Rebel without a cause: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage. Black Swan paperback, 2018

Old Baggage is a prequel to Lissa Evans’ earlier novel Crooked Heart, posted about here in March. Mattie Simpkin is struggling to find purpose after the partial achievement of the goal of the radical suffragist movement, specifically the WSPU, to which she’d belonged earlier in her life. It’s 1928, not a random choice for the historical setting; it was the year of the Equal Franchise Act, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, whether they owned property or not.

Evans Old Baggage coverDesperate for a project into which to pour her indomitable energy and sense of outrage at the patriarchy (she’d been a vigorous exponent of direct action and civil disobedience, and still carries a wooden club in her handbag), she persuades young, largely working-class girls to join her eccentric ‘Amazons’ club on Saturday mornings in the park. Her bossy regime involves instilling in the girls the virtues of debating and recreation, such as healthy outdoor activities – including unladylike javelin-throwing. Asked about the point and propriety of this, she retorts with a typically cadenced and fiery aphorism worthy of her idol, the 17C author and priest Thomas Fuller:

“As a protest; as a means of defence; as an exercise in coordination. Weapons are not only for those who begin disputes, they are for those who wish to end them.”

She fails to realise that for most of these girls attendance probably means forgoing their one ‘lie-in’ of the week; on all the other days they rise early from bed to go to their menial, gruelling jobs, or to help out, like leading light Ida, with the never-ending ‘women’s work’ in the domestic sphere which is their destiny. The younger ones are missing out on less high-minded pursuits: boys, the cinema, fairgrounds.

The third aspect of this eccentric club’s aims, Mattie explains, is training. When a girl asks training for what, she replies, with similarly grandiose eloquence:

“For your lives as twentieth-century women, to enable you to take your places as equals in society, in Parliament and in the professions.”

Force-feeding poster WPSU 1910

Force-feeding poster for the WSPU by Alfred Pearce nom de plume “A Patriot” – http://www.historyextra.com/article/social-history/10-facts-about-suffragettes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70437901

What’s interesting and unusual about this novel is that the author confronts the essential dilemma of her middle-class protagonist in ways that expose the problem for women like her in bringing her laudable social and political ideals – Mattie always makes her girls feel valued – into line with the reality of the privileges and ease of her class, in contrast with the deprivation and squalor endured by most working people at that time – Mattie’s struggle isn’t anything like as tough as theirs.

She’s what is sometimes disparagingly called here in the UK a champagne socialist. Evans is excellent at portraying Mattie’s genuine and resolute ambition to encourage young working-class women to fulfil their potential against all the odds stacked against them. But she’s an idealist who misguidedly believes that good intentions and (invoking her beloved literary-philosophical guru Thomas Fuller again) ‘invincible determination’ are all that’s needed to ‘accomplish almost anything,’ which in her case means equality for all. She lacks insight into herself, her protégées and her motives, and empathy with those closest to her.

It’s revealing that Mattie reveres Fuller, the biographer, historian and divine. Like him she adores linguistic elegance and exuberance: epigrams, words as weapons. She must also have been aware that he’s an unlikely hero for a left-leaning rebel like her; he supported the Royalist cause during and after the English Civil War, using his wit and literary brilliance to oppose the revolutionaries.

Evans is thus covertly signifying the basis of Mattie’s problem: she’s a single-issue campaigner who believed that women’s suffrage would eradicate every frustration they endured under the patriarchy.

The most cogent aspect of this highly entertaining novel is Mattie’s learning a painful lesson: that for equality for women to be achieved would involve a seismic change in society. It’s a critique of those middle-class suffragists and radicals like her who failed to recognise this. Former bourgeois suffragist icons like the Pankhursts are accurately portrayed in these pages as abandoning their cause to become ultra-nationalists during WWI – the kinds of flawed idealists that Mattie very nearly becomes.

But she does undergo an epiphany as a consequence of her pig-headed self-righteousness. Women she betrays or lets down teach her that any cause is bigger than her own ego, and that not all women have the leisure or wealth to support a pet project that will simply provide cosmetic improvement to the illness, humiliation and degradation endured by the working classes – and particularly women – in the early 20C. She learns a salutary lesson in humility, the importance of loyalty to her friends, and in not letting sentiment and impetuosity cloud her judgement.

One crucial aspect of the anti-climax felt by radical activists once the purpose of their cause has apparently been achieved is revealed in Old Baggage with the sad fates of some of Mattie’s former fellow-suffragists, now, like her, rebels without a cause. Ten years on they’ve mostly become middle-aged and lost. Some are sad alcoholics; several have become seduced by the rise of fascism – a sinister presence throughout the novel, seen especially in the macho militaristic struttings of a Mussolini-loving ‘Empire League’ that one of these former suffragists promotes with the support of her Mosley-esque politician husband to rival the proto-hippy free spirits of the Amazons; some will bow to the inevitable and marry – for middle-class women there was no other socially acceptable destiny.

In an echo of that ambivalently feminist 1893 novel by George Gissing, The Odd Women, Etta, one of these superannuated suffragists explains, aware that she’s potentially selling out the sisterhood, why she’s considering this matrimonial escape: she’d hate giving up her work as a health visitor helping working women and their families who lived in poverty and disease, but would like babies of her own. Besides, she adds, she was lucky to find a man at all; most women don’t. At a recent school reunion she attended, nineteen out of the thirty girls in her class were ‘spinsters’:

“…apparently, the newspapers are calling us ‘the surplus women’. “Like a drawer full of forks,” my friend Minnie said, “when all the knives have been stolen.”

This novel is full of sympathy for women’s fight for emancipation and equality at this period of history (a fight that’s still in progress) but it never descends into cosy nostalgia or rose-tinted sentimentality; there’s a tough edge to it, a strong sense of the harshness of the struggle, especially for women, and many of the female characters depicted suffer tragedy and terrible hardship. The betrayal the novel portrays of the suffragist cause by some of its erstwhile leaders and the parallel rise of fascism are timely warnings for our own era.

For further insight into this topic I recommend a set of materials at the British Library website under the heading ‘Votes for Women’, especially an article there written by historian Sarah Jackson: ‘”Women quite unknown”: working-class women in the suffrage movement.’ It provides a fascinating account of the Suffragist movement – especially women from the working classes, who were singled out for much more brutal treatment by the police and penal system, including vicious beatings, illegal incarceration and torture. The leaders of the various factions in the movement were largely upper class, treated with relative deference by the law, and suspicious of the broader egalitarian and libertarian aims of their less privileged sisters.

Lissa Evans has given stirring fictional voice to some of these unknown women – not ‘odd’ or ‘surplus’, but effective and heroic in ways that Mattie comes to recognise involved greater sacrifice and heroism than her own well-meaning but misguided, flamboyant posturing.

Noel, the little boy who becomes a key character in the sequel, Crooked Heart, set over a decade later during WWII, appears at the end of the novel as a means for Mattie to put right the mistakes she’s made and redeem herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Gissing, The Odd Women

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women, published in 1893, evinces an ambivalent and sometimes distinctly odd attitude to the hot topic of the time: the ‘woman question’, and more particularly that of female emancipation from the cloying paternalism of late Victorian society. On the one hand he takes seriously the desperate economic plight of women of the lower classes who, if they don’t inherit enough to live on, are condemned to a life of ‘barrenness and bitterness’. In this novel such women are represented by the three Madden sisters, who almost starve as low-skilled teachers, companions or governesses, or else work in slave-like conditions for little pay in a London shop.

If they fail to make a ‘good marriage’ – that key theme in so much Victorian fiction – there is little prospect of their ever living much above the bread line. The youngest sister, Monica, escapes into a loveless marriage with a much older wealthy man (ominously named Widdowson), who takes the Ruskinian view of women (domesticity, motherhood, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually weak and stunted) and becomes violently jealous of any contact she has with other people.

This plot intertwines with dramatic consequences on the other in the narrative.

My two editions: Oxford World's Classics on the left, and Penguin

My two editions: Oxford World’s Classics on the left, and Penguin

This involves the titular ‘odd’ women – Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn – so called because they are among the half million women who are unmarried – ‘no making a pair with them’, explains Miss Nunn:

“The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve.”

She and Miss Barfoot have set up a kind of training academy for young unmarried women to ‘make [them] hard-hearted’ as Miss Nunn puts it – hence that curious military metaphor. This takes the form of clerical-secretarial work – so still not exactly intellectually or spiritually rewarding, but less stultifying than the kind of low-paid drudgery noted earlier. When young Monica protests at this brutal formula, saying that ‘married women are not idle’, Miss Nunn retorts contemptuously:

“Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.”

She has become a radical, militant feminist, fiercely opposed in principle to marriage as a desirable goal for women. Gissing doesn’t portray her in a flattering light – she’s unsympathetic to a young protégée named Bella who leaves the academy to live with a married man; when she repents and asks to come back to them, Rhoda is adamantly opposed: she’ll set a bad example to the others. Once girls like Bella have ‘fallen in love’ – an expression she considers sentimental claptrap – they’re irredeemable. Her hard-heartedness doesn’t waver when the poor girl later kills herself – to the horror of her softer friend, Miss Barfoot.

When Miss Nunn (the names aren’t particularly subtle in this novel) is first introduced aged 15, visiting the Madden sisters in Clevedon, Somerset, she’s described thus:

Tall, thin, eager-looking, but with a promise of bodily vigour…[full of] nervous restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect.

A budding bluestocking, then. She’s said to treat the younger girls ‘condescendingly’, favouring ‘intellectual talk’ (how unwomanly!), and speaking of gaining an education in order to earn her own living, speaking with ‘frankness peculiar to her, indicative of pride.’

Gissing’s hostile attitude towards her is clear from the start: she has only a ‘certain beauty’ to look forward to. Career aspirations in a person like her indicate not strength of character but ‘pride’.

This unflattering portrait is vitiated when the narrator goes on to tell us that she’s ‘fallen in love with’ a local widower called Smithson, 35 and with a consumptive daughter. Remember how sardonically (and hypocritically) she later dismissed that sentiment when told of the fate of Bella.

Young Rhoda is impressed by Smithson’s ‘aggressively radical’ views and parrots them proudly, such as the belief that women should be allowed to sit in Parliament. Dr Madden – father of the sisters – dismisses such views as unfortunate signs of the influence of her ‘objectionable friend’.

Rhoda Nunn next appears a few chapters and several years later, in the scene mentioned above, as Monica Madden pays her a call for the first time since that Clevedon scene, and Rhoda quizzes her about the hideous conditions in which she has to work in a London shop. Although she sympathises, she disapproves of her having succumbed to social pressure, rather than making a stand and precipitating reform:

“I wish it were harder [she says, when Monica had said how hard it was for a girl to find work]. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at.”…Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

Her apparently unrequited love for the radical Smithson when she was younger has hardened her. Gissing is often considered a supporter of women’s rights, and it’s true that he does show sympathy with this cause in this novel. But it’s a highly ambivalent support. Miss Nunn is shown here and in the rest of the narrative as intolerant, little short of a fanatic.

She has little sympathy with the lowest classes (a trait Gissing tended to share). She tells a lady philanthropist that she has no interest in working for the reform of girls from ‘the lower classes’. These ‘uneducated people’ and ‘servant girls’ are beyond redemption in her view – they’re literally incomprehensible.

Where Gissing problematizes his position on feminism is in his portrayal of the potential love interest for Rhoda. Her unflagging commitment to asceticism and celibacy and her scorn for love (“a sickening sameness of vulgarity” she dismisses it as to Mary Barfoot), the ‘sexual instinct’ and marriage are tested by the profligate, idle Edmund Barfoot, Mary’s playboy cousin. Although he admires Rhoda’s strength of character and intellect, he ultimately wants to subjugate her, and is excited by the prospect of ‘taming’ this shrew. His thoughtless rejection of a working-class girl who he’d made pregnant – because in his view she deserved her fate, having thrown herself at him – reveals his amoral selfishness. Generally (like Gissing) he finds women ‘barbarous’. His tepid support for his cousin’s cause is largely because he feels educating women will benefit men.

So where ultimately does Gissing stand in this novel of shifting, oscillating sympathies? He seems to favour a sort of ‘soft’ feminism of the more ‘human’, less ‘fervid’ kind shown by Mary Barfoot – that stops short of fanaticism. “Your zeal is eating you up,” she says accusingly to Rhoda when they fall out over Bella. “Don’t enrage yourself.”

Yet Gissing portrays several kinds of masculine supremacy over women as reprehensible. Meanwhile he deprecates the ‘evils of celibacy’, and describes several marriages as disastrous for the husbands because of the stupidity of the wives. There’s much debate and discussion of what is connoted by the terms ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’, and some tilts in the direction of free love as an alternative to the social trap of conventional marriage.

And a rousing speech to her trainees by Mary Barfoot on the theme of Woman as an Invader (of the male sphere).

It’s not the role of the novelist to answer the difficult questions posed in novels that dramatise these complex issues. That Gissing poses them in such interesting – sometimes infuriating – ways is much to his credit. That Rhoda emerges from her encounters with Edmund a better and wiser woman is perhaps the main message.

‘It’s good enough for the market!’ George Gissing, ‘New Grub Street’

‘Ed Reardon’s Week’ is a cleverly funny comedy series on BBC Radio 4. Its protagonist is a grumpy, disillusioned writer whose highest achievement was the scripting an episode of the cheesy early-80s BBC TV series ‘Tenko’ – an achievement on which he still dines out. Since then he’s scratched a living as a writer of hack pieces, while teaching a desultory evening class in creative writing to a group of jaded, equally cynical pensioners.

When I discovered that this opinionated failure was based on the central character of George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. It’s deeply moving, and a scathing portrait of the lives of struggling writers in Victorian London, striving to make a living in a literary world, like Ed Reardon’s, which seems to be run by ignorant plutocrats supplying crass product for an undiscerning, low-brow public of equally ignorant consumers.

New grub street Penguin C editionIt relates two parallel, intertwining stories: we first meet Jasper Milvain (Jaz in the radio show), a cynically ambitious, moderately talented and clever writer whose lazy selfishness is matched by his ruthless determination to study what the literary ‘market’ wants and provide it, dismissing anyone with literary pretensions as hopeless romantics; this is revealed in many of his discussions with his family and friends. Here he’s pontificating to his long-suffering sisters, whose meagre allowance he sponges from their mother:

People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads – that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business… There’s no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare… I don’t advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar… I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes.

His plan is to milk his family’s small financial resources – his sisters will have to fend for themselves by becoming hack writers also (for the children’s market, naturally, as they are mere ignorant girls!) – in order to network with important literary and journalistic contacts, flattering and flirting with the rich and influential. Authorial merit has little to do with commercial success; ‘modesty helps a man in no department of modern life’, he declares.

His polar opposite is Edwin Reardon. After some modest success with his first few novels (traditional three-deckers) his star is waning. He receives less money for each successive book; if it weren’t for the small fees he earns for earnestly academic articles he publishes in literary journals he’d already be penniless. He’s headed for penury. As his plight worsens, his wife’s support declines. Amy, a beauty, had married him mostly because she relished the prospect of being feted as the wife of a successful author – and of being rich.

Eventually they separate; she can bear his blocked, sullen artistic sterility and refusal to compromise no longer. He meanwhile is rendered unable to work because of her hostility, and the pressing urgency to produce fiction just to pay the bills. Inspiration has deserted him, as poverty has dried up his source of stories.

The main interest in the novel rests in the painful decline of poor idealist Reardon. As it reaches its climax this plot pitilessly traces his tortured inner struggle: should he compromise his artistic soul and sell out, as Milvain, Amy and others repeatedly urge him to do? The answer has tragic consequences for him.

This desperately heart-rending story is counterpointed by the career of Milvain, whose tactics work so well that his success is as stellar as Reardon’s downfall is crushing. After a brief dalliance with Marian, who briefly becomes an heiress, he’s forced to make a critical decision. As with Reardon, the outcome is cruelly exposed in Gissing’s unstinting prose.

This is so much more than a critical attack on the petty squabbles and liaisons of the moderately talented literary figures of the time; it’s more a serious examination of what it is that drives people to become authors, to expose their most intimate and sensitive selves to public scrutiny, often to meet with derision, dismissal, or, worst of all, indifference.

As a portrayal of that part of late Victorian London it’s fascinating, emotionally draining (in a good way) and powerful. As a three-decker itself it’s probably 200 pages too long (it has 551 pages in my Penguin Classics paperback, bought at the Oxfam shop near Chiswick Park underground station when I was visiting friends last month). There are longueurs; Milvain and Reardon are given far too many speeches in which they reiterate their philosophies at wearying length; there are some colourful minor characters, but they fail to enrich the narrative as inventively as Dickens’, for example, in whose shadow this novel inevitably falls. It is perhaps a little too relentlessly dour; the talented few are dashed down, fail, while the greedily talentless thrive. The romantic/sensational elements of the plots descend into the cartoonish and clichéd at times.

New Grub Street is, nevertheless, a classic, and worth persevering with. I urge you to read it, and would love to hear what you think. Let me finish with one of the most evocative, moving descriptions of a blocked author struggling to write that I’ve ever encountered:

 For two or three hours Reardon had been seated in much the same attitude. Occasionally he dipped his pen into the ink, and seemed about to write: but each time the effort was abortive. At the head of the paper was inscribed ‘Chapter III’, but that was all. And now the sky was dusking over; darkness would soon fall…[O]n his face was the pallor of mental suffering. Often he fell into a fit of absence, and gazed at vacancy with wide, miserable eyes. Returning to consciousness, he fidgeted nervously on his chair, dipped his pen for the hundredth time, bent forward in feverish determination to work. Useless; he scarcely knew what he wished to put into words, and his brain refused to construct the simplest sentence.  The colours faded from the sky, and night came quickly. Reardon threw his arms upon the desk, let his head fall forward, and remained so, as if asleep.

 Familiar plight!