Margaret Elise Harkness was born on 28 February 1854 in Great Malvern to clergyman Robert Harkness and his wife Elizabeth. She was educated at home, but in 1875 her parents sent her to a finishing school. Here she became close to Beatrice Webb (née Potter), her second cousin on her mother’s side.
Harkness, with characteristic determination, resisted her family’s demands that she marry, instead training as a nurse at Westminster Hospital. Apparently unsuited to nursing, and refusing to become a governess, she trained as a dispenser and worked at Guy’s Hospital in 1880. It soon became clear that Harkness’s ambition was driving her towards a literary career. After obtaining a Reader’s Pass for the British Museum Library Reading Room, Harkness started publishing articles and books on diverse subjects such as railway labour, Egyptian history, and municipal government in London.
In the early 1880s, Harkness began to take an active interest in the suffering of the working class, a topic she had discussed at length with her cousin Beatrice. Indeed, it was Harkness who introduced Beatrice to some of the most influential women of the socialist movement, including Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant, Olive Schreiner, and Amy Levy. Although Harkness’s involvement with the Social Democratic Federation was brief, through the connections she made – most notably with Henry Hyde Champion — she helped organize London’s Great Dock Strike of 1889. Her work behind the scenes involved soliciting support and funds for dock workers and playing an advisory role at committee meetings. She was also involved with Champion’s periodical, the Labour Elector.
It was while she was immersed in socialist politics that Harkness wrote her series of social condition novels under the pseudonym ‘John Law’: A City Girl (1887) – the novel which generated Engels’s famous definition of realism – Out of Work (1888), Captain Lobe: A Story of the Salvation Army (1889 – later republished as In Darkest London), and A Manchester Shirtmaker (1890).
In 1890, shortly after the conclusion of the dock strike, Harkness travelled to Germany and Austria to study labour conditions, but illness obliged her to return to Britain. The following year she travelled to Australia and New Zealand, possibly working for the Pall Mall Gazette. After returning to Britain in 1891, she began editing Tinsley’s Magazine, which later became the short-lived Novel Review under her direction. She then renewed her association with Champion’s Labour Elector and began serializing her novel Connie in June 1893. It remained incomplete, however, when the periodical folded in early 1894.
The same year she returned to Australia, working as the foreign correspondent for the Fortnightly Review. From here she continued her writing career, producing both novels and journalism. During a brief return to Britain in 1904, Harkness published George Eastmont, Wanderer, before heading off to Madras. Here she published articles and a novel, The Horoscope, and also renewed her friendship with Annie Besant.
Harkness returned to Britain before 1914 and nursed her mother through her final illness in 1916. After her mother’s death, she travelled to the continent, where she published her final novel, A Curate’s Promise: a story of Three Weeks, September 14-October 5 1917 in 1921. Harkness died at the Pensione Castagnoli in Florence on 10 December 1923 and was buried the following day in the local cemetery. She was identified on her death certificate as a spinster of independent means.
Victorian Secrets publishes A City Girl by John Law (Margaret Harkness).