Squalor

Frank Kermode

  • Gissing: A Life in Books by John Halperin
    Oxford, 426 pp, £18.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 812677 8
  • George Gissing: Critical Essays edited by Jean-Pierre Michaux
    Vision/Barnes and Noble, 214 pp, £11.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 85478 404 7

The books listed below have been my leisure reading for many weeks, and I have a glimmering as to what it is that prompts the converted to claim so much for Gissing. But my own view, which is very commonplace, remains the same: New Grub Street is a novel of extraordinary power, and without it the oeuvre would be no more than the interesting record of a pained but minor artist.

John Halperin, of course, takes a different view, claiming that a dozen of the novels are ‘first-rate’. In order to reach that total he has to include The Paying Guest – indeed, he thinks it a ‘masterpiece’. As it is a short book, about thirty thousand words, which Gissing wrote in a couple of weeks in 1895, it might tempt readers to use it as a test case when considering such claims. Here it is, in a nice but expensive facsimile reprint, an easy and skilful little study of what happened to a suburban household when it took in a lodger, a girl from a vulgar family much richer than her hosts. Ian Fletcher’s introduction does wonders for it; he has a fine sense of Victorian class nuances, for the consciences of the not-so-rich, for the servant problem, so agonising when only the poor didn’t have them; but he also finds the scene in which the paying guest and her suitor set fire to the drawing-room ‘hilarious’, and here, I think, is the note of excess common to many of Gissing’s supporters. It’s a relief, certainly, to find Gissing in so relaxed a mood, still writing about the class and woman questions, as he almost always did, whatever the ostensible theme, but for once finding them a matter for amusement. But if The Paying Guest is a masterpiece the world must be crammed with them.

Still, as Halperin remarks, admirers of Gissing tend to be decent folk, as generous in their praise as in their sympathetic interest in his appalling life, which was dominated, like his books, by problems of sex, money and class, gloomily interrelated. The degree of interrelation is indeed a perpetual theme of the commentators, and M. Michaux’s collection contains some good essays touching on it, and notably on its presence in New Grub Street, where all Gissing’s woes and terrors come successfully together, so that we have a book notable for its critical power as well as for its account of several ways in which it was possible for a writer of this period to be maudit without being a poet.

George Orwell, who had been able to read very few of the books, nevertheless contrived to write one of the best pieces on Gissing, and his explanation of the novelist’s wretchedness was that he felt acutely the horrors of life in Late Victorian England, horrors that were ‘largely unnecessary’. Orwell’s understanding of Gissing’s response to these conditions was at least as full, and a good deal more tersely expressed, than that of his later admirers:

The grime, the stupidity, the ugliness, the sex-starvation, the furtive debauchery, the vulgarity, the bad manners, the censoriousness – these things were unnecessary, since the puritanism of which they were a relic no longer upheld the structure of society. People who might, without becoming less efficient, have been reasonably happy chose instead to be miserable, inventing senseless taboos with which to terrify themselves. Money was a nuisance not merely because without it you starved; what was more important was that unless you had quite a lot of it – £300 a year, say[*] – society would not allow you to live gracefully or even peacefully. Women were a nuisance because even more than men they were the believers in taboos, still enslaved to respectability even when they had offended against it. Money and women were therefore the two instruments through which society avenged itself on the courageous and the intelligent.

Orwell then relates a rather typical Gissing episode from A Life’s Morning (not a favourite with Halperin) in which a man loses his hat, has to steal money to buy another, since it is impossible to be seen without one, and so runs into a whole series of disasters. A taboo merely; hatlessness later became quite respectable, possibly because of the dashing manners of the Prince of Wales; though among the aspiring poor, as I know from my own childhood, men who earned three pounds a week still, in the Thirties, spent an absurd proportion of their income on hats, and a lot of time brushing them. Of course Orwell means by this example to illustrate prohibitions much more dangerously inhibiting, and equally absurd.

What Orwell doesn’t quite see is the extent to which Gissing’s own behaviour was affected by the taboos. To be a gentleman one needed to observe them, and Gissing had a hectic contempt for people who merely aspired to the class which could afford to do so with a measure of grace. ‘Minor clerks’ who dropped their aitches and lived on £2 a week were not entitled to be absurd even in the manner of the middle classes, and Gissing, better-educated and on the whole better-off than they, antagonised this large potential audience – the ‘quarter-educated’, as he called them, readers of Titbits – by his refusal to take them seriously or even to exploit them, as Bennett did: consequently, he ran the risk of falling between the two stools described by Reardon in New Grub Street, producing ‘what is too empty to please the better kind of readers, yet not vulgar enough to please the worst’. His Reardon-like refusal to contribute to ‘the multiplication of ephemerides’ is a further sign of his gentlemanly contempt for the new reading public.

The worst of the middle-class inhibitions was the taboo on easy sex. Middle-class girls could not easily be got into bed without marriage, and they would not marry poor men. This theme is very powerful in New Grub Street, but it is heard throughout Gissing, in his life as well as his work. Sometimes it appears that nothing stands between the novelist and sexual bliss but a few pounds a week, though it is true that he often laments not only the impossibility of marrying an educated woman but the institution of marriage more generally; and his own third union, with Gabrielle Fleury, who had all the advantages of being middle-class, French and educated, proved almost as disappointing, though in a more genteel way, as his marriages with a prostitute and a working-class girl. In any case it seems possible that he could always have earned more if he’d really wanted to. Of course there was much competition; and some publishers were extraordinarily rapacious. But Gissing was a well-known writer, and although he was occasionally compelled to sell cheap because he was broke it is hard to believe, even allowing for his frightful domestic circumstances, that he could not have earned more than the £3 a week which seems to have been his usual reward for a relatively enormous output. As a matter of fact, he made over £500 in 1895, not a fortune but probably around £20,000 in our money. This was three years before he met his ideal, ‘a woman of the intellectual bourgeoisie ... her voice carefully musical ... well read ... consciously refined and intelligent’. It should have worked, but it didn’t: marriage itself, not money, was the problem.

Gissing’s obstinate preference for domestic misery calls for some other explanation. He married wives whom he could not take with him when he went to see the sort of people he was entitled to know; he wrote stories about marital disasters, and then re-enacted them in his own life. Frederic Harrison, who knew him well, said that Gissing was ‘the most hardened egotist and the most refined sybarite I know’; and there are sybarites who prefer nails to rose-leaves. He had a particular hatred for the middle ground between rich and poor – the mortgaged suburban house with its poky over-furnished parlour. It is a sentiment common among those who are bred in the more refined but still insecure stretch of territory that lies closer to the border of affluence than to that of poverty. Gissing said he wanted sexual union without marriage, and spouses with separate houses: but in spite of all this, he married into the certainty of squalor.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that sex was the real problem, the others being mere sequelae. The resemblance between Gissing and Hardy, whom he much admired, is only superficial. Hardy also thought marriage hopeless: ‘there is no satisfactory scheme for the conjunction of the sexes.’ But Hardy felt this thought as a poet might. ‘The emotions have no place in a world of defect, and it is a cruel injustice that they should have developed in it’: Gissing could conceivably have said that, but Hardy’s sense that sex is beautiful but necessarily blighted is absent from Gissing, who criticised the ending of Tess but could no more have matched the sexual poetry of that novel than he could have written the poems.

Indeed, Gissing’s world is more like that implied by Freud’s essay of 1912, called ‘The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life’. A very common condition among modern men, said Freud, was a ‘psychical impotence’ which divorced desire and love; the sufferers ‘lower their sexual object’, and enjoy with women they could not love or respect pleasures unavailable from their well-brought-up wives. Respectable women, for their part, suffer not only from the lowered potency of their partners, but from the lengthy abstinence they must endure before achieving even that much satisfaction: so they become frigid, at any rate with their husbands. The remedy for this state of affairs is for men to overcome their deference for women and accustom themselves to the idea of incest with mothers and sisters; but if this seems utopian, Freud is willing to put up with things as they are, since he thinks that if everybody was able to use his or her sexual energy to the full, there would be no reserves for use in other ways, such, presumably, as writing novels.

Nowadays we may have got rid of deference, though expert friends assure me that degradation in erotic life has merely assumed different forms. What seems reasonably certain is that Gissing had it in something like the form outlined by Frend. When he was a student at Manchester he stole from the cloakroom to help the prostitute he later married: that is, the acquisition of money was not the motive of the theft – the real motive was sex with a degraded partner. Thus the ‘guilty secret’, which, as all commentators note, turns up again and again in Gissing’s novels and is always traced back to the cloakroom episode and the subsequent prison sentence, is indissolubly related to degraded sex and fears of incest. His resentment of middle-class women is extraordinary, but he regards all women as ignorant and childish, more interested, if respectable, in moral attachments than in passion. He even scents an evolutionary purpose in female stupidity, and argues that ‘the average woman closely resembles, in all intellectual considerations, the average male idiot – I speak medically.’ It is true that one of his alter egos, Godwin Peak in Born in Exile, says that ‘the daughter of a county family is a finer being than any girl who can spring from the nomad orders,’ but the girl who fits that bill is called Sidwell Warricombe, which hints at a nominal promotion to masculinity.

Gissing seems to have disliked his mother, a cold untouching woman; according to his sister, whose memoir is reprinted in the Michaux collection, his father meant a lot to him, but he died when Gissing was 13. Discounting his remarks about the tortures of chaste celibacy, she denies that her brother had ‘strong amorous propensities’, attributing his misfortunes to the charitable disposition which led him to steal the money, and to the bitterness of his subsequent life. But it seems clear that he wanted women as much as he despised them. There is a revealing scene in The Year of Jubilee, published in 1895, when he had two bad marriages behind him. In that book we find young women of the fairly prosperous lower middle class, and they embody all that he coldly detests. A young man called Horace calls on the despicable Fanny; she is angry, and he stands before her, ‘limp and tremulous’. To impress her with his seriousness and daring he speaks ill of his worthy father. ‘And he knew his business; he was not ignorant of the girl’s ignoble nature. Only the fury of a virgin passion enabled him to talk, and sometimes think, as though he were in love with ideal purity.’ Fanny grants him a mild caress, ‘passive, unconcerned; no second-year graduate of the pavement could have reserved a completer equanimity; it did not appear that her pulse quickened ever so slightly, nor had her eyelid the suspicion of a droop.’ In the context of this novel Gissing’s loathing for such women extends to practically everything that constitutes their world – the squalid Jubilee celebrations, the disgusting advertisements, the lodgings and houses of London itself, where live desolate men, ‘imprisoned with wife and children amid these leagues of dreary, inhospitable brickwork’. In this immonde cité even the social services provide an obbligato of despair – ‘the wailing shout of a dustman ... was like the voice of a soul condemned to purge itself in filth.’ In The Whirlpool, Harvey Rolfe exclaims that ‘there is not a good word to be said for the ordinary life of an English household. Flee from it! ... Domestic life is played out ... All ordinary housekeepers’ – i.e. not dukes, who ‘breed’ workers on their estates – ‘are at the mercy of the filth and insolence of a draggle-tailed, novelette-reading, feminine democracy.’ And when women, those agents of oppression, try to lead unusual lives, or educate themselves out of idiocy, they always seem to go wrong: like Alma in The Whirlpool, they may take up the violin and neglect their children, or become New Women, feminists (in whom Gissing took a suspicious and fascinated interest) – with similar consequences.

Not many years later Ford Madox Ford made the desirable Valentine Wannop (why, though, did he give her that despairing name?) a feminist and a Classical scholar. Gissing could never have done that. He was proud of his Classics, and in rare moods of exaltation would recite a chorus from Sophocles; when he had money he went straight to Athens, which he celebrated in several set-pieces, though he actually preferred Naples. His love of the Classics he derived from his father: it was a male passion. In the touching novelette Sleeping Fires, a father is united with his unknown son in Athens; the agent of reunion is a Classics don who is ‘bear-leading’ the young man. In this Classical setting, a natural sympathy declares itself between father and son: it would have been impossible for Gissing to imagine anything of the kind between father and daughter, or between two women. But for what he called Hap, Hardy might have been a parson and never bothered to write novels: but for Hap, Gissing might have been a don and escaped Grub Street (not that dons always do). A passion for the Classics was in his time a sure way of distinguishing the man of letters from the Grub Street hack: but it also indicated membership of a male club. Their exclusion from it merely confirmed the idiocy of women, and provided some revenge for the indignities they imposed on all men with less than £1000 a year. Of course it was a woman who frustrated any hope he might have had of going to Oxford and becoming a true Classic.

Gillian Tindall, in her excellent general study of the novelist, shrewdly noted that the ‘guilty secret’ was a working-class crime. Its most absurd transformation in the fiction occurs in Born in Exile, when Godwin Peak suddenly flees from his college because he cannot bear the shame that must befall him when his uncle opens a cheap restaurant near the campus. It hardly matters how the Fall occurs: what counts is the horror of exile from happiness, from a paradise without the possibility of shame or want.

Gissing knew the particulars of want. Born in Exile specifies one of them that is still part of our social life: a ‘poverty trap’ set by the Inland Revenue, whereby a man with £100 a year escaped tax, but a man with £101 had to pay £4.16.9. (He is talking about the previous generation, but there is no suggestion that matters had improved in the meantime.) From a world rendered mean by such circumstances Peak decides to escape, even though he must lead ‘a life of deliberate baseness to do so’. But his secret guilt emerges, and fortune, which had ‘decreed his birth in a social sphere where he was ever to be alien’, saw to it that he died, as he was born, ‘in exile’.

Gissing’s own fate was not quite so cruel, but his years in the lower depths marked him indelibly. He came to loathe the masses, and his best book about them is not one of the more sympathetic early ones like Workers in the Dawn or The Unclassed, but Demos, his seventh novel, written at the age of 28. It appeared at a time of socialist demonstrations against unemployment; its topicality was an unusual bit of luck cancelled out later when The Crown of Life, an anti-imperialist novel, coincided with the Boer War. Published anonymously, Demos was by some gossips attributed to Gladstone. Gissing went in for Victorian plots, and here the plot is based on an absurd will, but it is a strong book, reeking of hatred for the working class. By a testamentary confusion a working man becomes rich and undertakes a quasi-socialist exploitation of the mineral resources of a beautiful countryside. Meanwhile he abandons his working-class girl to marry upward. When the true will is found he loses everything, and is hounded to death by Demos. The aristocratic young man, his patrimony restored, rather improbably reverses the process of industrial disfigurement, and marries the dead man’s widow: ‘the untruth of years fell from her like a veil, and she had achieved her womanhood.’ The old girlfriend, who had almost saved her unfaithful lover from the fury of the mob, did no such thing.

In Demos it is particularly easy to observe Gissing’s fantasies at work. Soon he gave up writing about the poor; and without altogether abandoning what Jacob Korg calls ‘the iconography of degradation’, he had occasional fits of relative jollity, as in the successful and lively novel of 1889, The Town Traveller. Less Dickensian than Wellsian, this novel is brightened by that rare person in Gissing, a high-spirited, noisy girl, whose relations with ‘minor clerks’ is part of the subject. ‘Belonging to a class which, especially in its women, has little intelligence to boast of, she yet redeemed herself from the charge of commonness by a vivacity of feature,’ comments Gissing on another woman in another novel, Eve’s Ransom; it is set in Birmingham, and though it was written in a hurry we get some of the old iconography in a description of the statue of Peel, beside which stands ‘a hansom, the forlorn horse crossing his knees and hanging his hopeless head’. Mr Halperin has little time for either of these interesting novels, and he also dislikes a lively novel called Our Friend the Charlatan, which has another guilty secret (this time plagiarism) but also a rich and comically ogrish woman called Lady Ogram. It sometimes seems he dislikes the idea of Gissing having a bit of fun.

Indeed, as I said at the outset, Mr Halperin’s judgments are often mysterious to me. Will Warburton, Gissing’s last novel, is about a young man who loses his money and becomes a grocer, which affects his relations with middle-class women. It’s well done, but Halperin calls it ‘one of his very greatest novels’, which is to me as inexplicable as the judgment on Sleeping Fires, described as Gissing’s Antony and Cleopatra, ‘brilliant, highly dramatic, and wonderfully passionate ... one of the greatest short novels ever written’. We have to remind ourselves of other books written at the same time – say, The Red Badge of Courage and The Spoils of Poynton. The Whirlpool, another of Halperin’s ‘great’ novels, appeared in the same year as What Maisie Knew.

James, indeed, is more judicious than this later eulogist of Gissing. He had, he said, a ‘persistent taste’ for this author, a taste established by New Grub Street and triumphing ‘even over the fact that he almost as persistently disappoints me ... The whole business of distribution and composition he strikes me as having cast to the winds.’ James had The Whirlpool in mind: it is an interesting novel and it testifies in some degree to Gissing’s assertion that the effort of the novelist must be to embody his own ‘shaping spirit’; it owes something to Dickens, something to Hardy, yet it is very much a Gissing novel. But James’s criticism is fair.

All the same, Wells’s judgment that Gissing was ‘no novelist’ is absurd. He had skill and fluency. His method seems to have been to work fast at an idea, write up to a third of a book, and then either abandon it or hurry to the end. Sometimes he might dash off a short novel in three weeks or so. Nowadays he might be doing quite other things, radio or television plays or film scripts, buying himself time to be the novelist he felt he really was, without ceasing to be a man of letters. ‘It is ill to have been born in these times,’ he said, ‘but one can make a world within the world.’ And that he did.

Mr Halperin gives us a thorough, if pedestrian account of both those worlds. Perhaps he exaggerates the remoteness of the world Gissing had to live in, calling it ‘as remote from the aeroplane and automobile, the telephone and telegraph, movies and television, as that of Adam Bede’. Actually it would be a reasonable bet that more telegrams are sent by Gissing’s characters than by those of any other author; his inner city was clogged by traffic, dirty, full of contrasts between rich and poor, just like modern London, and no one understood better than he that literature had become a commodity, and writers mere ‘hands’. If he is worth reading it is not as an act of what Samuel Hynes calls ‘Victoriolatry’ but because he did make a world, and because, as he sometimes remarked, he could see the future. He wrote thirty-odd books, including a good one about Greece, a good one about Dickens, and the fantasised autobiography, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. He was a more important writer than his doubles in New Grub Street but a lesser one than his champions are now trying to make out.

[*] Gissing’s own estimate was £1,000, or about £40,000 today.

New Grub Street is published by Penguin (556 pp., £1.95, 1980, 0 14 043 0326).
In the Year of Jubilee and Eve’s Ransom are published by Dover/Constable (404 pp., £4.50, July 1982, 0486 04251 X and 129 pp., £2.25, April 1982, 0486 24016 9).
The Odd Women is published by Virago (336 pp., £3.50, 1980, 086068 140 8).

The following novels by Gissing are available from Harvester: The Paying Guest, 200 pp., £7.50, June 1982, 0 85527 892 7.Born in Exile, 470 pp., £9.95 and £5.95, 1978, 0 85527 872 2.The Whirlpool, 461 pp., £9.95, 1977, 0 85527 789 0.Sleeping Fires, 230 pp., £7.50, 1977, 085527 032 2.Demos: A Story of English Socialism, 524 pp., £9.95 and £4.95, 1975, 0 9017 5933 3.The Crown of Life, 320 pp., £9.95, 1979, 0 85527 692 4. The Town Traveller, 336 pp., £9.95, February 1982, 0 86627 902 8. Our Friend the Charlatan, 480 pp., £9.95, 1976, 0 85527 199 X. Will Warburton, 384 pp., £9.95, February 1982, 0 85527 882 X. Isabel Clarendon, 720 pp., £25, August 1982, 0 7108 0460 0. Denzil Quarrier, 270 pp., £9.95, 1979, 0 85527 712 2.The Emancipated, 484 pp., £9.95, 1977, 0 85527 739 4. Thyrza, 490 pp., £9.95, 1974, 0 901759 94 7. The Nether World, 392 pp., £10.95 and £2.95, February, 0 901759 10 4. The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, 298 pp., £10.95 and £4.95, February, 0 7108 03230. The Unclassed, Veranilda and Workers in the Dawn will be published this year; A Life’s Morning is due out in 1984.