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n 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.

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

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