapped! (21).
Ice-cream called hokey-pokey! There is also this splendid view of their lodger, Mr Cohen’s shop. He is a barber, dentist and purveyor of cosmetics, and beneath the bust of Gladstone hangs this verse which he wrote himself (and I can’t help but think somewhere there must have been a barber just like this one, who did in fact write this fabulous verse):
Heads of great men all remind us
We can make our heads sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Headprints on the sands of time (33).
The home of the protagonists is a mark of their status — one that keeps the mother aloof even from other church people. Mrs. Elwin keeps a tidy house of up to twelve lodgers and one maid servant for them all, whose sad life is spent dreaming of aristocrats in romance, even though her own ‘short stout figure seemed made to carry buckets’ (27). Again, the house seems to be one Harkness has seen (or a composite thereof). It’s decorated with wax flowers, oil paintings of Mrs Elwin and her dead husband facing each other, and most astonishingly, the skeleton of a dead cat on top of the bookshelf. The best mouser she’d ever had. A later description of it also offers a taste of the diversity of the East End at the time, the way that so many different kinds of people lived alongside each other (though immigration as a problem runs throughout the commentary given by open-air speakers and reported conversations, along with the need to send people ‘back where they come from’). This is Mrs. Elwin to a man from the church she wants to marry her daughter Polly:
I’ve often asked myself whatever would become of us…I’ve had so many Jews here at once, that one of my rooms has been made into a synagogue without my knowing it. I’ve had six Mohammedans standing their feet in tubs of water at the back, because they couldn’t say their prayers till they’d done their heathen habits. I’ve had black men, what have run up and downstairs in nothing but their night shirts. I’ve civilised many of em…. (147)
In her descriptions, Margaret Harkness certainly provides a number of details on the geographies of class and status:
People who live in Shoreditch, or St-George’s-in-the-East, are apt to be confounded with their poorer neighbours by the uninitiated, although the initiated know that there is a greater distance between a dressmaker and a charwoman than between a countess and the wife of a successful merchant (42).
And the Methodist ‘heroine’ Polly Elwin dreams only of a little house in Hackney with regular visits from the butchers. Harkness later describes her: ‘Natures like hers are incapable of deep feeling; they always love their fellow-creatures in a qualified manner. They vacillate from pillar to post; and stay longest at the point where they discover their own interest’ (151).
It’s clear that Harkness can see no humour, no promise, no real dreams in the people she describes. Of one of the regular open-air speakers from the Mile End waste near the People’s Palace (what’s left of it incorporated into Queen Mary University where I’m now working), she writes:
That man had a very barren mental history. He was one of the many people crushed out by our present competitive system…His crude, narrow ideas were fast crystallising…His brain was losing its power of gathering from fresh sources, beginning to exercise itself upon the small stores of knowledge stowed away in its cells. Personal experiences had made him bitter (59).
This after describing a tiny room he inhabits with his wife and baby daughter, with walls blackened by smoke and smuts blackening the face of his wife and his only reading the torn pages of books he has rescued from rubbish. To her they are very less than human, even as she acknowledges it is environment that has made them that way (the man above could have been a judge she says, if only things were different).
The hero — whose quest for work gives the title, the moral and the bulk of social commentary to the novel, is a young man named Joseph Coney (‘he looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39)). Describing Jos’s descent from recently arrived country carpenter looking for work and renting a room from the Elwins to his forced move to a common lodging house, to his first fatal taste of gin to the doss house to the workhouse, there’s stuff like this:
It is commonly supposed that men of his class feel a sort of general spooniness, mixed with a good deal of animalism, for their sweethearts (106).
I’m not even sure what that means, this book is full of stereotyped visions of the working classes with some checks given by the reality she observes, but not very many. Class permeates this book and how she sees things. There’s more of the city when Jos heads down on his first day to work at the docks — a position so low it is impossible to return from it, a last hope for the money needed to stay alive:
Half-past six o’clock the following morning found Jos at Fenchurch Street station. Half-past six is an unpleasant hour in that part of the city. The streets look greasy. There are not enough people about to enliven the houses. Shops have shutters up; untidy girls are scrubbing doorsteps; no one is there, except men on their way to work, old women going to market, and that scum of the populace who sleep in any hole they can, and live in any way they may; bleating sheep and lowing cattle are being driven along by butchers; yawning policemen are talking over a suicide here, a murder there; lean dogs are acting as scavengers, ragged children are seeking breakfast in dust heaps and gutters. The damp morning air is adding to the unpleasant smells in the atmosphere.
Little wonder that public houses entice customers! (126-127)
Her descriptions of the doss house and all of its characters, including Squirrel, a little ‘foreign’ girl who takes care of Jos, seem drawn from observation, as does that of the workhouse. Jose is set to break granite and he can’t do it, instead injuring himself as a splinter of stone injures his eye and seals his fate. Polly marries her Methodist class leader while Jos walks home to his village and dies of starvation on top of his mother’s grave. Squirrel jumps into the Thames, unable to bear London without Jos. It is one hell of a morality tale.
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