Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Angels of the Slum: Women and Slumming in Margaret Harkness's in Darkest London

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Angels of the Slum: Women and Slumming in Margaret Harkness's in Darkest London

Article excerpt

Margaret Harkness's In Darkest London (1889) offers readers a stunning account of urban poverty in London's East End at the end of the nineteenth century. The opening chapter introduces readers to the novel's protagonist, Captain Lobe, a leader in the Salvation Army serving the Whitechapel district. Through his eyes, readers first see and therein vicariously experience the suffering among the poor and working-class people living in the slum ghetto. He calls on a young woman who is dying, walks past "loafers" and drunkards who "hang around the public houses," and visits a midget named Napoleon who wonders if he has a soul and recounts how other slum dwellers "pelt [him] with mud and sticks" (13, 15). The ubiquity of degradation is confirmed by the newsboy's call, "Shock-ing mur-der in White-chapel!" announcing yet another case of domestic violence turned deadly (16). By the end of the chapter and of this tour through the slums, Captain Lobe quietly reflects to himself that "[h]e hated sin in the abstract; but he loved sinners, and most of all he loved his Whitechapel people" (18). This qualification is critical for it suggests the central problem running throughout the novel: what is the relationship between the individual and his/her sins, and how might it affect one's sympathy for the sufferer? Captain Lobe's sympathy is clearly tested by--indeed he "hates"--those individual vices such as drinking and violence. However, he still wants to claim a love for his parish members, many of whom he recognizes as "good lads ... lacking opportunities" (18). With this latter admission, Captain Lobe strains to make some kind of distinction between the individual (the vice) and the social environment or poverty ("opportunity," in this case).

Current criticism on Harkness and her slum fiction is preoccupied with the author's representation of late-Victorian social reform. Much of this can be credited to John Goode's essay "Margaret Harkness and the Socialist Novel" (1982), which frames her political alliances in terms of genre; he celebrates In Darkest Londons "documentary" realism (62) but concludes that the political potential inherent in this form is quickly lost when the novel digresses into a rather hasty romance plot. (1) Following in Goode's footsteps, Kevin Swafford (Class in Late-Victorian Britain [2007]) writes of Harkness's documentary realism that quickly descends into a paternalistic socialism meant to inspire the middle-class's salvation of their working-class contemporaries. Like Goode, Swafford sees in Harkness's fiction a tendency to pit the individual against environment, wherein the poor are powerless to overcome forces of oppression. More recently, Rob Breton, in "The Sentimental Socialism of Margaret Harkness" (2010), offers a much more generous approach to this representation of the abject poor, framing the author's emphasis on individual emotion as a way to rethink or reshape environment. He claims that Harkness recognizes this passivity as "imposed" upon her subjects (34); while other socialists emphasized objective reason, Harkness depicts this oppression in highly sentimental terms in an attempt to mobilize or "engage the reader" and thus foreground the "place of compassion in socialism" as a force of structural change (35).

This article extends previous critics' interest in this tension between the individual and the social environment in order to unpack In Darkest London's meditation upon what Goode describes as the very multifaceted reform movement in the latter decades of the century. In building on this scholarship, however, this article also shifts the focus to Harkness's preoccupation with gender and, specifically, the important role of middle-class women in late-Victorian slum reform. In Darkest London paints a realistic picture of both the very real condition of poverty as well as the contemporary tension between the different schools of reform, from those who emphasize environment (whom we will call the social reformers) and those who focus on the individual (the individualists). …

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