Tuesday, September 18, 2012

George Gissing - Our Friend the Charlatan

I thought I was reasonably well-informed about George Gissing, but last week I downloaded 18 of his books onto my Kindle for a mere £1.29 and came across a novel I'd never heard of: Our Friend the Charlatan. Out of curiosity I looked at the first few pages and before long I was reading the whole thing, utterly gripped. Was this a scandalously neglected masterpiece or an enjoyable, escapist potboiler?

Like Ingmar Bergman films and Tori Amos albums, you have to be in the right mood for Gissing. His bleak tales of poverty and thwarted ambition aren't for the faint-hearted and as with Hardy, it's sometimes hard to commit yourself to a narrative where the outcome seems predetermined from the first chapter.

But I'd forgotten how funny Gissing can be, in spite of his übermiserabilist credentials . I'd also forgotten how good he was at capturing the mood of late Victorian Britain, outwardly comfortable and complacent, but inwardly racked with tensions over issues of sex, class and religion.

With its gentle social satire and absence of grim melodrama, Our Friend the Charlatan sometimes feel more like an abridged Trollope novel in which the verbose digressions have been removed by a foward-thinking editor. Like so many Victorian stories, there is an elderly aristocrat, a young man on the make, a question of inheritance and a dilemma between marrying for love or money. But these familiar elements are merely a device for Gissing to create something where the sum is far greater than its parts.

Dyce Lashmar, the improbably-named main character, is a young man whose Oxford education has given him ideas above his station. Blessed with no discernible gifts except an unwavering confidence in his own abilities, Lashmar is horrified when his two sources of income - an annuity from his improverished father and the tuition fees he earns from instructing the son of a young widow - suddenly come to an end.

However, when the daughter of a former family friend tells Dyce that she is a secretary to a wealthy philanthropist, he sees an opportunity to cultivate a patron who will sponsor his glittering career.

Like Vanity Fair, this is a novel without a hero and all of the main characters are highly flawed individuals, but none more so than Dyce Lashmar, whose ability to recycle the ideas of an obscure French book on sociobiology convinces others that he is a 'coming man':

"All I know is, Dyce, that you might be the coming man, and you're content to be nobody at all."

Dyce laughed.

"The coming man! Well, perhaps, I am; who knows? At all events, it's something to know that you believe in me. And it may be that you are not the only one."

A master of self-delusion, Lashmar soon believes that the Frenchman's ideas are merely a crude prototype for his own sophisticated philosophy and this genuine convinction successfully gains him a growing number of supporters. Only one person sees through him and their mischievous intervention adds tension to what could have been a rather plodding story.

Dyce Lasmar is clearly a vehicle for Gissing to explore the growing frustrations of the emerging middle class at the ruling aristocracy:

What, in deed, did such titles mean nowadays? They were a silly anachronism, absurdly in contradiction with that scientific teaching which rules our lives. Lashmar, of course, was right in his demand for a new aristocracy to oust the old, an aristocracy of nature, of the born leaders of men.

In Our Friend the Charlatan, it is Darwin who has changed everything, not socialism. Even Dyce's father, an impoverished rector, agrees:

The Rev. Philip was in his sixty-seventh year; a thin, dry, round-shouldered man, with bald occiput, straggling yellowish beard, and a face which recalled that of Darwin. The resemblance pleased him. Privately he accepted the theory of organic evolution, reconciling it with a very broad Anglicanism; in his public utterances he touched upon the Darwinian doctrine with a weary disdain.

Later in the story, Gissing mentions that Lashmar and a friend have become interested in Nietzsche and in a passage that is remarkably prescient for a novel published in 1901, they discuss their reservations about his philosophy:

"He'll do a great deal of harm in the world," she said, this same afternoon, as Dyce and she drank tea together. "The jingo impulse, and all sorts of forces making for animalism, will get strength from him, directly or indirectly. It's the negation of all we are working for, you and I."

"Of course it is," Dyce replied, in a voice of conviction. "We have to fight against him." He added, after a pause, "There is a truth in him, of course; but it's one of those truths which are dangerous to the generality of men."

Nietzsche's views are, of course, the symptom, not the cause and Gissing clearly feared certain aspects of the fin de siècle culture that was replacing the old order:

Mrs. Toplady had always wished for the coming of the very hero, the man without fear, without qualm, who should put our finicking civilisation under his feet. Her god was a compound of the blood-reeking conqueror and the diplomatist supreme in guile. For such a man she would have poured out her safe-invested treasure, enough rewarded with a nod of half-disdainful recognition. It vexed her to think that she might pass away before the appearance of that new actor on the human stage; his entrance was all but due, she felt assured. Ah! the world would be much more amusing presently, and she meanwhile was growing old.

Mrs Toplady, a woman in early middle age, would have probably lived long enough to see her wishes come true, albeit in a rather different guise. Gissing didn't even reach his 50th birthday.

Gissing's novels about the lower middle classes, educated beyond their means, trapped in lives of genteel poverty on trifling annuities, will have resonances for many modern readers and their obscurity is ill-deserved.

Today, only New Grub Street is widely read whilst others like The Nether World, In the Year of Jubilee and The Odd Women are merely admired. This is a great pity, as few writers have managed to create such a vivid panorama of late Victorian society. His descriptions of suburban London in In the Year of Jubilee are so well written that the sights and sounds almost become a false memory of something actually experienced.

Perhaps Gissing would have attracted more readers if he'd emulated Hardy, moving his stories to a more attractive rural setting where he could begin each novel with a portentous topographical description of the local area. I'm glad he didn't.

In Our Friend the Charlatan, the narrative is dominated by dialogue. This makes it very easy to read but suggests that this is a slight work, produced in a hurry. Some of the characters are a little two-dimensional and the Lady Bracknell figure feels all too familiar. However, I found it fascinating.

Gissing's portrayal of the plight of someone of limited means whose ambition was inversely proportional to their talent, is extremely entertaining. But, more importantly, it provides an insight into a society that was hurtling towards civil unrest and world war. This novel does not deserve its current status as an obscure, linkless item on Wikipedia. I hope that in the age of the blogosphere, Gissing's time will come.


David said...


Your blog is dangerous. Here I am, shelves groaning with books I haven't read yet, the family about to expel me to the shed, and now you've made me want to read Gissing as well. I'd only previously heard of him from one of Orwell's essays.

Steerforth said...

That's why I had to buy a Kindle. I literally ran out of space and couldn't bring myself to throw any more books out. I still prefer paper, but from now on my shelves are reserved for books where the medium is as important as the message.

I hope you do try Gissing - New Grub Street is the best place to start.

Katrina Malone said...

Agree with all you say about Gissing though I haven't read this particular novel, I do love New Grub Street, The Odd Women etc. Love your choice of photos too, perfect complement to the atmosphere of the books.

Steerforth said...

Hi Katrina - nice to hear from you.

I'd love to know how many people have read it. When I worked for Ottakar's I used to look at the sales figures for classics and they were pretty depressing. I think we sold eight copies of The Scarlet Letter across 130 shops in one year.

Brian Busby said...

I must say that after all these years as a "follower", I'm not surprised in the least by your admiration for Gissing. He was a wonderful writer - and who can't help but be attracted to by his own very odd story. I'll be passing on your good post to those I've not yet been able to get going on Gissing. New Grub Street remains the place to start, I think, but this sounds like a contender.

A question that has been swimming around in my mind: Would a 21st-century Dyce Lashmar get far in recycling the ideas of an obscure French book on sociobiology?

Steerforth said...

That's a very good point. Anyone who claimed to have a new theory of life these days would be ridiculed mercilessly and today, Lashmar's shameless plagiarism would be easier to trace. On the other hand,in the age of the internet, are charlatanism and plagiarism regarded as sins any more?

Yes, Gissing's own life was rather odd wasn't it. I read recently that he could have become an academic at Yale if he'd remained in America, but he was clearly a glutton for punishment.

Anonymous said...

'When I worked for Ottakar's I used to look at the sales figures for classics and they were pretty depressing. I think we sold eight copies of The Scarlet Letter across 130 shops in one year.'

However, anyone with any sense who wanted to read The Scarlet Letter would get it from a library or buy it cheaper second-hand.

Steerforth said...

But even if people would be better off getting the book from a library or buying a secondhand copy, many clearly preferred to buy new books and could afford them, so that's why the poor sales for The Scarlet Letter shocked me.

MikeP said...

Very persuasive post! I read and loved the Penguin New Grub St, and then...nothing (probably because it was the only one of his books easily available for many years). So now I'll add a shedload of Gissing to the shedloads of Dickens, Hardy, Scott Fitzgerald etc etc on my Kindle - as soon as I get it back. I left it on a train last week, and I was amazed how much I missed it.

Martin said...

I agree with David, but Gissing will definitely find his way on to my Kindle.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I wish you'd write more book reviews. I've never read Gissing, and now want to.

Steerforth said...

MikeP - Yes, they were very difficult to get hold of. OUP reprinted The Nether World in the 90s, whilst Virago did The Odd Women and Everyman published In the Year of Jubilee and Born in Exile. I think there were a couple of Dover reprints but not much else.

As someone who used to have reservations about ebooks, I've been completely won over by the wealth of out of copyright titles that are becoming available.

Martin - I think they're all available on Project Gutenberg, but the £1.29 download seemed more straightforward. My only complaint is that is needed proof-reading.

Annabel - I'd probably review more books if there weren't so many people doing a much better job of it than me. But when I couldn't find a review of this book (apart from one on Amazon that tells you the whole story) that spurred me into action.

By the way, thanks for the review of the German legal thriller recently - I'm saving that one up for a long train journey.

Dale in New Zealand said...

Thank you for this.
Gissing was just a name to me and I had little hope of finding anything of his in print, till now.
New worlds are swimming into our ken all the time, thanks to the Internet.

Richmonde said...

The past is the new future! Ordering this book immediately. I love those intellectual concerns of c. 1900. Which fictional family had a dog called Neacher? (Can't remember.) It's all still with us in some form.

Steerforth said...

Richmonde - You mentioned that you loved Of Human Bondage, so you might enjoy this.

I've no idea about the dog.

Dale - People can moan about Kindles and ebooks until the cows come home, but the internet has given me access to obscure Victorian books that I wouldn't have read otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I love New Grub Street, cannot think how many times I have read it. I have The Odd Women here as well. Off to Gutenberg, kindle in hand.

Anne in Cambridge (the UK one)