Published in 1890, the novel, written in the convention of Bildungsroman, describes the fate of a young widow, Mary Dillon, who is a symbolic victim of the capitalist exploitation and degradation of the lower classes. Mary is found in Manchester as an abandoned baby in a chapel hidden beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary. She is sent to a workhouse and later becomes a servant who marries a labourer, Jack Dillon. Initially, Mary’s adult life shows her steady progress to respectable working-class existence. However, soon her husband dies after a long illness following an industrial accident. In order to support herself and her baby Mary gets employment in a sweatshop in notorious Ancoats, called the world’s first industrial suburb. Its description reveals the harsh conditions of work and misery the sweatshop employees had to endure.

…it was a long low room that held at least two hundred women. There was a deafening roar of machinery, for each woman sat before a sewing machine. [51]

Harkness describes one instance of resistance of the poverty-stricken female employees to the exploitative system of maximising human labour for minimal pay. At one point, the desperate women surround their Jewish sweater and deck him to the floor.

He drew back, but he could not escape, for he was already hemmed in by shirtmakers. Each girl caught up her old meat tin, and the whole two hundred advance upon him, rattling the reels of cotton and the scissors, crying loudly ‘Sweater!, Sweater!' [59]

Sweatshop strife assumes suddenly a racial and anti-Semitic dimension. The Jews, who emigrated from Eastern Europe, sought employment mostly in the garment industry in England. After a time some of them became subcontractors or owners of sweatshops which employed not only their compatriots but also native English and Irish employees. They were often targets of industrial unrest and anti-Semitic attitudes.

The novel ends tragically, almost like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. When Mary’s sewing machine is stolen, she loses all hope for a decent life and poisons her baby with opium because she cannot feed him. She is tried for infanticide, but she is found to be insane and is sent to the lunatic asylum, where she strangles herself.

In A Manchester Shirtmaker Harkness exposed the harsh realities of Manchester sweatshops. The novel records in documentary detail the passivity and hopelessness of the sweatshop employees during the economic depression of the 1880s. Harkness demonstrated in her novel that “ the introduction of the sewing machine did little to improve wages, since greater productivity lowered the price paid per garment; […] and the granting of government contract for sewing to workhouses undercut competition and further reduced prices.” (Alexander, 187)


Alexander, Lynn Mae. Women, Work, and Representation: Needlewomen in Victorian Art and Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.

Law, John (Margaret Harkness). A City Girl: A Realistic Story. London: Garland, 1884.

Koven, Seth. Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

McKean, Matthew K. “Rethinking late Victorian Slum Fiction”,English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 54:1, 2011, 28-55.

Thomas, Trefor. “Ancoats and the Manchester Slums in Two Late Victorian Novels”, Manchester Region History Review, vol. 7, 1993, 85-92.

Travers, Martin, ed. European Literature from Romanticism to Postmodernism: A Reader in Aesthetic Practice. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001.

Last modified 20 December 2018