Harkive: ‘A Slum-Story Writer’ (An interview with Margaret Harkness)

Cover, Authors’ Co-operative Publishing Co. edition of ‘A Manchester Shirtmaker’ (1890).

For our first instalment in the Digital ‘Harkive’, we have chosen an interview which appeared in the Evening News and Post following the publication of A Manchester Shirtmaker by the newly established Authors’ Co-operative Publishing Company in early 1890.

 

Source: The Evening News and Post, Thursday 17 April 1890, p. 2.  Microfilm held at the British Library.

 

A Slum-Story Writer.

The Authoress of “A Manchester Shirt Maker” Tells of her Work and Aims.

“I have finished my slum stories; I shall never write another. ‘The Manchester Shirt Maker’ makes the fourth, and that, I think, is enough.” So, to a representative of THE EVENING NEWS AND POST, said Miss Harkness, otherwise “John Law”, author of the above named recently issued novel, of “A City Evil,” [sic] “Captain Lobe,” &c., all realistic stories depicting the lives of the poorest of the poor, and of the lowest of the low. Miss Harkness is still a young woman, and as her four books have been produced within three or four years, the wonder is how a lady, delicately nurtured and possibly not trained to hard work, could get through so much labour in so short a space of time.

“What turned your attention to authorship, Miss Harkness, and to this phase of it in particular?”

“Some three years and a half ago I was in great trouble. I lost my father and a sister and brother all within six months. Thus left alone in London, I felt that I must have something to do – something to occupy my attention. A great deal was then being talked and written about the East-end and about its misery and suffering. An opportunity offered itself of seeing and studying the life there. I therefore went and lived in one of the poorest and densest districts for several months. Just before then Walter Besant had brought out his first book on the East-end and I was so disgusted with its untruthfulness that I conceived the idea of writing a story which should picture the lives of the East-enders in their true colours. I commenced ‘A City Evil,’ half of which was written whilst I was living in the slums.”

“Did you engage in any other work at the same time?”

“I was greatly impressed with the need there was that something should be done for the men out of work – the loafers. I had been in Berlin a little while before, and had of course seen the Dienstmänner there, and I conceived the idea of establishing a similar corps here. I spoke to some friends on the subject, and we formed a committee. It was a very influential committee, but they did nothing but talk – and quarrel. I had three committees in all, one after another; but they could not agree upon anything, and had to be broken up. So the idea of the Dienstmänner came to an end.”

Miss Harkness smiled as she recounted her experiences on behalf of the loafers. She confessed that there was one man, and one only, on her committees who had got any work or energy in him, and that was Mr. Champion.

Meanwhile “A City Evil” had appeared and proved a great success. Then followed “Out of Work,” which also had a great sale.

“That,” said Miss Harkness, “has been accepted abroad as a true picture of the condition of the unskilled workmen in England, and in has been reviewed in that sense by most of the Continental journals that treat of such subjects.”

“Has the work been translated at all?”

“Two separate editions have been published in Sweden and one in Russia, and permission has been asked to publish editions in France and Germany. One curious thing happened in connection with the story,” Miss Harkness continued with a smile; “the editor of the British Weekly wrote and asked me if I would write a series of papers they were contemplating on young men. He, of course, thought ‘John Law’ was a man. I called upon him, and we had a great laugh. But I undertook to write the papers on young women. Then Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton asked me to write ‘Captain Lobe’ for the British Weekly. That, as you doubtless know, brought me into great trouble, as I was threatened with an action for libel.”

“Your stories, Miss Harkness, have been blamed as unnecessarily gloomy.”

“Well, perhaps they are. Being in trouble myself, I no doubt threw a great deal of my own melancholy into them. But it would be very hard for anyone studying the lives of the very poor, and writing about them, to avoid being somewhat gloomy. The subject is gloomy. Some have said, ‘Why write about the subject at all? Why lift the veil from such conditions and show them to the world? They cannot be helped.’ My answer has been, because I wish to see if some good cannot be done – because I think the conscience of the nation ought to be aroused? [sic] One lady who had been reading the ‘Manchester Shirtmaker’ told me she had not slept for two nights after reading it. I said, ‘I hope it will keep you awake for a week, and others too, to think about it.’ They tell me I lose sight of art in my zeal to enforce a purpose. But I care nothing for art; my purpose is all.”

“You have written your stories rather as tracts than as novels, then?”

“Just so – as tracts to move the heart. I hope they have done, and will still do good.”

Being asked what she thought of the prospects of the large class in connection with whom her sympathies had been so deeply stirred, Miss Harkness shook her head. She appeared to be in a despondent mood in regard to that subject. She intimated, however, that she had worked very hard in connection with the Dockers’ Strike, and that it was she who fetched Cardinal Manning to the rescue. On the subject of the labour leaders she would say nothing, but one could not help feeling that some process of disillusionment was going on in her mind. She confessed that she had expected a great deal of money in furtherance of her views and labours for the poor. But on that subject, too, she was very reticent.

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