The good women - George Gissing

If "George Gissing" were a Victorian dating agency, and I an eligible gentleman in search of company, I would ask to be registered on its books. Gissing, typically represented as the messenger of misery, created more attractive women than any other 19th-century male novelist I know of - certainly more than Dickens, whose heroines are often treasurable but lack some vital organs; more than Balzac, who was apt to attribute too much lamb-like meekness or vulpine cunning; more than Flaubert, who seemed to bring women into existence the better to witness their torments. The two great heroines of Tolstoy's fiction, Anna Karenina and Natasha Rostova, live on outside the confines of their stories in a unique fashion, but Gissing's women are larger in number - he wrote over 20 novels, many with multiple boy-meets-girl strands - and are generally more recognisable from the world I inhabit.

It is the greatest "accomplishment" of many of his female characters that they approach life with a modern assertiveness and complexity, while being attractive in an ordinary way. They have conversations in artists' studios, visit libraries for the latest novels, assemble with friends at Sunday lunchtimes, play the piano, are interested in fashion, gaze at a pleasant face across the aisle of a bus or a train, worry about work and how to find it.

"Can you suggest some way for me to earn my living?" Olga Hannaford asks the feminist writer Piers Otway, in The Crown of Life (1899), as they make their way up Great Portland Street. "I must do something. This life of loneliness and idleness is unbearable." Olga wants more than "no work to do, and plenty of money" (HG Wells's summary of a typical 19th-century heroine); she wants, as we would say though she would not, to do her own thing.

Piers's feminism, like Gissing's, "supposes intelligence" in women, "that's all". It is Piers's theory that once the pressure to act in socially approved ways is lifted, a woman's intelligence would have the freedom to flourish. Gissing's own view of female emancipation was stated plainly in a letter of June 1893 to the German writer Eduard Bertz: "My demand for female 'equality' simply means that I am convinced there will be no social peace until women are intellectually trained very much as men are ... . I believe the only way of [changing] this is to go through a period of what many people will call sexual anarchy."

Not all of Gissing's women are independent-minded. For every attractive character, there is one the author despises, particularly those of the lower classes. Gissing, who was born the son of a pharmacist in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, 150 years ago, is acutely sensitive to the distinctions of class, which largely worked against him. The reader squirms a little at the condescension shown to the likes of the "she-Cockney" Patty Ringrose in Eve's Ransom; or the "shrill" Polly Sparkes in The Town Traveller, who threatens the servant: "If it wasn't too much trouble, I'd come out and smack your face."

The collision of a woman or a man's wish to lead an independent life with the force of Victorian mores provides the drama of Gissing's most enjoyable novels. Take Eve Madeley, from the little-read Eve's Ransom, followed on to a train bound for Earl's Court by the novel's hedonistic hero, Maurice Hilliard. He has come to London from Birmingham on a quest, having seen Eve's photograph at his landlady's house: "She did not look older than he had expected: it was still a young face, but - and herein he found its strangeness - that of a woman who views life without embarrassment, without anxiety. She sat at her ease, casting careless glances this way and that."

When Hilliard gets to know Eve, "she seemed to him to exhibit a surprising acquaintance with the literature of the day", causing him "to feel himself an intellectual inferior, where every probability had prepared him for the reverse". Eve's effect on Hilliard is nicely rendered, not just by evocation of her physical beauty but by "some trick of her voice, or some indescribable movement of her head - the trifles which are all-powerful over a man in love".

As the story progresses, Eve's liking for nights at the theatre and solitary walks through London streets, her illicit passion for a married man, are beaten into submission by her overriding desire to avoid a life of penury. She lacks the freedom, or so she feels, to choose a partner on the basis of love alone.

Nancy Lord, the heroine of In The Year of Jubilee, another Gissing novel that exhibits a rich social texture but is practically unread today, is a well brought-up young woman of a kind visible in Victorian times but seldom encountered in Victorian literature. We see her gallivanting through London in the evening on her own (the year is 1888), allowing herself to be picked up by a "rough" but good-natured fellow, and going with him to a restaurant bar late at night to drink champagne. "I wonder if this is the last walk we shall have together?" asks Nancy's hopeful companion. "Who can say?" she answers, "in a light tone". Nancy wants to write; she knows she ought to read more than she does; but a pregnancy coming after an assignation in "a wild wood, full of wonderful things" puts a brake on her ambition.

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