Literature and Theatre

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‘The problem of leisure/what to do for pleasure’

Women and leisure time in A City Girl (1887) and In Darkest London (1891)

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Eliza Cubitt

This chapter places the leisure pursuits of female characters in Harkness’s fiction in a broader context of gendered cultural anxieties about working-class leisure activities in the late nineteenth century. Focusing on two of Harkness’s novels, A City Girl and In Darkest London, it argues that, for working women in Harkness’s fiction, leisure may be difficult to access and often becomes another form of work. Comparing Harkness’s characters to women in other contemporary texts such as Liza of Lambeth, it shows how leisure pursuits often reflect and reproduce social dangers and structures of oppression for unmarried working-class women.

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Ruth Livesey

This chapter explores Harkness’s first novel in the context of socialist fiction and the future of the modern novel in the 1880s. A City Girl pivots on one of the staple formulae of earlier nineteenth-century domestic melodrama and its radical political possibilities: a cross-class romantic relationship in which a working-class girl is seduced and abandoned by a gentleman. Unpicking how this novel reworks the inherited forms of radical melodrama helps to shed new light on Friedrich Engels’s famous critique of the work’s relation to realism and the status of literary naturalism in 1880s Britain. The Princess Casamassima – Henry James’s self-consciously experimental foray into naturalism and the political activism of 1880s London – serves as a counterpoint to illustrate the pressure of representation in the modernity of late Victorian mass culture. The chapter ends by returning to Katharine Buildings, Whitechapel, and Harkness’s time spent there researching A City Girl. Drawing on the correspondence and record books of Ella Pycroft, the resident lady rent collector, and Harkness’s cousin Beatrice Potter Webb, this chapter presents a counter-narrative that suggests how the residents themselves tried to write back their own life stories against an interpretative community of social activists, philanthropists, novelists, and political agents.

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Socialism, suffering, and religious mystery

Margaret Harkness and Olive Schreiner

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Angharad Eyre

In 1880s London, Margaret Harkness and Olive Schreiner were both engaged in the socialist movement. An admirer of Schreiner, Harkness dedicated a socialist allegory to her in the late 1880s. However, in In Darkest London, Harkness uses allegorical forms less as propaganda tools and more, as Schreiner did, to evoke a sense of religious mystery. Mysterious, allegorical elements create a liminal space within Harkness’s otherwise realist novel, in which can exist the hope of a better future. This chapter sheds light on Harkness’s work through tracing her participation in the religious socialist aesthetic developed by Olive Schreiner. In situating Harkness in the context of 1880s and 1890s socialism and theology, the chapter argues that Harkness’s work was part of a literary discourse that contributed to the development of early twentieth- century Christianity and social work.

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Helena Goodwyn

This chapter examines how Harkness and her contemporary W. T. Stead navigated the position of journalists with an activist agenda in a transatlantic market for socially engaged publications. It explores the extent to which both Harkness and Stead made use of the ‘rhetoric of progressive Protestantism’ across the generic categories of their writing: realist fiction, activist journalism, and critical travel writing. In examining the ‘clash between socialist and evangelical rhetoric’ in the context of emerging ‘modern marketing methods’, the chapter exposes the problems inherent in labels of ideological inconsistency as applied on gendered terms.

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Margaret Harkness, novelist

Social semantics and experiments in fiction

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Lynne Hapgood

This chapter is based on Harkness’s three London novels to explore how they provided a space in which she was able to experiment with a new style of literary realism designed to reflect both its historical moment and an evolving linguistic and political discourse. It argues that, in a period of social change, Harkness’s task in writing novels about contemporary social conditions required her to employ the shared language and conventions of the present but, crucially, to listen and hear the as yet unarticulated but evolving meanings of the future. It explores the ways in which Harkness’s writing participates in and contributes to emerging forms of experimental writing that seek to relay the experience of urban modernity.

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Margaret Harkness

Writing social engagement 1880–1921

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Edited by: Flore Janssen and Lisa C. Robertson

This volume is the first to bring together research on the life and work of the author, activist, and traveller Margaret Harkness, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘John Law’. The collection contextualises Harkness’s political project of observing and recording the lives and priorities of the working classes and urban poor alongside the broader efforts of philanthropists, political campaigners, journalists, and novelists who sought to bring the plight of marginalised communities to light at the end of the nineteenth century. It argues for a recognition of Harkness’s importance in providing testimony to the social and political crises that led to the emergence of British socialism and labour politics during this period. This collection includes considerations of Harkness’s work in London’s East End at the end of the nineteenth century, but moves into the twentieth century and beyond Britain’s borders to examine the significance of her global travel for the purpose of investigating international political trends. This collection gives substance to women’s social engagement and political involvement in a period prior to their formal enfranchisement, and offers insight into the ways this effected shifts in literary style and subject. In offering a detailed picture of Harkness’s own life and illuminating the lives and work of her contemporaries, this volume enriches critical understanding of the complex and dynamic world of the long nineteenth century.

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A law unto herself

The solitary odyssey of M. E. Harkness

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Terry Elkiss

This biographical chapter presents new information about Harkness’s eventful life. In spite of her active engagement with many of the leading writers, radicals, and social reformers in late nineteenth-century London, as well as her own political work and literary labour and extensive travels, relatively little is known about Margaret Elise Harkness. Four continents form part of her life narrative, which is only now beginning to reveal a more nuanced picture of her activities, associations, and accomplishments than was previously presumed. The consideration of newly uncovered materials on her is an exploration that extends beyond ‘darkest Londonʼ and suggests that there are additional relevant details that should be attached to her resume. Libraries and archives around the world possess key documents to enlighten her ideas pursuits, but there are also other unexpected settings and sources for a preliminary biographical investigation of the woman who was more than the author designated as John Law.

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Lasting ties

Margaret Harkness, the Salvation Army, and A Curate’s Promise (1921)

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Flore Janssen

Despite its distance in time and history from Harkness’s original and best-known London novels, A Curate’s Promise in many ways brings Harkness’s oeuvre full circle. Set in the East End of London during the First World War, it resumes her focus on London’s marginalised communities and the efforts of the Salvation Army to ameliorate their condition. Through a reading of this final novel, this chapter draws together some of the strands of Harkness’s thinking which other scholars in this volume have begun to unravel, and considers her lasting ties to an organisation she never intended to join, but to the faithful chronicling of whose work she devoted a significant part of her long writing career.

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‘Connie’

Melodrama and Tory socialism

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Deborah Mutch

Margaret Harkness’s serial story ‘Connie’ appeared in the socialist Labour Elector in 1893–94, but was left unfinished when the periodical folded, reaching no conclusion to the cross-class romance between actress Connie and her lover, the son of a rural landowner. This chapter explores how Harkness uses melodrama in the serial to create a specific form of socialism: one based on the Tory narratives of duty, guidance, and a harmonious relationship across social classes. By focusing on Harkness’s use of the dual lenses of melodrama and Tory socialism, this chapter demonstrates the ways that Harkness uses the former to elucidate working-class women’s precarious social position under capitalism, and the latter to indicate possibilities for the amelioration of this compromised position.

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Absent character

From Margaret Harkness to John Law

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Tabitha Sparks

This chapter looks beyond bio-critical interpretations of Harkness and her work to address the ‘subject’ Margaret Harkness, and specifically her relationship with her pseudonym, ‘John Law’. Although female authors’ use of male pseudonyms was not uncommon in the nineteenth century, the chapter argues that, for Harkness, it constitutes a rejection of personalised character analysis: ‘John Law’, it suggests, signifies ‘not Margaret Harkness’. This rejection of psychologisation applies both to Harkness’s authorial identity and to her representation of working-class life and characters, as the chapter shows by placing Harkness’s work in a tradition of individualisation and psychological portraiture of working-class characters in the nineteenth century. It argues that Harkness’s work is rendered distinct by the fact that her characters cannot use subjective means to challenge their material experience.