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.


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.

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 Siècle. 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 19 December 2018