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et 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)


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

Law, John (Margaret Harkness). Out of Work. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1888.

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 19 December 2018