New Women

Patricia Beer

  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
    Virago, 336 pp, £2.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 86068 140 8
  • The Beth Book by Sarah Grand
    Virago, 527 pp, £3.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 86068 088 6

George Gissing was convinced that the year 1900 would make all the difference. Writing his study of Charles Dickens in the late 1890s, he refers to his own generation as those ‘upon whom the new centurys breaking’. And one of the things the new century would bring was the New Woman.

To an extent, of course, as Gissing realised, she had already arrived. His chapter ‘Women and Children’ in the Dickens book is perhaps his most memorable statement on the subject. Nine-tenths of it is about women – the children come in for a few frail aperçus at the end – and his approach is wrong-headed, feverish and refreshingly outside the fold of traditional literary criticism. The table of contents would suggest that women are in themselves a feature of technique, parallel to ‘Humour and Pathos’ and ‘Art, Veracity and Moral Purpose’. But Gissing, in fact, goes to the opposite extreme, and discusses Dickens’s women characters as though they were living people: actually existing termagants, for example, of whom a much-tried man could say: ‘It is difficult to believe that death can stifle them; one imagines them on the threshold of some other world, sounding con fusion among unhappy spirits who hoped to have found peace.’

The tone is swashbuckling, and with reason. It would be inaccurate to say that Gissing’s married life was a failure. In a sense it was all too successful: he was looking for a neurotic woman and found three. But he was certainly not happy. He had inhibitions about punching the women in his own life, but he could lambaste Dickens’s imagined ones and their creator himself for providing such a set of harpies, imbeciles and bores. But his point was – and it fitted with the fact that he had just separated from his second wife – that all these evils were in the past. Even the imbeciles, even Mrs Nickleby, who is certainly a test case, would have been different in 1898. ‘Sixty years ago there was practically no provision in England for the mental training of women. Sent early to a good school, and kept there till the age, say, of one-and-twenty, Mrs Nickleby would have grown into a quite endurable gentlewoman, aware of her natural weakness, and a modest participant in general conversation.’ I doubt this very much, but the optimism is pleasing. The celibates, too, are looking up: ‘Nowadays things are so different; it is common to find spinsters who are such by choice, and not a few of them are doing good work in the world.’ It sounds dreary but is clearly meant to be cheerful.

A further tribute that Gissing makes to such progress is his statement that the women of his day did not read Dickens, feeling, in the modern way, that he was unjust to their sex. What they thought about Gissing’s portrayal of them in his own novels it is difficult to say. On this subject his work is a minefield of ambiguities. Nobody could accuse him of not knowing and understanding women, as he accused Dickens. (In his class-conscious way, he is scornful of Dickens’s early lack of experience of refined women: ‘the damsels of Dingley Dell were probably as like ladies as anything he had seen.’) But what are the readers to make of, say, Amy Reardon, the heroine or anti-heroine of New Grub Street (1891)? Every scene in which she appears implies both condemnation and justification. Is she a New Woman? She discusses such topics as the desirability of easy divorce, daringly exclaims ‘Love is the most insignificant thing in women’s lives,’ and replies with admirable spirit when her husband demands: ‘Granted that I am not of a very sanguine nature, and that I easily fall into gloomy ways of talk, what is Amy here for?’ Yet she gets her way by the methods of the harem. In the last chapter we see her reclining seductively on a settee, cajoling her second husband into referring to the girl he has jilted as an ink-stained schoolgirl.

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