decorated initital Margaret Elise Harkness, a radical journalist and writer, was one of many late Victorian emancipated ‘New Women’, who pursued a career in the public sphere. Born at Upton-on-Severn in Worcestershire on 28 February 1854 in a conservative clergyman’s family, she trained to be a nurse and worked briefly as a hospital dispenser. Contrary to the expectations of her family, she declined to marry a wealthy man and decided to remain single and pursue the profession of a free-lance journalist and a writer. Her first publications, devoted to historical topics, included Assyrian Life and History (1883) and Egyptian Life and History According to the Monuments (1884).

In the 1880s Harkness was attracted by socialism, feminism, and later by Salvationism and was engaged in lobbying for progressive reform legislation. In 1881, she published in the liberal monthly magazine, The Nineteenth Century, an article titled “Women as Civil Servants”, on women’s public employment; and two articles in 1883 and 1893, respectively, in the National Review “ The Municipality of London”, on municipal reform, and “Children of the Unemployed”, on underfed children. Harkness also contributed articles to the socialist paper Justice, edited by Henry Hyde Champion (1859-1928). She was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and helped mediate in the successful Dock Strike of 1889. Between 1890 and 1914, Harkness travelled widely to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, India and Ceylon, but little is known about this period of her life. She wrote travel books and a novel set in India, The Horoscope (1914?). In 1921, she published her last novel, A Curate's Promise, A Story of Three Weeks, and two years later died at the Pensione Castagnoli in Florence.

As a young, radical social researcher, Margaret Harkness was committed to the reform movement and was intimate with London labour union leaders. She developed strong ties with a circle of independent women, socialists and feminists, such as Beatrice Potter (later Webb), her second cousin, Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx; Clementina Black, a campaigner for the rights of women in industry; Olive Schreiner, Amy Levy, Olive Birrell, Isabella Ford, New Woman novelists; and Annie Besant, a women’s rights activist and a Theosophist. They often met in and outside the British Museum Reading-Room.

In 1888, Harkness began exploration of the East End poverty and lived for some time in Katherine Buildings, the East End tenement built for casual labourers, where she could observe its working-class tenants. At that time she began to write the first in a series of slum novels under the pseudonym “John Law”. In 1889, she visited Manchester slums together with Beatrice Potter and Mrs Humphrey Ward in order to explore the causes of urban poverty.

Altogether Harkness published five novels dealing with slums and urban deprivation: A City Girl (1887), Out of Work (1888), In Darkest London (1889), A Manchester Shirtmaker (1890) and George Eastmont: Wanderer (1905). In her slum novels, Harkness blurred the boundary between investigative journalism and novelistic fiction. (Koven, 167)

Socialist and/or Feminist

Although Harkness did not write from an explicitly socialist or feminist point of view, an interesting interrelationship between socialism and feminism can be seen in her slum novels. Feminism and socialism were interlinked in late Victorian England because they both invoked the concept of social and gender equality. Harkness, like a number of emancipated late Victorian women, engaged in radical activism and endorsed socialist ideals. Was Harkness a socialist or a feminist or both? Sally Ledger claimed that she could not be easily classified to one specific orientation.

If Harkness can be described as a socialist and a nonconformist, then she also has considerable credentials as a feminist novelist, not least in her portrayal of the seamstress, Nelly Ambrose, in A City Girl. The tensions between feminism and socialism in late Victorian Britain are unresolved in Harkness’s novels, and it is for this reason, I would claim, that she is celebrated neither as a full-bloodedly socialist nor a whole-heartedly feminist writer, her fiction refusing to conform unequivocally to either paradigm. [44]

In fact, Harkness was primarily concerned with the fates of slum dwellers, primarily women, who had been hardly aware of the new social movements. Her first novel,A City Girl, deals with the conditions of women in the labour force as well as with women’s social and sexual oppression in male-dominated Victorian society.

A City Girl

A City Girl recounts the fate of a young East End seamstress, Nelly Ambrose, who is seduced by a West End middle-class radical, Arthur Grant, a treasurer in a hospital for poor women and children. The novel prompted Frederick Engels to write a famous letter to Harkness in April 1888 in which he complimented her work, but criticised her inability to write a socialist-biased novel. Engels was critical about the East End residents whom he blamed for passiveness, docility, and lack of revolutionary vigour.

I must own, in your defence, that nowhere in the civilized world are the working people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to fate, more hébétés [bewildered] than in the East End of London. And how do I know whether you have not had very good reasons for contenting yourself, for once, with a picture of the passive side of working-class life, reserving the active side for another work? [Travers, 124]

Political apathy prevailed among the non-unionised members of the working classes after the decline of the Chartist movement in the 1840s and Harkness aptly described the realities of slum life. Although the novel does not have a well-developed plot, it is an interesting contribution to the Victorian debate about the vulnerability of slum women, and may have inspired other writers, including Kipling and Maugham, to write about the victimisation of women in slums.

Out of Work

Set in the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887) the novel Out of Work, published one year later, describes the life of a poor carpenter, Joseph Coney, who comes to London from rural England to seek employment. He gets only casual jobs at the East End Docks, is often hungry and unemployed. Harkness is critical of Victorian capitalism which is inherently exploitative and responsible for structural unemployment. Jos complains that he is unable to find a job because he has to compete with a great number of other unemployed.

I guess I ain’t wanted. There are too many of us poor folks, and not enough work for us to do. [91]

Finally, he breaks down and becomes alcoholic and destitute. He returns home to die on his mother’s tomb. Under the influence of socialist ideas, Harkness provides a scathing critique of the inhumanely competitive capitalist system, exposing the economic exploitation of the passive and politically unaware lower classes.

Years hence, when children read in lesson-books about the Age of Competition, the docks will be given as an illustration of the competitive system after it reached a climax. Boys and girls will read that thousands of Englishmen fought daily at the dock gates for tickets; that starving men behind pressed so hard on starving men in front, that the latter were nearly cut in two by the iron railings which kept them from work; that contractors were mauled by hungry men; that brick-bats and stones were hurled at labour-masters by men whose families were starving. [162]

Harkness accuses the Victorian institutions of condoning the economic system which reduces workers to surplus labour appropriated by capitalists at low wages for long hours and under appalling conditions. The climactic episode in the novel is the Trafalgar Square riot, which reveals a general apathy of the labouring classes and inability to start effection action. As Matthew K. McKean has pointed out, “Harkness’s depiction of the Trafalgar Square episode is a cathartic moment in slum fiction.” (47)

A Manchester Shirtmaker: A Realistic Story of Today

Published in 1890, the novel, written in the convention of Bildungsroman, describes the fate of a young widow, Mary Dillon, who is a symbolic victim of the capitalist exploitation and degradation of the lower classes. Mary is found in Manchester as an abandoned baby in a chapel hidden beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary. She is sent to a workhouse and later becomes a servant who marries a labourer, Jack Dillon. Initially, Mary’s adult life shows her steady progress to respectable working-class existence. However, soon her husband dies after a long illness following an industrial accident. In order to support herself and her baby Mary gets employment in a sweatshop in notorious Ancoats, called the world’s first industrial suburb. Its description reveals the harsh conditions of work and misery the sweatshop employees had to endure.

…it was a long low room that held at least two hundred women. There was a deafening roar of machinery, for each woman sat before a sewing machine. [51]

Harkness describes one instance of resistance of the poverty-stricken female employees to the exploitative system of maximising human labour for minimal pay. At one point, the desperate women surround their Jewish sweater and deck him to the floor.

He drew back, but he could not escape, for he was already hemmed in by shirtmakers. Each girl caught up her old meat tin, and the whole two hundred advance upon him, rattling the reels of cotton and the scissors, crying loudly ‘Sweater!, Sweater!' [59]

Sweatshop strife assumes suddenly a racial and anti-Semitic dimension. The Jews, who emigrated from Eastern Europe, sought employment mostly in the garment industry in England. After a time some of them became subcontractors or owners of sweatshops which employed not only their compatriots but also native English and Irish employees. They were often targets of industrial unrest and anti-Semitic attitudes.

The novel ends tragically, almost like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. When Mary’s sewing machine is stolen, she loses all hope for a decent life and poisons her baby with opium because she cannot feed him. She is tried for infanticide, but she is found to be insane and is sent to the lunatic asylum, where she strangles herself.

In A Manchester Shirtmaker Harkness exposed the harsh realities of Manchester sweatshops. The novel records in documentary detail the passivity and hopelessness of the sweatshop employees during the economic depression of the 1880s. Harkness demonstrated in her novel that “ the introduction of the sewing machine did little to improve wages, since greater productivity lowered the price paid per garment; […] and the granting of government contract for sewing to workhouses undercut competition and further reduced prices.” (Alexander, 187)

In Darkest London

In the 1890s, Harkness, who seems to have become disillusioned with socialism, was attracted by the ideals and social activism of the Salvation Army. This change finds reflection in her most successful novel, In Darkest London, which portrays sympathetically the social work of the Salvation Army.

In Darkest London, originally titled as Captain Lobe: A Story of the Salvation Army, was dedicated to a number of volunteer social workers (often young middle- and upper-class women) who brought relief to the “down-and-outs” in the East End slums. The novel’s title bears reference to Henry Morton Stanley’s famous travel narrative, In Darkest Africa (1890) and William Booth’s significant book, In Darkest London and the Way Out (1890), which revealed the economic, social, and moral problems of poverty in England and prescribed a great social reconstruction of the nation. Harkness’s aim was to draw a parallel between Africa’s interior and the East End inferno.

The novel exposes human poverty, deprivation, and degradation concealed in the East End slums and raises such issues as socialism, agnosticism, Salvationism, and women’s rights. Harkness describes sympathetically the utmost devotion of benevolent Salvation Army slum workers who volunteered in parish charities, worked as nurses, carers, and teachers. At the outset, Harkness is concerned with the soddiness and degeneration of East End life.

The things in which East End life people take much interest are murders and funerals. Their lives are so dull, nothing else sets their sluggish blood in motion. But a murder gives them certainly two sensations; and a funeral has always some sensational features. Was the person poisoned, or was his throat cut? Did the corpse turn black, or did it keep until the nails were put into the coffin? The thing that strikes one most about East End life is its soddiness; one is inclined to think that hunger and drink will in time produce a race sensationless idiots. [16-17]

She then describes the Salvation Army's strategy, which aimed at providing the destitute slum dwellers with both social and spiritual assistance. The Army created in the East End special slum corps who looked after rescue homes, inebriates’ shelters, thieves’ retreats, and cheap food depots. Harkness is full of admiration for young slum workers who altruistically deliver humanitarian services to vulnerable slum dwellers.

No work in the Army requires more devotion and enthusiasm than slum work. A slum worker lives among the filth and the vermin that surround the scum of London. Her work is ignored by the public, who think her either a fanatic or a lunatic. Yet she goes about from morning to night nursing the sick, and feeding the hungry with her own scanty rations until early death crowns her efforts. [30]

As a New Woman writer, Harkness is particularly sensitive to the oppression and victimisation of slum women. Wife beating was one of the most common and frequent crimes committed against women.

An old woman came to us last night and asked if we would take her to the doctor. Her little grandchild led her in. Her husband had knocked her eye out. She is stone blind now; for he knocked out her right eye when she was fifty, and last night he knocked her left eye out of its socket. I know six women close by this house whose husbands have knocked their eyes out. [40]

In combating urban degeneracy, Salvationists called for spiritual improvement of slum dwellers, but their evangelisation did not always receive a positive response, as it is suggestively illustrated by the following dialogue between a Salvation Army lass and a destitute slum dweller.

“You must give up your sins; then God will send you food,” was the reply.

The man shook his head, and said, “The Bible calls God a father, and no father could starve his son for sinning. He would give him food first, and speak about his sins afterwards.”

“Gold and silver have I none,” was the girl’s reply; “but what I have, that I give unto you.”

“ Then, my lass, you can carry your preaching somewhere else. Don’t come here to talk of salvation to a man like me. I’m hungry.” [44]

In Darkest London Harkness gave first hand observations about the ugly reality of the East End slums and explored the possibility of blending socialist and Christian attitudes for the purpose of combating slum pathologies.


In her slum novels, Margaret Harkness highlighted such social problems as social degradation, poverty, philanthropy, and oppression of women. All of them were marginal or unrepresented in mainstream Victorian literature. Harkness’s compelling contributions to the new social realism of the 1880s and 1890s reveal the influence of Emile Zola, the New Woman fiction and the emerging late Victorian investigative journalism. Although her novels generally lack high literary merit, they are important social documents for the reader interested in studying late Victorian poverty, slum life, and victimisation of labouring women.


Alexander, Lynn Mae. Women, Work, and Representation: Needlewomen in Victorian Art and Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.

Law, John (Margaret Harkness). A City Girl: A Realistic Story. London: Garland, 1884.

__. Out of Work. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1888.

__. In Darkest London. Cambridge: Black Apollo Press, 2003.

__. A Manchester Shirtmaker. A Realistic Story of To-day. London: Authors’ Cooperative Publishing, 1890.

Koven, Seth. Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de Siecle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

McKean, Matthew K. “Rethinking late Victorian Slum Fiction”,English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 54:1, 2011, 28-55.

Thomas, Trefor. “Ancoats and the Manchester Slums in Two Late Victorian Novels”, Manchester Region History Review, vol. 7, 1993, 85-92.

Travers, Martin, ed. European Literature from Romanticism to Postmodernism: A Reader in Aesthetic Practice. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001.

Last modified 27 January 2012