Monday, August 29, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
 “WILL WARBURTON” George Gissing (first published in 1905)
Reading and commenting on Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder reminded me of another novel in which there is a tension between the main character’s apparently ordinary and non-prestigious trade, and his aspirations and image of himself.

Fearnley’s alliterative Boden Black is a butcher who is also a poet and who remembers climbing a mountain with Ed Hillary. George Gissing’s alliterative Will Warburton is a rentier capitalist who becomes a grocer and is aware of how much his new trade has taken him down the social scale.

A little bit of background. George Gissing (1857-1903) was an English social realist novelist, a little Zolaesque but without the Naturalism, published between the 1880s and 1900s. His masterpiece is usually – and correctly – considered to be New Grub Street (1891), an account of the hack-writing trade, but I think it is run a close second by The Nether World (1889), a real shocker about London slum life, and Born in Exile (1892), a fictionalised account of Gissing’s own descent into poverty.

I admit that Gissing is very much an acquired taste. Nearly all his novels are dour and a little depressing as they focus on the grind of trying to earn a living in difficult circumstances. Although Gissing was no socialist, and aspired to be a literary gentleman of leisure, it has tended to be socialists who have most admired him. He showed unsparingly how dehumanising real poverty is in an industrialised society.

A lot of aesthetes hate him, and he is now little read. But I’m interested to note that Virginia Woolf thought highly of him (there’s a sympathetic essay about Gissing in her Common Reader series). Peter Ackroyd made Gissing a leading character in his novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. I also know that the New Zealand novelist David Ballantyne was a great fan. (I know this in part because I was told it by David Ballantyne’s son Stephen, with whom I once shared the task of writing film reviews for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Stephen said his Dad and I were the only Gissing fans he knew).

There is one of Gissing’s books that the aesthetes and bibliophiles do like. That’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), published in the year of his death, which is really a loose collection of essays and observations on all the books that Gissing liked, taking the form of a diary written by a retired writer living in the country. A bit like a pre-internet blog, it is very “dippable” and selections from it are often anthologised.

So after all this prologue, what has this to do with Will Warburton and class-feeling?

Will Warburton was one of Gissing’s last novels and was first published posthumously. Truth to tell, it is not one of his best works. But then you know me well enough by now to know that when I recommend “Something Old”, I’m often recommending something that I find fascinating for its social attitudes and its revelation of the times in which it was written. This is certainly the case with Will Warburton. And let me not overstate its lack-of-excellence. All Gissing’s novels are very readable, written in a very clear prose, and this is no exception.

Plot – Will Warburton is a bachelor residing in fashionable Chelsea,  who lives off the dividends of his investments. He likes to travel, talk literary talk and mingle with affluent high society. But a broker’s bad management suddenly makes him bankrupt. He has no income and has both an aged mother and an unmarried sister to support.

Nothing daunted, and having no illusions about his marketable skills, he sets himself up as a grocer in a less fashionable part of London. Those were the days when upper-middle-class women at home did not look into a man’s source of income or visit his place of business. So Will’s mother and sister have no idea that he has gone into ‘trade’ and ceased to be a gentleman, as his earnings still support them in the manner to which they are accustomed.

Will himself his quite happy with his new life. Basically, he enjoys being a grocer. Gissing paints him as a more positive and optimistic chap than the protagonists of most of his novels. In fact, there is a sub-text implying that doing a useful job and actually earning his way, instead of living off dividends, has made Will both a happier and a more perceptive person.

But Will is haunted by the fear that his “double life” will be revealed if one of his fashionable friends should walk into his store. Another sub-text is that the fashionable and wealthy like to romanticise real poverty and the proletariat, but they invariably patronise the classes more immediately below them.

This is really the heart of the novel – the tension between having an elevated image of oneself and actually pursuing a humdrum job that lacks prestige. Something as lower-middle-class as grocery is not acceptable to the literati.

I will not spoil the ending. This one is worth searching out. But I can say that Will Warburton develops enough to understand that “grocerdom with a clear conscience” is preferable to “grocerdom surreptitiously embraced”. He realizes that friends who would look down on him for his work are not friends worth having. In one crucial scene, the long-dreaded happens and society people see him in his place of business. At the end of that scene, Gissing writes:-

 “His hands upon the counter, Warburton stared at the door by which [his former friends] had disappeared. His nerves were a-tremble; his eyes were hot. Of a sudden he felt himself shaken with irresistible mirth; from the diaphragm it mounted to his throat, and only by a great effort did he save himself from exploding in laughter. The orgasm possessed him for several minutes. It was followed by a sense of light-heartedness, which set him walking about, rubbing his hands together, and humming tunes.”

To me, this is one of the best accounts of a sense of relief - brought on by “coming clean”-  ever written.

From my old notebooks I see that when I first read Will Warburton, I thought it hopelessly dated. How, I asked, could anybody take seriously a story about somebody ashamed of being a grocer? I opined that the situation belonged more to the farcical world of P.G.Wodehouse – the horrible humiliating secret to be hidden from Aunt Agatha! – than to a serious novel for grown-ups.

Now, I’m much less certain of this judgment.

Gissing brought a lot of himself to the novel, as he did to all his novels. He was fully aware that he was a writer who had to scrape for a living, while many of his literary friends had “private incomes” and never really thought about the economic system that sustained them. He knew how unreasonable it was for toil and “trade” to be looked down upon.

More to the point, however, the type of social snobberies that fuel the novel are really still with us, even if their targets have shifted a little. If you take an honest walk through your mind, you might ask how you instinctively react to such terms as process worker, check-out operator, car groomer, insurance salesman, security staff, or cleaner. If stereotypical images rise for each of these occupations, you probably join me in being one of Will Warburton’s rationalising, fair-weather friends

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