“It don’t do to offend Government.”
A Manchester Shirtmaker was written in 1890 by Margaret Harkness (1854-1923). Harkness, a socialist and a feminist used the pen name John Law, a Scottish economist who believed in economic reform focusing on assisting the poor and unemployed. Harkness wrote a number of novels, including Out of Work, which was initially refused publication “because of the danger of exposing the reading public to material sympathetic to the working classes.” Imagine that.
The informative introduction by Trefor Thomas compares A Manchester Shirtmaker to parts of Zola’s Germinal admittedly with a “lower level of literary sophistication.” I happen to think that Zola is one of the greatest writers ever on this planet, so comparing Harkness to Zola is for me, pushing it a bit. The main character in A Manchester Shirtmaker, the young widow Mary Dillon, is not three dimensional, but rather a symbol–a victim of the times.
When the novella begins, Mary Dillon is attempting to find work to support herself and her baby. Trapped in poverty in the slums of Manchester, and without assistance from relatives, she hopes to find work as a seamstress using her one substantial possession–a sewing machine. Mary’s attempts to find work serve as a description of the “economics of the sweating system.” In this industry, people are worked to death by a brutal system maximizing human labour for maximum profit. There are few choices for employment facing a woman, and Mary’s choices are additionally limited by the fact she has a child. The novel presents Mary trapped in desperate circumstances, but as the story wears on, her plight becomes increasingly worse.
While the novella has historic value in its presentation of the working classes, there are several aspects of the book that inhibited enjoyment for me. Mary is a most unsatisfactory character. She begins as a victim, and she ends as a victim. The few times she acts all end in disaster. Acted upon rather than taking action, her passivity, at least to this reader was frustrating. But I am not alone in my opinion. The book includes a letter from Engels to Harkness expressing this very point. Furthermore, the novel is excessively sentimental, and sentimentality is a pet peeve of mine
Another difficulty I had with the novel was its blatant anti-Semitism. The greatest villain of the piece, the man who heartlessly delivers the coup de grace to the poor young widow is a Jew. The Jewish Sweaters who take work from the poverty-stricken workers can be viewed as fellow victims of a brutal capitalist system, but the Jew who rips off Mary Dillon is just gratuitous anti-Semitism, and such a characterization is hard to stomach–even though this may just a reflection of the attitude of the times. I found myself thinking about Rudolf Rocker, the anarcho-syndicalist whose lifelong companion was Milly Witcop, a Ukrainian Jew. He was alive (1873-1953) at the same time as Harkness. A solid fixture in the Jewish labour movement, and determined to smash the “sweating system” he was involved in the garment workers’ strike of 1906–sixteen years after Harkness wrote her novel.