Monday, July 13, 2015

Five stories by George Gissing from the 1890s

You can blame P. G. Wodehouse for getting me interested in late Victorian novelist George Gissing.  A guy who writes about "gray squalor" and whose books "don't sell?"  Sign me up!  I liked "The Prize Lodger," published in 1896 and collected in the 1898 volume Human Odds and Ends: Sketches and Stories, so I decided to read some more of the book's 29 stories.  Neither the college library in the little town where I am currently residing nor the Des Moines Public Library seem to have any fiction by Gissing, so I turned for succor to the folks at Google, who have scanned an 1898 edition of Human Odds and Ends held by Harvard University; the PDF is freely available (along with scans of other editions) via Google Books.

If you have some beef with Google, you can read the stories in Human Odds and Ends as e-texts at a webpage dedicated to Gissing maintained by Mitsu Matsuoka of Nagoya University.  Personally, I like old typefaces, while my career as a subaltern in the academic ranks (duties included scanning and copy-editing hundreds of pages of mind-numbingly lame social science articles which would never be peer-reviewed) has made me preternaturally suspicious about scanning errors, so I stuck with the Google scans.

Last week, I read the first five stories from Human Odds and Ends.  The website indicates that these stories all first appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine, a fact I confirmed by taking a look at issues of the magazine from the collection of the University of Michigan, also digitized by the tireless people at Google.  These PDFs preserve for posterity the illustrations adorning each story (samples below.)

"Comrades in Arms" (1894)

At a restaurant a successful young novelist, Wilfrid Langley, is sought out by a friend, Bertha Childerstone, a woman ten or so years older, who writes articles for periodicals and lives on the edge of poverty.  She falls ill, and is incapacitated for over a month, during which time Langley pays her bills, gives her money, writes articles published under her name, and visits her daily.  He has been hoping to get married (on the first page of the story Gissing suggests that his freedom is not enough to satisfy him: "No one was dependent upon him; no one restrained his liberty....And for all that... something seemed to him amiss in the bounty of the gods") and falls in love with Childerstone during her sickness.  When Childerstone is nearly recovered he makes his feelings known, but she rejects his proposal of marriage and warns him that he should not get married, that it would "spoil" him.  After she is fully recovered Langley gets over his love for Childerstone and their relationship returns to its former, platonic, character.

To me, this story seems to be about how clever women can manipulate those around them.  Much is made of Childerstone's younger sister Cissy, and how big sister Bertha guided her into marrying a man Bertha thought suitable, even manipulating events to make sure Cissy did not marry Langley.  Gissing suggests that such manipulation is not necessarily wholly selfish or malicious; Childerstone is the self-sacrificing type, and one reason for her illness and poverty is that she "worked herself to death to provide" for her younger sister, among other things financing Cissy's trip to South Africa to be with her betrothed.  Childerstone also seems to be manipulating Langley, for her own benefit--he pays her bills and does her work while she is ill--and for what she sees as his--discouraging his inclination to marry her, or marry anybody.

Which brings us to the issue of marriage in the story.  Langley's success feels hollow because he does not have anyone to share his life with; this feels like Gissing advocating marriage.  But Childerstone strongly argues against marriage--she doesn't want to get married, she "prefers the freedom of loneliness," and she urges Langley to follow the same course.  Perhaps in the same way that Proust tells us in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time that friendship is a waste of an artist's time and energy, Gissing is arguing that marriage is an impediment to a creative person, that a writer should be willing to sacrifice happiness in order to pursue his (or her) art.

"The Justice and the Vagabond" (1896)

Like "The Prize Lodger," this story tells of a man dominated by his wife.  (Marriage is getting a bad rap in these Gissing stories.)  As it did in "Comrades in Arms," illness plays a prominent role in the plot.

Dick Rutland and Henry Goodeve were close friends at boarding school, in their early teens; both wanted to travel the world.  As an adult Rutland, who is quite rich, has no opportunity to travel because his provincial wife ("a woman of narrow mind and strong will; she ruled him in every detail of his life") does not care to do so, and is always pushing him to do this or that (running for electoral office, performing highly visible charitable works, opening flower shows and presiding over public lectures) in order to maintain her status among the other country ladies.

By chance, when they are in their forties, Rutland and Goodeve meet again.  Goodeve has travelled all over the globe, working his passage on ships, painting houses, doing plumbing or carpentry, and other odd jobs.  Rutland laments that Goodeve has lived the life of a man, while he has lived the life of a "slave" and a "vegetable."  "I mean, what a glorious life! I envy you, Goodeve; with heart and soul I envy you!"

Rutland's wife is away for a few days, and he comes up with the scheme of running away to Latin America with his old chum.  He will skip town before his wife gets back, leaving her a note--he knows he hasn't got the nerve to disobey her to her face. Goodeve makes the arrangements, getting steam ship berths and so forth, but Rutland (who has been under the weather since the story's first line) gets seriously sick and dies in his sleep, leaving poor Goodeve at the docks to assume the wife got to his hen-pecked buddy before he could escape.

"The Firebrand" (1896)

In his youth, I am told, Gissing was a socialist, but after a few years got better.  He really burnishes his conservative bona fides in "The Firebrand," a portrait of a left-wing agitator who doesn't espouse radical beliefs and stir up trouble because of a sincere concern for the working classes, but out of selfish desires to be a big man and further his own career.  (Or does he?)

At age eighteen, Andrew Mowbray Catterick, considered by some "an idle dog...given to self-praise," leaves the North Country town of Mapplebeck for London.  Five years later he returns; he's had a difficult time, years of little sleep and little food (one of Gissing's recurring themes is how physically taxing the life of a professional writer is), but is now a journalist for two London papers.  His "revolutionary opinions" embarass his Conservative family (Mom has "a comfortable four hundred per annum"--on her death half of it will go to Andrew) and Catterick flaunts these opinions, as well as his contempt for the people of the small town he grew up in.  He starts giving vitriolic speeches to the local miners, urging them to strike.  "A strike there undoubtedly would be, sooner or later, and how could he more profitably occupy his leisure than in helping to bring it about? The public eye would at once be fixed on him; with care and skill he might achieve more than local distinction...."

The more trouble Andrew stirs up the worse things get socially for his family ("Respectable Mapplebeck talked indignantly of his reckless and wicked meddling....")  There is even talk of postponing sister Bertha's wedding to the Dickensianly-named Robert Holdsworth, a solicitor.  Bertha lets slip that her brother is a coward, and Holdsworth forges a threatening letter to him; ostensibly it is from miners opposed to a strike, who warn that if a strike occurs, they will beat Catterick up.  This threat is all too believable (Catterick is well aware that the strike will hurt the miners financially, and that many are prone to violence), and when the strike begins, Catterick, making various excuses, flees to London.

Gissing certainly seems skeptical of the wisdom of the strike, and portrays Andrew Catterick as a selfish, hypocritical coward.  But Gissing also points out that, having lived in poverty himself in London, Catterick has some sincere sympathy for the workers.  While Holdsworth and the female Cattericks are the victors in the story, they win by trickery and are as selfish, or more selfish, than Andrew: like Andrew (who wants to become a famous journalist) they are driven by a desire for the approval of their social peers and a low opinion of their social inferiors.  Nobody in the story has pure motives, and nobody is particularly sympathetic, with the possible exception of the miners, whom their social betters callously disregard and use as pawns in their status games.

"The Inspiration" (1895)

On a whim, a wealthy man invites a pathetic door-to-door salesman in for dinner.  The pedlar is honest and intelligent, but also lazy:
"I'm one of those men, sir, that weren't made to get on in the world. As a lad, I couldn't stick to anything—couldn't seem to put my heart into any sort of work, and that was the ruin of me—for I had chances to begin with. I've never done anything to be ashamed of—unless it's idleness."
I know how you feel, buddy!

The wealthy guy feeds him a hearty meal and gives him a pep talk, invigorating the pedlar, who runs out and convinces his childhood sweetheart, now a wealthy widow, to marry him.  He could never have done it without the rich guy's support:
"Do you suppose," continued the other, gravely, "that I could ever have done that if it hadn't been for your dinner ? Never! Never! I should have crept on through my miserable life, and died at last in the workhouse...."
I think this is the only of the six Gissing stories I have read in which marriage is not looked upon as some kind of mistake or (as in "The Firebrand") the impetus to some kind of misbehavior.

On the face of it, this is a story with a happy ending.  But when we consider how narrow a margin (a single meal!) lies between a life of lonely misery and one of joy and comfort, and that it was only by the merest luck that the pedlar got on the right side of that line, Gissing seems to be leading us to think that our lives are governed by chance, or a whimsical Fate or God.  (The pedlar directly compares his benefactor to "the finger of Providence.")

On the other hand, maybe Gissing is suggesting that while the universe appears chaotic, in fact Providence metes out justice.  The pedlar, being lazy, suffered loneliness and a crummy job for years, but after this period of penance was given a second chance.  (Being essentially honest and decent, he was not sentenced to Hell, only to Purgatory, where he was cleansed of the sin of idleness.)  This interpretation is bolstered by the character of the widow, an innocent person who is rescued from a life of loneliness and the clutches of legacy hunters by the pedlar's unexpected arrival.

"The Poet's Portmanteau" (1895)

I've heard that Gissing's work is full of creative people who struggle to make ends meet and create their art, and here we have an example.  In this story a young poet, having spent ten months in the country writing a long poem, The Hermit of the Tor, returns to London to try to sell the piece.  At a lodging house he meets an attractive, educated young woman, Miss Rowe, who has fallen on hard times; each makes a powerful impression on the other. Rowe, a starving artist, driven to desperation, tricks the poet out of eight shillings and steals the portmanteau which holds the only copy of The Hermit of the Tor. She sells the luggage and all its contents, save the poem.  The money is the difference between life and death for her; she is able to leave London and get a crummy job (her art career is abandoned) which keeps body and soul together, and then marry a rich man she does not love.

Eight years after his manuscript was stolen the poet has abandoned his poetry career and taken up the lucrative trade of writing sentimental novels.  A mysterious woman, an aficionado of his novels, calls on him, to return the manuscript of The Hermit of the Tor, which she says was given to her by Rowe.  Rowe, she claims, recently died.

The poet, who has never married, is intrigued by this mystery woman, who will not give her name. She advises him to eschew marriage ("I'm delighted to know that you keep your independence.")  It is strongly implied that this woman is the former Miss Rowe, and that she and the poet would have found happiness together if her poverty had not pushed her to fraud and thievery.  The day these perfect mates met, instead of setting them together on the road to happiness, set them on a course that would see them turning their backs on their artistic dreams and living lives of financial security and loneliness.

As in "Inspiration," we see how thin for some people is the margin between happiness and misery, even between survival and death, and as in "Comrades in Arms" we see a woman arguing that marriage stifles an artist.


I like these kinds of tragic stories, in which love relationships are fraught with peril and people's hopes and dreams are dashed, and Gissing's style is good.  Being over a century old, they also provide a little insight into ways of living and thinking of our predecessors; these stories have enough raw material about such issues as class and gender to get any social science or liberal arts grad student salivating.

Googling around, I noticed some people have awarded Gissing with the appellation "feminist," and it seems worthwhile to consider how he portrays women in these five stories.  Do they provide reason to believe Gissing has earned the feminist seal of approval?

On the one hand, we do have examples of mothers and the wives who stifle the men attached to them by blood or marriage, a time-honored male complaint.  But both sexes suffer from the yoke of matrimony in Gissing's stories, and in "Comrades in Arms" and "The Poet's Portmanteau" the institution's most vocal critics are women who value freedom and independence.  Also, in "The Poet's Portmanteau" the mysterious visitor points out one of society's double standards: "She [Miss Rowe] was a girl who did what is supposed to be the privilege of men—sowed wild oats."  Maybe Gissing really does deserve the feminist label.


I'll be exploring more of Gissing's body of work in the future.  Until then (if it is not already too late!), make sure to think twice before letting somebody put that ring on your finger.

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