Katherine Buildings near St. Katherine's Dock
Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori Florence, Città Metropolitana di Firenze, Toscana, Italy
Margaret Elise Harkness aka John Law (28 February 1854 – 10 December 1923) was an English radical journalist and writer. Margaret Harkness was one of the defiant band of female activists and reformers who disturbed the masculine peace of the British Museum Reading Room. She was another of Beatrice Webb’s cousins, and a close friend of Eleanor Marx. Between 1887 and 1905, Harkness published six novels about life in the slums, along with other ‘factual’ pieces on women’s employment, municipal reform and underfed children. She immersed herself in working-class life by living in one of Octavia Hill’s tenement buildings, and by other devices such as visiting working-class districts in Manchester, along with Beatrice Webb and Mary Ward: it is tantalizing to imagine what these three women might have conversed about on the way.
Deborah Epstein Nord has highlighted the importance of female community in the lives of pioneering women who lived outside residential communities. Focusing on one female network in late-XIX century London, she traces the connections between Beatrice Potter Webb, her cousin Margaret Harkness and Amy Levy, who all lived and worked in London in the 1880s and were part of a broader network, including the South African novelist Olive Schreiner and Eleanor Marx. Both Levy and Harkness also wrote novels, while Beatrice Potter Webb served as a Charity Organization Society worker and a rent collector in the East End. Nord suggests that, although the women did not partecipate in an organised female community, their membership in this more fluid netwoek sustained them and gave them identity and purpose focused on their work, socially marginal status and resistance of marriage and family.
Harkness was born on 28 February 1854 at Upton-on-Severn in Worcestershire. Her parents were Robert Harkness and Jane Waugh Law. Her father, Robert, was an Anglican priest. She had four siblings and a half sister as her mother had been widowed before she married her father. Her second cousin was the economist Beatrice Webb. She was sent to finishing school at Stirling House in Bournemouth. She is thought to have taken the name "Law" as part of her nom de plume because it was her mother's maiden name or because she was also a relation of Bishop George Henry Law.
After attending a finishing school in Bournemouth, she left home at the age of 23 to make her living. She there trained as a nurse and worked as a dispenser. Harkness lived in various locations in London with her cousin, Beatrice Webb, in Katherine Buildings near St. Katherine's Dock, where Webb worked as a rent collector. She had a difficult relationship with a Radical politician, Joseph Chamberlain, that ultimately foundered, after which she started thinking of herself as a "glorified spinster," able to devote herself completely to her work.
In her works of social investigation, Harkness uses a tone of social realism or naturalism, making her different from her male contemporarites. With the financial assistance of her sister and Beatrice Webb, she was able to continue living in London and become a writer. In 1883 she wrote Assyrian Life and History and the following year Egyptian Life and History according to the Monuments. She was introduced to socialism and a group of people who based themselves at the British Museum Reading Room; her friends included her sister Katie, Eleanor Marx, Olive Schreiner, and Annie Besant. Susan David Bernstein argues that this group of women enacted a "transformation of women's work that "entails a proliferation of women's labor across private homes and public spaces." In 1887 she published A City Girl. Engels gave her advice on her novels where he proposed that she should discuss typical people and situations and not create a stark socialist approach to writing. In 1888 she wrote her novel Out of Work included descriptions of what happened in Trafalgar Square on 13 November 1887. On that day actions by the police to control a demonstration by the unemployed resulted in injuries, one death and many arrests. One of the arrests was of the socialist John Burns who she would later work with, together with Tom Mann and Henry Hyde Champion, editor of the socialist paper Justice. The novel Captain Lobe followed in 1889. She put her politics into action during the London Dock Strike that year when she is thought to have influenced Cardinal Manning who successfully interceded in the dispute. In 1905 she published George Eastmont: Wanderer about her life during the 1889 Docks strike when she was briefly a member of the Social Democratic Federation. She described the conditions of the poor in London but she did not make it clear about her contact with Bishop Manning although the book was dedicated to him. Her book In Darkest London documents poverty in the East End and the Salvation Army's approach to the problem. She wrote a book about Indian life which was published as Glimpses of Hidden India in 1907 and as Indian Snapshots in 1912.
At the end of her life she lived in France and then Italy. Her last work A Curate's Promise: a Story of Three Weeks was published in 1921 and she died in Florence in 1923. She was buried in the Ossario Comune at Cimitero Evangelico Agli Allori, Florence.
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