From the time I began working on this project with Rosemary, I’ve seen a vast breadth of development in her writing, in the story itself, as well as in the characters and their dynamics. The novel, though digestible in chapters, feels to me like a saga or series of developments spanning generations—Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter comes to mind, as it spans multigenerational narratives from various perspectives, as does The Girl On Harlow Street. At the chapter level, we’re offered a series of events that lead to Justine’s highs and lows; the stakes that are raised in moments of love and heartbreak, and are dashed with everything to lose. At the large-scale level, however, we’re offered something much deeper and more substantial.
Now that we’re nearing the end of the novel, we’re able to look at all that has accumulated throughout and see all of the lines that run from one character to another in terms of their cause and effect. We’re not simply seeing death after death occur in a vacuum; these reverberations that happen surrounding Rosegate strike everyone standing in its wake. We’re reading how death and grief and loss either overwhelms or is taken on by each character affected, and how their coping or non-coping consequently affects others around them. Findley’s novel again comes to mind, as he too poses his characters with their own troubling pasts, but further, the way in which each character’s storyline weaves itself into the following one points to what is driving the shifting narrative in The Girl on Harlow Street: its haunting and realistic depiction of generational trauma. Of course, we know that Justine’s parents died and left her impoverished, and we witnessed her lose countless lovers, some more devastating than others, though grief washes over her time and time again each time, but it isn’t until “The Invisible Gavel” that we really witness the final blow that points to Aubrey’s death—the trauma that Justine doesn’t seem to be able to recover from, and as such, carries on beyond her own death in the form of her ancestors decades later. As in Findley’s novel, where one starts, there must have been one that preceded it, one that caused its effects.
At the beginning of the novel, we think that Gregory is the one Justine will never recover from, though her story continues on beyond him. Of course, life does exist beyond devastating grief; it exists after life-changing trauma, and people do go on beyond their own losses, but something changes within Justine after she learns about Harold’s final moments in a way that makes us challenge whether or not Gregory was the final straw on the camel’s back, or if it was Harold—the loss perhaps none of us saw coming to have caused the collapse of everything that has come before him. If the medium is indeed the message, it only confirms the fact that Harold was the one who left Justine devastated beyond recovery, and this is what reverberates beyond their lifetime and into the modern-day; as Justine is left finally beyond reconciling loss after loss, her own narrative seems to be coming to a close, albeit with the reader knowing her trauma will echo in those whose stories follow hers. And while Harold is a beloved character, it wasn’t his kindness beyond reason that made him the one to finally break Justine, nor his intelligence and wisdom that would always assist Justine in her moments of strife, but rather, the promise that he as a person offered her—that is, the unconditional love he offers her that Justine herself points at in his final chapter. After a lifetime of lust, passion, love, and sexual encounters, Justine finds someone whose love is not informed by a power dynamic, nor vengeance or projection, nor an image of her that is not entirely true or complete. Particularly, after Justine’s writing of Tallow, Harold knows everything there is to give him reason to not love her—namely, her guilt in having a hand in George’s death, and writing what was considered to be debaucherous pornography that was a legitimate felony in Victorian England. And still, Harold’s move, particularly as one who has been established as being a straightlaced man who largely upholds the English laws of the time, is groundbreaking to Justine, and this promised and missed chance at unconditional love is one she seems to be unable to recover from. This, it seems, is where Justine’s narrative unravels, but Aubrey’s begins.