Margaret Harkness, A City Girl (1887)
What do you think were some of Harkness’s intentions in writing this novella? (wished to tell a story of quite typical lower-class life without melodrama; wanted to prompt thought on the lives of the underclass)
What is the significance of the title? (as opposed to, say, calling the novel Nelly Ambrose, Nelly’s Seduction, or some other title?) (emphasizes ordinariness and typicality of her story)
How may it affect the narrator’s viewpoint that Harkness actually lived in the apartment blocks where the story is set? May some of her observations of hospital care for the poor be derived from her own prior training as a nurse?
To what extent is this novel aimed at a middle-class audience, and if so, what aspects of the novel are designed to affect their views?
Why do you think Harkness chose as her heroine a woman unremarkable in her attitudes and ambitions? (this is life as it was--not as much an appeal for reform as an account of ordinary life)
What are Nelly's family circumstances? (father dead, mother prefers lazy brother) Do these conditions affect her later choices? (can't confide in mother)
In what ways are Nelly's character revealed? Is she seen as a commendable person? (attends to her work and helps family, considerate to children, bird, etc.)
What does she believe would be an ideal life? (to be a lady and sit reading on a sofa) Is the reader expected to judge her harshly for this? (cmp. Hetty in Adam Bede)
Are there parallels between A City Girl and Gissing’s The Nether World? (both dislike self-centered reformers who fail to treat members of the working-class as human beings, both observe that large families exacerbate poverty, both describe theater as locus of working-class culture; both note familial violence)
How do the two novels differ in their portrayal of lower-class life? (in Harkness, more interaction between middle- and lower classes; women less dramatically stereotyped, some sense of hope; Harkness describes working-class religion and popular culture, street entertainments, etc. with more neutrality)
How do the two novelists differ in the ways they present working-class entertainments and leisure occupations? (Harkness is more sympathetic to the pleasures of everyday life, such as shopping or visiting a local park)
How do Nelly and Mr. Grant reveal their different class status by their respective responses to the melodrama they watch together at the theater? (72-73, he laughs at the plot; she cries; he casually writes a review of the play for a newspaper)
How does Harkness treat the religion of the inhabitants of the east end? (most inhabitants of the apartment buildings are Catholic; Father O'Hara is judgmental, if well-meaning; unwilling to let her child be christened under the same circumstances as those of married mothers)
What purpose is served by the incident of Susan and Tim's foiled hopes of marriage? (O'Hara refuses to marry disabled persons; Nelly asks Tim to serve as godfather) What method does he use to persuade the inebriated costermonger and his wife to cease drinking? (forces them to take the pledge) Do you think this method will be efficacious?
How is the Salvation Army presented? What good deeds do they perform? (find work and housing for a "fallen" woman with child) What purpose is served by the novella's biblical allusions? (47, biblical joke 66)
Is Nelly heavily blamed for her extramarital affair and pregnancy? Who is held responsible?
What are some instances of violence which we see in the novel? (Tom strikes Nelly with a stick, 94; residents of apartment buildings often become violent on Saturday night)
Do you think Engels is fair in chiding his fellow socialist for not portraying politically-engaged workers? (she is more realistic)
What do we learn about employment conditions in the area of London presented in the novel? What are qualities of Nelly's female boss? (harsh, cmp. employer in Ruth)
How are the novel’s male characters portrayed, especially George and Arthur? Are they villains or heroes? (are ordinary men, with decent traits and lapses) Which is subjected to more unfavorable descriptions? (Arthur, seen as a man of some abilities, but superficial and heedless)
What is George's background and what seem to be his traits? What are his political views, and on what are they based? (warm feeling for military, 101)
What are his views on women's roles? Is he shown as intelligent? (rather simple) Is he a suitable husband for Nelly?
What are the traits of her desired ideal lover? Are these class-based? (64, he would be a gentleman and well-dressed) Does the narrator condemn these views? (presents them with gentle irony)
Does the author extend hope for fellowship between residents of the West End and East End? (90, possibly too great a gulf, 111, 116) What happens to Nelly when she travels to the West End? (robbed or loses purse and unable to return home; chided by policeman; helped by stranger)
How is Arthur described? What are his political views, and are these undercut by the narrator? (he dislikes socialists, 57) What are his intellectual traits? (translates, is writing modern novel detailed inner psychology of protagonist [Harkness does not approve] 77, is familiar with contemporary art, 78)
On what grounds is he attracted to Nelly? What characterizes his own marriage? (wife loyal and hard-working but provides no intellectual companionship) Is he shown to be a good father? (yes)
Does it affect our view of the plot that we don't see the actual seduction scene? Does Nelly blame him for her condition? (regrets her actions, doesn't blame him greatly, takes partial responsibility)
What aspects of Nelly's character are brought out by her behavior toward her child? (loving and careful, deeply disturbed by his death) Why does Nelly conceal the identity of her child's father? (to protect him)
Why does Nelly refuse to return home to her mother and Tom? Does this seem appropriate after what has happened to her, and Tom's motives for wishing her return? (wishes her income, since he doesn't work)
At least two of Harkness’s other early novels of slum life end in the deaths of their protagonists. What is added/subtracted from this novella by the heroine’s survival? Is the fact that George and Nelly leave the apartment buildings for a better situation indicative of more general possibilities, or are their fellow-East Enders mired in hopelessness?
Are there modernist features of this work? (undramatic, open-ended closure, spare and factual style)
How is the Salvation Army presented? What reformist efforts, if any, seem to add improvements to the lives of the lower classes? (employment by enlightened reformers improves the lives of George and Nelly)
What are some feminist issues raised in the novel? (women as rent-collectors; single women; seduction and single motherhood; wife-beating; hospital care for mothers and infants)
How does this novel treat women’s sexual activity and unwed motherhood differently than, say, Elizabeth Gaskell in Ruth or Eliot in Adam Bede? (much different than earlier in century)
Why do you think an important section of the novel concerns the hospital care afforded Nelly’s child? Might he have lived under better conditions? Does the author advocate reforms in hospital care?
Does the scene in which Nelly attacks the lady nurse seem in character? (120) Why it may have been included? (shows depth of her anger and frustration)
Can you think of other Victorian novels in which a sympathetic female protagonist attacks someone? (very rare) Might one have expected consequences? (no one punishes her)
Under what circumstances does Arthur Grant learn of the existence of his illegtimate son? (on death of infant) Would you describe this scene as melodramatic? How does he react to the news?
Can you compare this with a recognition scene in Gaskell's Ruth? (Bellingham meets Ruth in higher circumstances and learns that he has a son; proposes to her and wishes to aid their son)
Under what circumstances does George propose marriage to her? Is it a romantic proposal? (his job requires that he be married) Is she pleased?
Do you predict a decent future life for George and Nelly? Why does he continue to wish that he were back in the military? (he too is disappointed by the complexities of life)
Are any of the novel's main characters heroic? Villanous? (George not a hero and Arthur not a complete villain; Nelly is neither but basically decent; attempt at realism in ethical as well as other more descriptive matters)