Soundscapes of the city in Margaret Harkness, A City Girl (1887), Henry James, The Princess Casamassima (1885–86), and Katharine Buildings, Whitechapel
in Margaret Harkness
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This chapter explores Harkness’s first novel in the context of socialist fiction and the future of the modern novel in the 1880s. A City Girl pivots on one of the staple formulae of earlier nineteenth-century domestic melodrama and its radical political possibilities: a cross-class romantic relationship in which a working-class girl is seduced and abandoned by a gentleman. Unpicking how this novel reworks the inherited forms of radical melodrama helps to shed new light on Friedrich Engels’s famous critique of the work’s relation to realism and the status of literary naturalism in 1880s Britain. The Princess Casamassima – Henry James’s self-consciously experimental foray into naturalism and the political activism of 1880s London – serves as a counterpoint to illustrate the pressure of representation in the modernity of late Victorian mass culture. The chapter ends by returning to Katharine Buildings, Whitechapel, and Harkness’s time spent there researching A City Girl. Drawing on the correspondence and record books of Ella Pycroft, the resident lady rent collector, and Harkness’s cousin Beatrice Potter Webb, this chapter presents a counter-narrative that suggests how the residents themselves tried to write back their own life stories against an interpretative community of social activists, philanthropists, novelists, and political agents.

Margaret Harkness

Writing social engagement 1880–1921

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