19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 13 (2011)

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‘Long Trudges Through Whitechapel’: The East End of Beatrice Webb’s and Clara Collet’s Social Investigations

Gabrielle Mearns

Abstract


This essay examines the uncertain relationship between the East End and the middle-class woman in the late nineteenth century via Beatrice Webb’s article for Nineteenth Century, ‘Pages from a Work Girl’s Diary’ (1888), which investigated the working conditions of female ‘trouser hands’ in East London, and the short story ‘Undercurrents’ (1891–94), which was written by Webb’s lesser known contemporary and sometime colleague Clara Collet, and explores a young female philanthropist’s attempts to care for an alcoholic factory girl from the East End. Both Webb’s and Collet’s texts fluctuate between a vision of middle-class women’s slum work rooted in earlier nineteenth-century ideas of feminine purity and ‘influence’, and an increasingly prevalent discourse of the fin de siècle that emphasised ‘scientific’, objective observation of working-class life over personal influence or involvement. Thus although Webb’s and Collet’s careers can be read in terms of a shift away from traditional female philanthropy to scientific social research, this essay argues that ‘Pages from a Work Girl’s Diary’ and ‘Undercurrents’ suggest a far more complex negotiation between the two roles by Webb and Collet when working and writing on the East End in the late 1880s and early 90s. They represent East London as simultaneously receptive to female influence, and yet also ‘doomed’ to degradation according to conventional social science theories of the time.

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