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-blooded socialist nor a whole-hearted 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.


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.

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