I’m not entirely sure what I thought about this. Somewhere around the middle I had to put it down, after Nancy is seduced by Tarrant and its disdain for both the female sex and for the aspiring lower middle and lower classes seems to reach its height. I came back to it, and was glad I did as it is at least somewhat self-reflective on this point and didn’t go quite where I thought it would, so it improved on me.
The story focuses primarily on Nancy Lord, daughter of a self-made man now made fairly wealthy through business. She and her brother Horace seem made for better things than their neighbours and friends — a family of three sisters (Ada, Beatrice and Fanny) residing with the eldest’s hen-pecked husband Mr Peachey, a bookish girl named Jessica, the strict and religious Barmby family, the advertising man Luckworth Crewe. Above them is Mr Tarrant, gentleman, and a Mrs Dameral, who turns out to be the mother they thought was dead (this is the plot of a Georgette Heyer novel of my mother’s, Venetia, whose other main character is a Lord Dameral — it seems hardly coincidental but I can’t think it an hommage). Really this novel is an uncomfortable portrait of almost everyone in it. It is well-written but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it were it not for the insights it offers onto Gissing’s own geographies of class mapped across the streets and homes of London (and those of Empire via Barbados to some extent), as well as a fascinating (if disapproving) look into changing views on women and their place in society. There are extensive descriptions of streets and areas making this an oft-quoted source among those writing about literature and the city — or so I was told. It’s on Gutenberg Press so I was able to pull large blocks of text:
It was a house in De Crespigny Park; unattached, double-fronted, with half-sunk basement, and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance. De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let (loc 56).
I partly only love these meditations on suburban architecture and the lives they shape within them because I know these suburbs — though being from America I don’t think of them as suburbs at all. Itself interesting. I might just share the belief that it is more pleasant when homes are different, even if differently ugly:
Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,–with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell’s rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls. Narrow passages connect the Lane with its more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove; on the other side are ways leading towards Denmark Hill, quiet, leafy. From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.
These are suburbs perhaps, fundamentally, because they are still in construction. Because all around lie the remains of the country that was there before the universally reviled speculative builders arrived to do their damage:
Her place of abode favoured neither health nor mental tranquillity. It was one of a row of new houses in a new quarter. A year or two ago the site had been an enclosed meadow, portion of the land attached to what was once a country mansion; London, devourer of rural limits, of a sudden made hideous encroachment upon the old estate, now held by a speculative builder; of many streets to be constructed, three or four had already come into being, and others were mapped out, in mud and inchoate masonry, athwart the ravaged field. Great elms, the pride of generations passed away, fell before the speculative axe, or were left standing in mournful isolation to please a speculative architect; bits of wayside hedge still shivered in fog and wind, amid hoardings variegated with placards and scaffolding black against the sky. The very earth had lost its wholesome odour; trampled into mire, fouled with builders’ refuse and the noisome drift from adjacent streets, it sent forth, under the sooty rain, a smell of corruption, of all the town’s uncleanliness. On this rising locality had been bestowed the title of ‘Park.’ Mrs. Morgan was decided in her choice of a dwelling here by the euphonious address, Merton Avenue, Something-or-other Park.
The old mansion–not very old, and far from beautiful, but stoutly built–stood grim and desolate, long dismantled, and waiting only to be torn down for the behoof of speculative dealers in old material. What aforetime was a tree-bordered drive, now curved between dead stumps, a mere slushy cartway; the stone pillars, which had marked the entrance, damaged in the rending away of metal with a market value, drooped sideways, ready at a touch to bury themselves in slime (loc 2696).
Here is another passage where moving up in the world always means moving out, the obtaining not just of well-kept lodgings, but bay windows and an address that will impress:
Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord’s business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed. Under any circumstances, the family must soon have sought a home elsewhere, and Samuel’s good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as ‘Dagmar Road,’ which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips (loc 2596).
The mysterious Mrs Dameral is given the seal of trust and approval simply because of her post code. We reach the difference between the West End and everywhere else as Horace tells his sister Nancy why he continued her acqaintance:
‘One couldn’t refuse, you know; I was only too glad to go to a house in the West End. She opened the carriage-door from the inside, and I got in, and off we drove. I felt awkward, of course, but after all I was decently dressed, and I suppose I can behave like a gentleman, and–well, she sat looking at me and smiling, and I could only smile back (loc 429).
In trying to ‘improve’ Horace from her West End flat, she says:
You, Horace, belong to a social sphere so far, far above her. If I could only impress that upon your modesty. You are made to associate with people of the highest refinement. How deplorable to think that a place in society is waiting for you, and you keep longing for Camberwell!’ (loc 2049)
Later she tells Beatrice:
‘Miss. French, I believe you reside in a part of London called
Camberwell. And I believe you are engaged in some kind of millinery business. This excuses you for ill-manners. All the same, I must beg you to relieve me of your presence.’ She rang the bell. ‘Good evening.’ (loc 3219)
Neighbourhood is everything, you see. Everywhere the characters and the narrative itself equates neighbourhood with social station and personal limits. These limitations are never fully exceeded, even as a few make the very best of them they can and finally win narrative approval. From early on Nancy blames the closed of nature her life and prospects on her home almost entirely:
It is a neighbourhood in decay, a bit of London which does not keep pace with the times. And Nancy hated it. She would have preferred to live even in a poor and grimy street which neighboured the main track of business and pleasure (loc 196).
Always she comes back to her neighbourhood, and the connections it was lacking. Her father is dying, though she doesn’t know, and:
She stood before him, and spoke with diffidence.
‘Don’t you think that if we had lived in a different way, Horace and I might have had friends of a better kind?’
‘A different way?–I understand. You mean I ought to have had a big house, and made a show. Isn’t that it?’
‘You gave us a good education,’ replied Nancy, still in the same tone, ‘and we might have associated with very different people from those you have been speaking of; but education alone isn’t enough. One must live as the better people do.’ (loc 593).
In Camberwell you do not find the better people. You find people like Ada, Beatrice and Fanny:
They spoke a peculiar tongue, the product of sham education and mock refinement grafted upon a stock of robust vulgarity. One and all would have been moved to indignant surprise if accused of ignorance or defective breeding. Ada had frequented an ‘establishment for young ladies’ up to the close of her seventeenth year; the other two had pursued culture at a still more pretentious institute until they were eighteen. All could ‘play the piano;’ all declared–and believed–that they ‘knew French.’ Beatrice had ‘done’ Political Economy; Fanny had ‘been through’ Inorganic Chemistry and Botany. The truth was, of course, that their minds, characters, propensities had remained absolutely proof against such educational influence as had been brought to bear upon them. That they used a finer accent than their servants, signified only that they had grown up amid falsities, and were enabled, by the help of money, to dwell above-stairs, instead of with their spiritual kindred below.
Beatrice herself becomes quite a canny business woman. She opens a kind of cooperative dressmaker business and moves off on her own — surely a braver move than this novel ever gives her credit for. You cannot like her as she is portrayed, her business described as predatory (how could it not be given the silliness of women) when in fact it seems more to me a pooling of resources, and she herself is predatory too, though perhaps trying to be kind despite her brusque lack of civility. She moves to Brixton…
Another cab conveyed her to Brixton, and set her down before a block of recently built flats. She ascended to the second floor, pressed the button of a bell, and was speedily confronted by a girl of the natty parlour-maid species. This time she began by giving her name, and had only a moment to wait before she was admitted to a small drawing-room, furnished with semblance of luxury. A glowing fire and the light of an amber-shaded lamp showed as much fashionable upholstery and bric-a-brac as could be squeezed into the narrow space. Something else was perceptible which might perhaps have been dispensed with; to wit, the odour of a very savoury meal, a meal in which fried onions had no insignificant part. But before the visitor could comment to herself upon this disadvantage attaching to flats, Beatrice joined her.
The ‘natty parlour-maid species’ indeed. There is more in relation to Beatrice’s new business and the lack of taste associated with certain locales:
The ineptitude of uneducated English women in all that relates to their attire is a fact that it boots not to enlarge upon…A very large proportion of the servant-keeping females in Brixton, Camberwell, and Peckham could not, with any confidence, buy a chemise or a pair of stockings; and when it came to garments visible, they were lost indeed (loc 2961).
And still more, with a reminder that there are neighbourhoods even lower:
Now indeed the last trace of veneer was gone, the last rag of pseudo-civilisation was rent off these young women; in physical conflict, vilifying each other like the female spawn of Whitechapel, they revealed themselves as born–raw material which the mill of education is supposed to convert into middle-class ladyhood. As a result of being held still by superior strength Ada fell into convulsions, foamed at the mouth, her eyes starting from their sockets; then she lay as one dead (loc 3143).
Ah, the female spawn which their family and location had not succeeded in molding properly. These passages point without needing exposition to what I hated about the drawing of women characters — there is so much to hate. Nancy is drawn the most fully, but is as limited by Camberwell itself as by her own limitations of blood and nurture (though these she manages to ‘overcome’ as the novel progresses). The others range from those who are superficial, who pretend at learning for appearances not for its own sake to those like Jessica, who overheat their poor limited brains with the excesses of their learning:
This friend of hers, Jessica Morgan by name, had few personal attractions. She looked overwrought and low-spirited; a very plain and slightly-made summer gown exhibited her meagre frame with undue frankness; her face might have been pretty if health had filled and coloured the flesh, but as it was she looked a ghost of girlhood, a dolorous image of frustrate sex. In her cotton-gloved hand she carried several volumes and notebooks (loc 232).
‘A dolorous image of frustrate sex’? As if intelligence and learning aren’t the sexiest things ever — or should be. Tarrant from the luxury of his higher social position looks at what is changing (for the worse):
We must begin by admitting that the ordinary woman hates nothing so much as to have another woman set in authority over her.’ He paused, and laughed lazily. ‘Now, before the triumph of glorious Democracy, only those women kept servants who were capable of rule,–who had by birth the instinct of authority. They knew themselves the natural superiors of their domestics, and went through an education fitting them to rule. Things worked very well; no servant-difficulty existed. Now-a-days, every woman who can afford it must have another woman to wait upon her, no matter how silly, or vulgar, or depraved she may be; the result, of course, is a spirit of rebellion in the kitchen. Who could have expected anything else?’
Nancy played with a dandelion she had plucked, and gave sign neither of assent nor disagreement.
‘Mrs. Bellamy,’ continued the young man, ‘marvels that servants revolt against her. What could be more natural? The servants have learnt that splendid doctrine that every one is as good as everybody else, and Mrs. Bellamy is by no means the person to make them see things differently. And this kind of thing is going on in numberless houses–an utterly incompetent mistress and a democratic maid in spirited revolt. The incompetents, being in so vast a majority, will sooner or later spoil all the servants in the country.’ (loc 684)
Again and again we see women rising above their station, not formed properly thus carrying the potential to revert to their origins. Gissing can see (or imagine he sees) some of the attraction in this, and it horrifies him really. Women are there as temptations, dragging men down with them. This is Fanny, with her fascinations for Horace:
It was not thus that Horace would naturally have spoken, not thus that he thought of his father. Fanny had subdued him to her own level, poisoned him with the desires excited by her presence. And he knew his baseness; 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.
‘I didn’t think you had the pluck,’ said Fanny, swinging one of her feet as she tittered (loc 1111).
For a brief moment Nancy herself is able to break away from all society tells her to be, she does so alone in the crowd celebrating the Jubilee (I am fascinated by all that happens to people in crowds, but will think about that later):
Nancy forgot her identity, lost sight of herself as an individual. Her blood was heated by close air and physical contact. She did not think, and her emotions differed little from those of any shop-girl let loose. The ‘culture,’ to which she laid claim, evanesced in this atmosphere of exhalations. Could she have seen her face, its look of vulgar abandonment would have horrified her (877).
Enter the capitalist Luckworth Crewe (great name!) who sees her like this, falls in love with her like this. To his doom of course, though I don’t think Gissing much minds as Crew also represents the man on the make, perhaps the capitalism itself that is driving so many of these changes:
Nancy made him moderate his pace, which was too quick for her. Part of the pleasure she found in Crewe’s society came from her sense of being so undeniably his superior; she liked to give him a sharp command, and observe his ready obedience. To his talk she listened with a good-natured, condescending smile, occasionally making a remark which implied a more liberal view, a larger intelligence, than his. Thus, as they stood for a moment to look down at the steamboat wharf, and Crewe made some remark about the value of a cargo just being discharged, she said carelessly:
‘I suppose that’s the view you take of everything? You rate everything at market price.’ (loc 1280)
Crewe is not a good man, but you regret him as Nancy falls for Tarrant who will never amount to anything in this new world that no longer has much use for the gentleman of leisure but without means. She is seduced, they marry, she conceals the birth of the child and the marriage as her father dies and the provisions of his will strip her of everything if they are found out. Tarrant can’t handle it, though the author is most sympathetic to his plight (I need to do a post just on Gissing I think). He needs to make easy money — he is not a man of the labouring classes you understand. And where can a well-born Englishman make money without working?
Barbados of course. The whole disgusting colonial attitude in a nutshell, both in Tarrant’s expectations and the ways that they are frustrated. In convincing Nancy of the wisdom of his plan to abandon her and the child, Tarrant says:
‘Partly because it is a delightful winter climate; partly because I have a friend there; partly because the islands are interesting. A man I knew at Oxford has gone out there, and is likely to stay. His father owns nearly the whole of an island; and as he’s in very bad health, my friend may soon come into possession. When he does, he’s going to astonish the natives.’
A vision of savages flashed before Nancy’s mind. She breathed more freely, thinking the danger past.
‘Simply by making a fortune out of an estate that is lying all but barren. Before the emancipation of the niggers, the Bahamas flourished wonderfully; now they are fallen to decay, and ruled, so far as I understand it, by a particularly contemptible crew of native whites, who ought all to be kicked into the sea. My friend’s father is a man of no energy; he calls himself magistrate, coroner, superintendent of the customs, and a dozen other things, but seems to have spent his time for years in lying about, smoking and imbibing. His son, I’m afraid, waits impatiently for the old man’s removal to a better world. He believes there are immense possibilities of trade.’ (707)
It doesn’t work of course. Nancy in the end saves the day, but only by immense self sacrifice, along with repressing that sense of self that emerged in the Jubilee as well as any feelings disagreeable to her husband and all recriminations. I’ll end with this maxim that hopefully today no woman will ever have to live up to:
She looked up, and commanded her features to the expression which makes whatever woman lovely–that of rational acquiescence. On the faces of most women such look is never seen (loc 5108).