Harkives Summer Serial: ‘Roses and Crucifix’, Instalment I

We hope you enjoy the first instalment of ‘Roses and Crucifix’, which this month we begin in weekly serial instalments through its twelve chapters.

‘Roses and Crucifix’ was first serialised between December 1891 and February 1892 in The Woman’s Herald, which David Doughan and Denise Sanchez describe as ‘the most vigorous feminist newspaper of its time.’ Founded in 1888 by women’s rights activist Henrietta Muller (who also edited the paper under the pseudonym Helena B. Temple), the periodical was known as The Women’s Penny Paper until 1890 when Muller changed its name to reflect the paper’s ambition to ‘herald in the new womanhood.’ The paper’s masthead identifies The Women’s Herald as ‘the only paper conducted, written, published and printed by women.’ Although Muller eventually sold the paper due to her own failing health, it would continue as an important organ of lively and liberal feminist thought as The Women’s Signal until its eventual disintegration in 1899.

Given the venue of its publication, it is no surprise that ‘Roses and Crucifix’ is a story in which Harkness makes the relationship between economic and sexual exploitation startlingly clear. The barmaids in this story exist in a system of perpetual negotiation with male power: they are required to ‘attract customers and do good business,’ but despite flirtation must keep the men ‘at arm’s length.’ Each day, they are subject to the leering stares of countless men, and are regularly followed home by ‘hangers-on’. In this story, Harkness draws on her previous journalistic research undertaken for the British Weekly series ‘Toilers in London: Female Labour in the Metropolis’, which she edited and to which she contributed an essay on ‘Barmaids.’ Yet in its representation of the support networks of religious groups this story also looks ahead to George Eastmont, Wanderer (1905), a novel which includes a more lengthy cameo of Cardinal Manning (whom Harkness knew personally).

In ‘Roses and Crucifix’ readers will recognise themes later explored by George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894) and George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). It also is a richly intertextual story. There are overt references, such as to Goethe’s Faust (1808) in the epigraph and at the conclusion, but also more obscure allusions, such as to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) both in theme and direct quotation.

Edouard Manet, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882), Courtauld Gallery, London

Source: John Law [Margaret Harkness], ‘Roses and Crucifix’, Women’s Herald, 5 December, 1891, pp. 11–12.



By John Law

Author of “A City Girl,” “Captain Lobe.” etc.

“Entbehren sollst du! sollst entbehren!

Das ist der ewige Gesang,

Der jedem an die Ohren klingt,

Den unser ganzes Leben lang,

Uns heiser jede Stunde singt.”

[Thou shalt abstain — renounce — refrain!

Such is the everlasting song

That in the ears of all men rings —

That unrelieved, our whole life long,

Each hour, in passing, hoarsely sings.

 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy (1808)

Trans. Bayard Taylor]

Chapter I

An Underground Bedroom

“That’s one o’ clock, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the clock struck one.”

“isn’t it stifling to-night? Did you ever feel it so hot, Lilian?”

“Never. Can’t we get a breath of air anywhere?”

“No. We musn’t open the door. I’ve locked it.”

“Well, no air comes through the ventilator, nothing but shouts. I can’t sleep in this place. I don’t mind it in the winter, but now it’s just like the black hole of Calcutta.”

“The black hole of what?”

“Never mind. I’m too tired to talk.”

This conversation took place between two girls, one summer night, in a small room below the bar of a London restaurant.

The room was a little better than a cellar; torn, dirty paper hung from the walls, a ragged piece of carpet covered the floor. A bedstead, a chair, a washing-stand, and a chest of drawers, furnished the place, which was lighted by a single jet of gas. Fresh air was supposed the come through the ventilator above the bed; but dirt and cobwebs, had long ago, made ventilation a thing of the past; and the only air that came into the room found its way through the hold in the ceiling. This hole communicated with the bar; whence came a smell of whisky, gin, and cognac, mixed with stale tobacco.

The gaslight fell on the cafe of the girl who had spoken last. She was lying on the bed, with her hair scattered over the pillow, and her bare arms crossed above her head. She looked delicate, and a single glance at the hectic flush in her cheeks, and her large, liquid grey eyes, told that she was consumptive. She wore a loose blue dressing gown, and from time to time she looked at a black dress which lay at the foot of the bed.

“My dress wants mending,” she said to her companion, “but I’m too tired to mend it. Besides my hands shake. I dropped two glasses this evening, and I shall have a heavy bill for breakages the end of this week.”

“Nonsense, we’ll share the breakages,” said the other girl, “it’s absurd to be so particular. There’s only two of us at this bar, so we’ll go shares. That’s what we always do at these little places. Here, I’ll mend your dress.”

“But you’re tired yourself, Mary!”

“Not half so tired as you are. You’ve only been at the bar six months, and I’ve been at it six years. I thanks my stars I’m going to be married, for I’m downright tired of being a barmaid.”

So saying, Mary took up the black dress and examined it. She yawned, dropped the dress and began to look for a thimble. Then she caught sight of her round, good-natured face in a small square glass on the dressing table and the reflection reminded her that she must put her hair into curling papers.

When she was busy with her hair, Lilian rose from the bed, saying: –

“I think I shall faint if I stay here any longer. It’s a dreadful place in the summer, I can touch the ceiling.”

“Well,” remarked Mary, “I’d rather sleep here than run the risk of missing the last train. You don’t know yet what that is. Often I’ve felt so tired, when I’ve missed the last train, and had to walk to the Depot, I’ve thought I must lie down on the doorstep. And then there’s the getting here so early in the morning, sometimes without a bit of anything to eat, not even a cup of tea before one starts. Besides the men come after me, and frighten me, and one never can find a policeman, if one wants one. I’d rather sleep here than run the risk of missing the last train and have to walk all the way to the Depot: and so would you, if you knew anything about it!”

“I’m going upstairs,” said Lilian.

“Oh, don’t! You musn’t!”

“I must. I can’t stay here any long, it’s suffocating.”

Lilian unlocked the door and opened it, without heeding her friend’s remonstrances. She struck a match when she reached the staircase; and then went upstairs to a small waiting-room that joined the bar.

There she lighted the gas.

The waiting-room was comfortably furnished with crimson velvet chairs, and a sofa. Beside the sofa was little marble table. A window on the right hand side of the room communicated with the bar. There was more air in the waiting-room than down-stairs, and Lilian drew a deep breath when she reached it.

“Mary,” she called to her friend, “come upstairs. No one can see us and the door is locked. It’s cool here and quite safe. Bring my dress with you, and my work box, I’ve lighted the gas.”

Then she threw herself down on the sofa, and tossed back the brown hair from her face an neck. She closed her eyes and gave herself up to her thoughts, until her friend came up the staircase.

“This weather makes me awfully thirsty,” remarked Mary.

“Suppose we have some lemonade,” said Lilian.

“With whisky in it?”

“You can if you like. I’ll have it by itself.”

Mary disappeared for a few minutes, and then came back again with two glasses, which she placed on a little marble table, beside Lilian. She had rolled up her hair with some curl papers and twisted it tightly above her forehead. Her face shone from the effects of soap and water. A more good-natured face could not be found in London; but it was scarcely beautiful, now that she had dragged all of the hair away from it.

“I wonder what the Manager would say, if he could see us,” she remarked, drawing a chair close to the table on which she had placed the glasses. “I don’t suppose he’d mind much, for we’ve done well since we came here. Lots of men come about the place, and the Manager doesn’t mind what girls do, if they do good business. I’ve heard him say so himself. The men come to see you Lilian: and the Manager knows they do. I saw him look at you the last time he was here, and nod his head. He’ll raise your wages if you’re careful.

“Will he?” Lilian asked eagerly, “I hope he will. I want to get my things away from the pawnshop, and I’ve no chance of doing that on ten shillings a week. What with clothes, and washing, and bills for breakages, the money goes no distance. I never knew the value of money until I became a barmaid.”

“It doesn’t matter to me if the manager is pleased, or not,” said Mary, sipping the whisky and lemonade while she talked, “because I’m going to be married! If I wasn’t I’d take more trouble. But it’s a good thing for you t stand well with him, for he can turn you away, you know, at a day’s notice, and as my mother says, “no one wants a discharged barmaid.”

“If a barmaid gets the sack,” continued Mary wisely, “she’s not go much chance of getting another situation; and that’s what is so hard on her. She must attract customers and do good business, and if she doesn’t, she’s sent away. You’re clever with men, Lilian, you know how to keep them at arm’s length. But you must be careful with the dashing chaps, for it’s them that follow one at night, and make one want to find a policeman. I’ve picked up some of their slang, and I make Jim laugh with it, when we’re out walking. What’s more, I know some of the thieves language.”

“Does your lover like the life you lead, Mary?” enquired Lilian.

“Well, I can’t say he does. His mother was very much against his marrying me, she’s a particular old lady, and she’s not partial to barmaids. But you see Jim’s a waiter, and he knows I’m the sort of girl to suit him. You see we’re going to start a public ourselves when we’ve money to get married. I tell Jim we’ll call it The Chummy, and Jim laughs. He knows there’s no harm in me, and a quiet, stupid girl wouldn’t suit him.”

“I know how to manage customers,” she continued “but then, you see, I’ve been six years at the business, and my mother was at the bar, so you may say, I was brought up to it. I treat the men as if I was their sister and, you know, they call me ‘the chummy barmaid.’ I talk to them about themselves and they tell me what they’re doing, and when they’re in trouble, I’m sorry for some of them, young fellers, as poor as can be, that can’t hope to get married, respectable young fellers that would make a girl real happy and comfortable. I know a dozen young fellers with no home but the bar, they come regular for their glass, night after night, and I can tell by the look of their clothes they’ve no woman to see to their things. My! how they’re put upon! The landladies cheat them, and the washerwomen tear off their buttons. I like them, and they like me: but as to the old, grey-haired fellers, that stand at the bar, and leer at one, they make one feel sick, they do. It’s them I hate, even more, than the dashing chaps. There was one of them leering at you to-night, and I’d a mind to throw the whisky in his face. He was old enough to have a dozen grandchildren, and there he was – ”

“Never mind,” said Lilian, “don’t talk of it. I want to mend my dress, give me the work box.”

Mary handed her friend the dress, and began to thread a needle.

“I said I’d do it,” she told Lilian, “and I would, only I’m so tired. The whisky had made me sleepy. I used to think eightpence a day a lot to allow for spirits, but now I find it little enough. I can’t think how you do without nothing but ginger beer and lemonade to drink, you’ll be ill, if you don’t take something strengthening. Stout would do you good. A nice glass of stout with your dinner would pick you up. Instead of that, you give it to the charwoman.

Lilian smiled.

“Who are you, Lilian?” asked Mary, after a short silence. “I often wonder who you are. Jim says you’re a lady, and I know you’re above the rest of us. Jim sees lots of ladies at the place where he works, and he says you’re a real lady. Who are you? Why did you become a barmaid?”

Lilian looked up from the dress she was mending.

“What does it matter who I am?” she asked.

“Of course it doesn’t matter,”answered Mary. “Only you see you’re so different to the other girls, I can’t help wondering about you. Ever since you came to the Depot, I’ve wondered about you. You know such a lot of things, and you talk all sorts of languages. I’ve heard you talking to foreign chaps more than once. Do tell me who you are.”

“The chummy barmaid” had planted her elbows upon the table and buried her chin in the palms of her hands. Sleep had closed her eyelids. She blinked while she looked at Lilian, and a yawn followed her last sentence.

“I can’t tell you to-night.” said Lilian. “I’m so tired, besides you are half asleep yourself. You had better go downstairs to bed. I shall finish my dress, and I shall go to sleep on the sofa. The doors are locked, and it’s quite safe! Hark! There’s two o’clock striking!”

“Two o’clock!” said Mary. “And we have to be up at six! Oh, dear. I’ll be glad to get married; then I’ll lie in bed as long as ever I like. Be sure you call me, If I don’t wake. I’ve set the alarum half an hour fast. I’m so sorry I didn’t do your dress. I’m going to bed.”

“Good-night,” said Lilian.

“The chummy barmaid” stumbled downstairs to the little bedroom, and was soon fast asleep. But Lilian sat up for another hour, mending her dress, and thinking. The restaurant was quite quiet, and outside few sounds broke the stillness of the night. The silence was a relief to Lilian after the noisy day, but it made her very sleepy. Her head nodded over her work, and her eyelids blinked when she tied to thread a needle. All day long she had been standing at the bar, serving men with beer and spirits. From six o’clock in the morning she had been on her feet, only sitting down to dinner, which she could not eat, because it was cold by the time the charwoman brought it from the neighbouring eating house. Moreover, the little bedroom was not the sort of place to give one an appetite: and it was used as a dining room by order of the manager.

“I could not tell Mary why I became a barmaid,” she said to herself. “No one knows why I did. I am here, and here I shall have to stay. If the manager will raise my salary, so that I can fetch my things from the pawnshop, I shall not mind so much; but I have such heavy washing bills, and so much to pay for breakages, I see no chance of fetching the things at present. What would they think in the Convent if they knew that I have things ‘up the spont,’ as Mary calls it. Mary is a good girl, and very kind-hearted. I don’t know what my life would be without her. Hark! She’s snoring! She’s fast asleep already. It’s time I went to sleep too, I must finish this dress to-morrow morning”

(To be continued.)


9 comments on “Harkives Summer Serial: ‘Roses and Crucifix’, Instalment I

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