Margaret Harkness (1854-1923) was a journalist, social and political activist, fiction writer, and traveller.
Harkness’s best-known works are the six complete novels she published between 1887 and 1905, on the subject of the lives of urban workers and living and working conditions in city slums. As well as producing investigative journalism on these subjects, she frequented the British Museum Reading Room, actively supported the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888 and the Dockworkers’ Strike of 1889, was associated with important political figures including Eleanor Marx and Beatrice Potter Webb and was briefly a member of Friedrich Engels’s social circle in London. Thanks to the groundbreaking research of Terry Elkiss, we are now also aware of her later career as a periodical writer in Australia, and have been able to contextualise her travel writing and fiction on India and Ceylon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
For much of the twentieth century, Harkness was best known as the addressee of the letter on the subject of her first novel, A City Girl (1887), in which Engels set out his literary theory regarding the importance of the ‘truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances’. In the current revival of critical interest in the East End, we feel that Harkness’s faithful, complex portraits of the lives of working people in late-Victorian British cities deserve to be examined in their own right.
With the Harkives, we hope to give an insight into the extent of Harkness’s literary production, and we hope that access to this body of work will encourage researchers everywhere to undertake further investigation into this fascinating historical figure and her diverse and expansive literary oeuvre.
For a list of Harkness’s known published fiction and social investigation, please refer to our Margaret Harkness bibliography (pdf)