‘In Harkness’ London’: a symposium on the life and work of Margaret Harkness

Birkbeck College (University of London), 22 November 2014

 Report by Rosalyn Buckland (King’s College London) and Kate Taylor (Birkbeck College, University of London)

Rosalyn Buckland is a PhD student at Kings College London where she is researching mining in 19th-century literature. She tweets @rosalynbuckland.

Kate Taylor has recently completed a Master’s Degree in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College and will begin a PhD on the inebriate Women of the late nineteenth-century later this year. She tweets @katetaylorfc.

Event Poster

This one-day symposium was the first event to bring together researchers interested in the late nineteenth-century writer and social activist Margaret Harkness. The range of papers offered diverse responses that considered Harkness’ work in the context of London’s Victorian slums as well as the lives, ideas and priorities of marginalised groups during the period.

Dr. Terry Elkiss’ enlightening keynote address presented a portrait of Harkness as a Zelig-like figure who, despite appearing ‘everywhere and with everyone’ in radical late nineteenth-century London, has remained enigmatic to scholars. Dr. Elkiss’ research has led him to discoveries about Harkness that are adding substance to what is known about her as a writer and activist in her own right, rather than as an adjunct to her more well-known colleagues in whose writing she appears as a peripheral figure. This was a position Harkness found herself in largely due to her estrangement from the socialist movement, although she remained committed to working-class politics and projects for women’s rights throughout her lifetime. Dr. Elkiss drew attention to the parallels between Harkness and Doris Lessing in their approach to socialist politics, and suggested that Harkness shared with Lessing a tendency to ‘speak her mind’ that may well have furnished her personal and historical position as one of isolation and obscurity.

Papers given in the first panel explored the first and last of Harkness’ slum novels – but from very different perspectives. Dr. Victoria Le Fevre gave a compelling paper on A City Girl (1887) in which she employed Marxist and feminist approaches to break open the text to reveal the wealth of dialectical imagery present in the novel, as  seen in the parallels between the iconography and mythology of Roman Catholicism and the iconography and mythology of consumerism. In contrast, Professor David Glover’s (University of Southampton) examination of George Eastmont: Wanderer (1905) concentrated upon this novel’s place in Harkness’ reappraisal of her own political past; a past that saw Harkness move away from what she considered to be the inaction of socialism, and look instead to the Salvation Army as the force for change to the moral disorder of the East End.

IHL Pencils

Following a busy lunch, Dr. Tabitha Sparks (McGill University) and Dr. Nadia Valman (Queen Mary, University of London) explored in their papers the relationship between working-class interiority and the physical, lived world. Demonstrating that Nelly responds not only to art and aesthetics but also to the natural world, Dr. Sparks argued against the critical assumption of the absence of working-class subjectivity in A City Girl. Dr. Valman then explored the relationship of Harkness’ peripatetic protagonists to the cityscape of London. Taken together, the papers sparked a debate about the value of trying to quantify the agency of individuals. In particular, the possibility of a Marxist materialist reading of Harkness’ work was raised: how, it was asked, can the working classes be an agent of change without agency?

The question of how Harkness dealt with the matter of working-class agency in her novels was considered in the third panel by papers which addressed Harkness’ depiction of those who have no language of their own with which to describe their experience. Dr. Ruth Livesey’s  (Royal Holloway, University of London) fascinating paper discussed the predominance of the aural immersive urban soundscape in A City Girl in which character and emotion are presented in the form of sound rather than sight – described as a radical idea which is also a technique suitable for passive determinism. She was followed by Dr. Lynne Hapgood (Nottingham Trent University) who spoke of Harkness’ view of her novels as the voice of the voiceless and of her awareness of the obstacle that poverty of language placed in the way of the working classes in the expression of their condition. Dr. Hapgood finished by stating that two of the most important questions asked by Harkness in her novels are: if you have no language to whom do you speak, and if you are alone to whom do you talk?

Eliza Cubitt (UCL) began the final panel with an analysis of Harkness’ use of ekphrasis. Focusing on A City Girl, she argued that the ‘asymmetrical mutual unreality’ created by ekphrasis in Harkness’ work reveals the illusoriness of domestic space in London’s West End, while also stabilising the status quo. As a fitting conclusion, historian Andrew Whitehead’s consideration of ‘The Real George Eastmont’ returned to biography, leaving us with important questions about Harkness herself. Perhaps, he suggested, it is the very enigma of Harkness’ life that makes her a fascinating figure for study.

The conference closed with a round table discussion that focused on Harkness’ unfinished novella ‘Connie’ (1893 – 4). The symbolic nature of places in Harkness’ work was considered: Trafalgar Square and the Embankment were explored as tropes of socialist fiction. But the possible failings of Harkness’ knowledge of public space – and of those people who populated it – were also hotly debated. In particular, questions were raised about the apparent isolation of Connie from the working classes and female support networks. Is Harkness arguing that these isolated individuals should come together in order to enact change? Or is Connie idealised for her refusal to depend upon women? In fact, it was asked, is this a socialist or feminist story at all?

This enjoyable symposium with its energetic contributions from speakers and delegates sparked much friendly debate. All delegates are, no doubt, encouraged by the promise of further scholarship related to Harkness and her world, and the prospect of additional enquiry at future events. Thank you to organisers Dr. Ana Vadillo (Birkbeck), Flore Janssen (Birkbeck) and Lisa Robertson (University of Warwick) and to Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies for hosting the symposium. We’re especially grateful for the generous support of the British Association for Victorian Studies, which made the event possible.



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