Monday, February 23, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago. 

“BORN IN EXILE” by George Gissing (first published 1892)

Self-pity is not usually regarded as a particularly admirable sentiment, but it is at least possible that it has fuelled some worthwhile works of literature. I say this because I regard George Gissing’s novel Born in Exile as a prime work of self-pity, but also as an interesting, if very flawed, novel.
Of the social-realist novelist George Gissing  (1857-1903) you have heard before on this blog [look up my comments on his acknowledged masterpiece New Grub Street and on the more obscure title Will Warburton via the index at right]. Dour, not particularly capable of humour, sticking with the grim facts of life as he, an aspiring literary gentleman, had had to endure them in his years as a hack writer, Gissing nevertheless has earned the approval of some discerning readers by his very doggedness. As I remarked once before, Virginia Woolf wrote a sympathetic appreciation of him in her Common Reader series. And then there are all those socialists who have attempted to claim him as their own because of the way his novels record scrupulously the material facts of struggling lower-middle-class and proletarian life – though Gissing himself was no socialist.
One salient fact about Gissing is that, no matter how fictitious his plots, he always drew extensively on his own emotional experience in his novels. This is certainly the case with Born in Exile.
It is essentially the story of a lower-middle-class student from one of England’s “new” provincial universities who, despite his education, cannot make a career or find what he regards as his rightful niche in intellectual life, because he is from the wrong social background. In other words, it is the story of somebody very like George Gissing.
In the 1870s, lower-middle-class Godwin Peak, son of a freethinking father and a pious mother, is a student at “Whitelaw College”. Painfully aware that other students have more social class than he has, he shows academic promise but always tends to collect second prize in the various scientific studies he undertakes. He makes some friends, but he leaves abruptly before taking a degree because he is totally humiliated that his uncle, who has a broad Cockney accent, has set up a canteen opposite the university. Loathing the lower orders with a passion, Godwin Peak cannot face being associated with somebody in “trade”.
His university career thus blocked, he goes to London and toils obscurely for about ten years as a laboratory assistant, living in cheap lodgings and dreaming of making his name, perhaps by writing for rationalist (anti-religious) journals. He eventually does write, and has published (anonymously), an article attacking Christian apologetics.
Meanwhile he has come to the conclusion that he deserves a better life, and he decides that there is one easy avenue open to him, even if he has no religious belief – the church. He becomes acquainted with the Christian apologist Martin Warricombe (father of one of his fellow students, Buckland Warricombe) and impresses him with both his scientific knowledge and his apparent willingness to undertake Christian apologetics in the face of rationalist attacks. He expresses a desire to be ordained, picturing in his mind’s eye the easy life of writing sermons in a book-lined vicarage study while also pursuing his other intellectual interests. He rationalises thus: “A hypocrite was not necessarily a harm-doer; easy to picture the unbelieving priest whose influence was vastly for good, in word and deed.” (Part Two, Chapter Four.)
Yet he also falls in love with Martin Warricombe’s daughter Sidwell Warricombe, who is conventionally pious. Because he hopes to marry into wealth, there is at first an element of calculation in Godwin’s attachment to her, yet his feelings do develop into sincere love. But Buckland Warricombe, as much from social snobbery as from his memories of Godwin’s strident atheism, is intensely suspicious of Godwin’s conversion to Christianity. (Gissing remarks “Buckland’s class-prejudice asserted itself with brutal vigour now that it had moral indignation for an ally.” Part Five, Chapter Three). Buckland eventually exposes the fact that Godwin’s anonymous rationalist article appeared in print as exactly the same time that Godwin was professing a new-found Christian faith.
Cast off by the Warricombe family, and for the second time in his life socially humiliated, Godwin plans for a life of obscurity as an industrial chemist in the north. There is, however, a sting in the tail. Godwin professed Christian orthodoxy partly to woo and win Sidwell Warricombe. But he needn’t have bothered as, partly because of her conversations with Godwin, Sidwell has lost her religious faith anyway. To rub in the irony, a strange coda has Godwin Peak getting a legacy from a minor character in the novel, and gaining the independence to travel abroad – but he dies abruptly anyway, still not having fulfilled his desired intellectual potential.
Gissing didn’t really do happy endings.
I have synopsised the essential plot of Born in Exile accurately, but perhaps I should add that this is what the plot should have been. The reality is that, writing under those very hack conditions which he chronicled in New Grub Street, Gissing has been compelled to pad this simple story into a three-decker by inserting much extraneous matter. There are uninvolving subplots about one of Godwin’s student friends hopelessly pursuing a married – and then widowed – woman; and about another of Godwin’s student friends toiling away as a journalist. An absurd character called Malkin bounces in and out of the novel (he is so absurd that at one point he emigrates to Auckland in New Zealand). Presumably intended as some sort of Dickensian comic relief, he is painfully unfunny.
So it is in the main plot about Godwin Peak that the whole interest of this novel resides. Born in Exile comes alive only when it deals with Peak or those who are contrasted with him. In the character of Bruno Chilvers, Gissing draws the portrait of an insincere “muscular Christian” on the Charles Kingsley mould. (Martin Warricombe says of Chilvers’ Christianity that it is “like a box in the ear with a perfumed glove”, Part Six, Chapter Four). Chilvers is at heart as sceptical and unbelieving as Peak is, but he has managed to make a comfortable career in the church. The implications appear to be that Godwin Peak’s stumbling block is his imprudence and lack of tact (in having a rationalist article published) rather than his insincerity; and that the church is filled with hypocrites anyway.
One interesting, but purely historical, point about the novel is the way that, true to the simple-minded rationalism of the late nineteenth century, it assumes that religion and science are irreconcilable opposites. Gissing seems sourly amused by attempts to harmonise the two and is apparently most intellectually involved in those conversations where this problem is discussed, as if he himself had frequently had such conversations. Ridiculing late nineteenth century Christian apologetics, Godwin Peak remarks “… to be marketable, you must prove that The Origin of Species was approvingly foreseen in the first chapter of Genesis, and that the Apostles’ Creed conflicts in no single point with the latest results of biblical criticism.” (Part Two, Chapter One).
Yet, reading the novel over a century later, it is hard not to find something far more repugnant than religious hypocrisy in the rigid “social Darwinism” that Godwin Peak espouses and so often expresses. Basically, he regards the working classes, and those who have fewer intellectual attainments than himself, as scum. He declares:
The masses are not only fools, but are very near to brutes. Yes, they can send forth fine individuals – but remain base. I don’t deny the possibility of social advance; I only say that at present the lower classes are always disagreeable, often repulsive, sometimes hateful.” (Part Two, Chapter Two)
Later his hatred of the “lower classes” takes on an almost Nietszchean Superman tone as he gives a diatribe against the corruptions of popular taste and declares that only the very few have ever achieved anything of any worth:
One hears men and women of gentle birth using phrases which originate with shopboys; one sees them reading print which is addressed to the coarsest million. They crowd to entertainments which are deliberately adapted to the lowest order of mind. When commercial interest is supreme, how can the taste of the majority fail to lead and control?.... I hate the word majority; It is the few, the very few, that have always kept alive whatever of effectual good we see in the human race. There are individuals who outweigh, in every kind of value, generations of ordinary people.” (Part Three, Chapter Five)
It has to be made clear that these sentiments were very common among social Darwinist nineteenth century rationalists, who saw Christians as “unscientific” and sentimental in assuming that all human beings had souls and were worthy not only of a place in heaven, but also of social consideration.
Now wherein lies the self-pity of which I have accused the novel?
While the specific circumstances of Godwin Peak’s life are fictitious, the arc which his life follows is very much the arc of Gissing’s life. Gissing was a prize student at the new redbrick Owens College (which later became the University of Manchester). But he lost his place there, was expelled, and did time in jail, after he was found guilty of stealing from other students. Apparently this was because he was trying to support a prostitute (whom he later – very unhappily – married). Like Godwin Peak, his promising academic career was ruined and he spent the rest of his life toiling away at novel-writing on commission, while dreaming of one day becoming a literary gentleman of leisure. Always, like Godwin Peak, he saw himself as “born in exile”  - forced to live in a social stratum lower than the one he thought he had a right to occupy.
In Born in Exile, he simply dramatizes his own frustrations and yearnings.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, you repeat the old slander that Gissing's first wife was a prostitute. There is no evidence to back this up. Gissing never claimed she was. And there is no evidence he stole FOR her or that she ever knew he was stealing. Beware the ad nauseum whining of partisan biographers who seek to sacrifice her good name to make Gissing look like a martyr.