Monday, October 17, 2016

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. 

“THE NETHER WORLD” by George Gissing (first published in 1889)

It is strange how sometimes a single paragraph can serve as the epitome of a whole book.
            I found this to be the case when I read George Gissing’s The Nether World.
Well into the text, there occurs this paragraph:
            Mrs Eagles, a middle-aged woman of something more than average girth, always took her time in ascending to that fifth storey where she and her husband shared a tenement with the Hewett family. This afternoon her pause at each landing was longer than usual, for a yellow fog, which mocked the pale glimmer of gas-jets on the staircase, made her gasp asthmatically.” (Chapter 27)
            And there you get in one paragraph the grim, gloomy social realism of Gissing – the crowded tenement, the polluted sky, the disease-inducing living conditions and the whole hopeless catastrophe of London’s late-Victorian urban poor. There are many, many other moments in the novel where physical pain and discomfort, related to poverty and toil, are delineated. When a cab-driver staggers up the stairs, we are told: “A daily sixteen hours of sitting on the box left his legs in a numb and practically useless condition.” (Chapter 4) But Mrs Eagles’ painful ascent is the one that sticks in my mind.
            As I’ve noted before on this blog in various posts about George Gissing (1857-1903), I join the “common reader” in seeing New Grub Street, his tale of hack-writing, as Gissing’s masterpiece. I see Born in Exile as his most autobiographical (and perhaps self-pitying) novel, and the loose essay-like reflections of The PrivatePapers of Henry Ryecroft as his most escapist book. Will Warburton is not one of his best, yet it is an interesting tale of class-conscious humiliation. But perhaps The Nether World, which critics now place next to New Grub Street as one of his best, is the most typical Gissing novel. Here we are confronted with dire, scrabbling poverty – and no solutions are offered.
It is very hard to offer a continuous synopsis of what happens in this novel, because it really has two separate, and only occasionally interlocking, strands of plot, and there is the continuous, clumsy introduction to new characters until at least a third of the way into the novel. There is also evidence of the way Gissing was tied to three-volume publication when three years go by exactly a third of the way through the novel, and there are hasty and melodramatic exits for some characters.
It is set in the London slum area of Clerkenwell. Little Jane Snowdon acts as “slavey” to the Peckover family, and is particularly ill-treated by the fierce “Clem” (Clementine) Peckover. John Hewett is a respectable working man with little additional income, who hopes to advance humanity and bring up his children to do good works. Sidney Kirkwood (who may have been intended by Gissing as the novel’s centre of consciousness, but who never develops much) is a respectable workman with artistic leanings, in love with Clara Hewett.
One major skein of plot concerns the Hewett family – how John Hewett’s hopes are dashed. His son Bob Hewett turns to crime (counterfeiting; coining), marries the luckless “Pennyloaf” (Penelope) Candy and comes to a sticky end. His daughter Clara, corrupted by ambitions inspired by her elementary education, runs off to be an actress (under the stage name “Clara Vale”). She has vitriol thrown in her face by a jealous rival actress and returns home disfigured. Sidney Kirkwood marries her in spite of this, and ends up struggling to support the Hewett family, old John Hewett having sunk into dependence on meagre charity.
The other major skein of plot, only occasionally intersecting with the first, concerns little Jane Snowdon. There is the prospect that she might inherit wealth. Her old humanitarian grandfather Michael Snowdon takes her into his care. When, one third of the way through the novel, Jane’s worthless widower father Joseph Snowdon returns, “Clem” Peckover marries him purely in the hope of gain. Old Michael hopes to train little Jane to be a humanitarian server of the poor. However, when old Michael dies, Joseph Snowden cheats everyone out of the inheritance and disappears, leaving “Clem” trying to take out her vengeance on the whole world.
You will note that both strands of plot conclude with idealistic hopes dashed and people reduced to something like destitution.
The novel ends with Sidney Kirkwood (who charitably supports the Hewett family) and Jane Snowdon (who comforts her bereaved friend “Pennyloaf” Candy) meeting at old Michael Snowdon’s grave on the anniversary of his death, with the implication that, despite their continued poverty, that both have at least some concern for others.
(I admit this is a very truncated synopsis, as I have left out many subplots, not least Joseph Snowdon’s relations with semi-criminal characters such as Scawthorne; and Bob Hewett’s association with genuine criminals such as Jack Bartley.)
Despite its (very mildly) uplifting ending, this is a novel which tells us that poverty degrades; that the system is irredeemable; that rascals win wealth and that idealistic schemes for social reform come to nothing; but that there may be some grounds for hope in the innate goodness of a few individuals.
The fact that some commentators batten on “Clem” Peckover as the novel’s most vital character, for all her manifest evil (she ends up trying to poison her mother) says much about what is wrong with this structurally messy novel; for “Clem” would be present in less than a quarter of it. I suggest that critics, finding no unifying narrative thread, do what they often do with Dickens’ longer novels, and find the merit of The Nether World in its self-contained vignettes.
If The Nether World has any unity at all, it comes from its expression of disgust. Gissing is horrified at the brutalisation wrought by poverty, but basically comes to see the poor as beasts, constantly resorting to drink. By attaching his plot to out-and-out crime and the (creaky) device of the prospect of a contested will, Gissing avoids more than passing references to real social analysis – only occasionally do we have hints of how these characters are made poor. I suppose this could be interpreted as a literary merit. The characters are so exhausted and brutalised, they do not have the energy, time or will to build a better world. Mere survival is their priority.
Some of Gissing’s aspirations are consciously Dickensian. Noble Jane Snowdon and her grandfather (with his hint of fanaticism) have a touch of the Little Nells. There is hearty comic relief in the married couple Sam and Bessie Byass. In the tradition of Dickens mocking the Chadbands and Pardiggles, Gissing mocks refined charities to the poor in a chapter called “The Soup Kitchen” which is almost self-contained. He remarks “Of all forms of insolence there is none more flagrant than that of the degraded poor receiving charity which they have come to regard as a right.” (Chapter 28)
Chapter 12 is entitled “Io Saturnalia!”. It is a bitter and scornful account of the entertainments of the poor and, again, is almost self-contained. Poor “Pennyloaf” Candy has just married Bob Hewett, and goes to the Crystal Palace on her wedding-day. Vindictive “Clem” Peckover (who had her eye on Bob) and her cronies trail along. Bob gets drunk. “Pennyloaf” is publicly humiliated. We see the barbarous masses taking their pleasures, before returning to their slums. “Clem” and company squirt “Pennyloaf’s” wedding dress with dirty water and the day of pleasures ends with a violent flesh-scratching catfight between “Clem” and “Pennyloaf”. Behold the animals at play! Gissing remarks sardonically:
What a joy to observe the tendencies of these diversions! How characteristic of a high-spirited people that nowhere could be found any amusement appealing to the mere mind, or calculated to effeminate by encouraging a love of beauty…. There reigned a spirit of imbecile joviality…. Mark the men: four in every six have visages so deformed by ill-health that they excite disgust; their hair is cut down to within half an inch of the scalp; their legs are twisted out of shape by evil conditions of life from birth upwards.” (Chapter 12)
And yet Gissing is aware that it is all too easy to regard as barbarism the pleasures of the poor when one is well-off. Later he writes of Sidney Kirkwood’s realization, once he himself has to toil to support other people, that
It was easy to preach a high ideal of existence to the poor, as long as one had a considerable margin over the week’s expenses; easy to rebuke the men and women who had tried to forget themselves in beer-shops and gin-houses, as long as one could take up some rational amusement with a quiet heart. Now, on his return home from labour, it was all he could do not to sink in exhaustion and defeat of spirit. Shillings and pence; shillings and pence…” (Chapter 39)
By this stage Sidney Kirkwood, like the author, has long since abandoned the idea that radical reform will improve anyone’s life. Gissing says of him much earlier in the novel:
He reached the stage of confident and aspiring Radicalism, believing in the perfectability of man, in human brotherhood, in – anything you like that is the outcome of a noble heart sheltered by ignorance. It had its turn and passed.” (Chapter 6)
I gain the impression of George Gissing in this novel as a man who was consciously correcting himself of what he knew to be snobbish and uncharitable impulses. His rational mind tells him that it is too easy to criticise and caricature the dirty and uneducated poor, and that the poor are as they are because of gross deprivation. Hence his mitigating phrases in Sidney Kirkwood’s later reflexions. And yet his deepest impulse (as a middle-class, educated man forced to live in straitened circumstances) is still one of disgust. The poor are a plague. Where they live is “the nether world” (the phrase is repeated often in the novel), like one of the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno.
He reaches the point, adopted by so many middle-class Social Darwinians, of saying that it would be better if the poor were not born at all. Of John Hewett’s wife, he remarks sarcastically: “I suppose she must not be blamed for bringing children into the world when those already born to her were but half-clothed, half-fed; she increased the sum total of the world’s misery in obedience to the laws of the Book of Genesis.” (Chapter 6). Much later, when Bob Hewett is told his infant child has died, he says “Thank goodness for that, anyway!” (Chapter 34); a sentiment which Gissing seems to share.
In much of this novel, then, we have that odd mixture of sympathy for the urban poor mixed with fierce contempt, which I often find in EmileZola and certainly find in Jack London’s London-slum expose The People of the Abyss. (Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago is as brutal as a London slum novel can be, but shows more real human sympathy.)

Snarky and superior footnote: In the introduction to the old Everyman’s edition of this novel, the distinguished critic Walter Allen erroneously refers to the character Sidney Kirkwood as “Sidney Kirkland”, and the blurb of the edition proceeds to do the same thing. I am surprised at the failure of an Everyman’s copy-editor.

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