Harkive: ‘Our Portraits. Miss M. E. Harkness (“John Law”)’

Margaret Harkness
The portrait of Harkness which appeared in ‘The Queen’.

A British feature piece on Harkness and her work, probably also drawing on the Evening News interview. This feature included the only known portrait of Harkness.


Source: The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper, 31 May 1890, p. 767.  Microfilm held at the British Library.


Our Portraits.


Miss M. E. Harkness (“John Law.”)

It is sometimes good to see ourselves as other see us, even in the matter of our fiction, and there have been issued from the press during the last two or three years several novels by an English authoress which have received exceptional attention on the part of Continental writers, and have been accorded by them a high place in contemporary English fiction. It is now about three years since the first work by “John Law” saw the light. It is entitled “A City Girl,” and depicts in the most realistic colours the life of an East-end work-girl. Told in the most artless manner, and dealing with the lowest and “least interesting” class of the population, it yet holds the attention from beginning to end. The scenes depicted are full of gloom, and the shadow is out of all proportion to the light; nevertheless the work betrays marked powers of minute observation, of sympathy, and even of quiet humour. “A City Girl” did not make a “sensation,” but it showed to many something of the real condition of things in the East-end of London.

This was the simply object the author (Miss Margaret Elise Harkness) had in view, “John Law” being merely a nom de guerre to hide her identity, because her family were opposed to her opinions. She had been reading Mr Besant’s “All Sorts and Conditions of Men,” and, knowing something of the East-end, from having “explored” it, was disposed to question the accuracy of some of the writer’s descriptions contained in that novel. In order to be as accurate as possible, she took up her abode for a season in one of the poorest and most densely populated districts near to Whitechapel, and it was there that the first half of “A City Girl” was written.

Miss Harkness’s next work, “Out of Work,” followed close upon “A City Girl.” It is, if anything, still gloomier than the last named; but there are in it the same touches of quiet humour, the same touches of pathos, which show that the authoress has sympathised with the lives of the persons she depicts. When Miss Harkness took up her pen to write “Out of Work” she had in her own mind arrived at the crucial difficulty in the East-end problem – the “out-of-works.” She had been so struck with this fact that she made an effort to do something practical and tangible for them. She had noticed in Berlin, where she had been staying for some time, the corps of Dienstmänner (porters, errand-runners), and she had the idea of establishing such an organisation in London. But the fates – or the vagaries of men – were against her. She was prepared to spend money on her enterprise, and did spend largely, to benefit the men whose helplessness had so deeply enlisted her pity; but it was like a drop in the ocean – like a snowflake in the swollen stream – absorbed without leaving a mark.

Her intense sympathy for this neglected class shows itself on every page of “Out of Work,” and it was this which directed the attention of the Continental critics to it, and ultimately caused it to be translated into the leading languages of the Continent. There are Russian and German editions; two separate editions have been issued in Sweden, and a French one is in preparation. The work has sold largely also in America and Australia. Its appearance in the Colonies just preceded the dockers’ strike, and as it deals chiefly with that class of society, and had made a deep impression throughout Australia, it probably contributed to the outburst of practical sympathy which did so much towards bringing the strike to a successful termination.

In Miss Harkness’s next work, “Captain Lobe,” which was written for the British Weekly, we have another study, another series of pictures, of East-end life – of “slum-life,” as the authoress terms it. And what pictures they are! – all evidently drawn from the life. In this story we are brought into contact with the Salvation Army and its work, an organisation which Miss Harkness confesses is doing a great deal to elevate the masses at the East-end, morally and physically. In many respects “Captain Lobe” is the brightest and most cheerful of Miss Harkness’s stories; but still the shadow of gloom and sadness is upon that as upon the others, and deepest of all, perhaps, is that shadow upon “A Manchester Shirtmaker.” In the latter it is a cloud of darkness almost entirely unrelieved.

There is naturally a difference of opinion as to the value of such stories as those of Miss Harkness. But, in order to judge them on their merits, we ought to look at them from the point of view of the authoress. She makes no secret of her aim in writing them. Her novels are “novels with a purpose,” and that purpose is to direct the public eye and the public mind to what she considers to be festering sores upon the body politic, and, if possible, to awaken the public conscience. In short, her stories are tracts. “The Manchester Shirtmaker” is a tract upon the miseries of Angel Meadow, and the social conditions which it engenders. Our Continental neighbours look upon her books as “documents” from which to study the conditions of the lowest couches sociales in England, and they value them highly as such, because they bear the impress of truthfulness upon them. Whether they would be more telling if treated with more art, and with more light to balance and set off the shade, is another question. On the Continent, the literary article that is at present in most demand is the realistic picture of the life of to-day, and, looking around, those whose business it is to taste and judge these things point Miss Harkness’s works out as reaching a high level in contemporary English fiction.


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