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7/07/2014: Recent comments, and this post’s tendency to crop up in Google searches for Harkness, have made me realise that is important to point out that I wrote this post shortly after my first encounter with Harkness. I have since refined my views and changed my mind about a couple of the points I made below (primarily re: the aims of her writing project and her attitude to her middle-class readership). I have not taken down this post as it has helped me meet some wonderful people also working on Harkness, but for a more relevant, accurate and up-to-date reflection of my views on her work, please also consider my article for London Fictions (see link at the bottom of this post) and other Harkness-related posts on this blog.

I have been spending some time recently reading criticism of Margaret Harkness, a now largely forgotten late-nineteenth-century socialist novelist. A fascinating figure, she identified strongly with socialist and proto-feminist ideas, although she never permanently allied herself with any branch of the socialist movement.

She devoted much of her life to working with the labour movement in the East End, and to writing realist novels about the living conditions of the London poor. She was briefly associated with Engels’s London circle, and good friends with Eleanor Marx, with whom she visited the East End and helped to organise the London Dock Strike of 1889.

Her first novel, A City Girl, prompted Engels’s famous prescriptive letter on socialist literature, and her later work, despite her break with his social circle, reflects his advice on the need to write ‘typical characters under typical circumstances’. The novel’s protagonist is a young working class girl who has a child with a married middle-class man, and Harkness’s treatment of this topic challenges the Victorian sexual double standard and enables a proto-feminist reading of the woman who tells the Salvation Army captain that the child she has had is ‘Mine’, and re-establishes herself in society despite her ‘fall’.

All in all, Harkness sounded like the Victorian novelist I had been waiting to discover. Nevertheless, I find her difficult to respect – her wavering views, the undecided undertone running through her work, her need to pander to her middle-class readership. And the final blow is delivered by her last novel, George Eastmont, in which the hero is an aristocratic social reformer attempting to drag the passive working class out of the abyss. Her last novel most justifies Engels’s critique that she makes the working class appear a ‘passive mass’: she seems unable to conceive of a working class able to produce its own leaders and revolutionaries.

Interestingly, however, she seemed aware of the contradictions in her own views, to a certain extent. While she was eking out a living as a journalist hack, she wrote of herself, ‘I read the papers, and have a little political world of my own’. And I saw the temptation in that.

However much I perceive myself to be standing up for the causes to which I am devoted, I recognise a similar tendency to dream up a Utopia of equality for myself. So much of my time is spent reading ‘the papers’, and refining my views in conversation with like-minded people, that I forget to test them against my opponents, or sometimes to incorporate experiences alien to my own perception.  I often attempt to avoid confrontation with people whose views I know to be incompatible with my own – and as a result am sometimes not able to construct a well-argued defence for the opinions which, to me, have come to seem so natural. Hence, I come out of debates not feeling that I have been wrong, but that I have not made myself understood.

So the lesson here is: don’t be like Margaret Harkness. Speak your mind. Like-minded thinkers will help you refine your ideas, and your opponents will teach you to defend them. Don’t isolate yourself. It may lead you to write a paternalistic horror like George Eastmont, and that just wouldn’t do.

25/5/2013: My post on Margaret Harkness’s novel In Darkest London has now appeared on the London Fictions website. Read it here.

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