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Christine Huguet and Simon J. James (eds.), George Gissing and the Woman Question: Convention and Dissent

Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. 215 p. ISBN: 978-1409466581
Catherine Delyfer
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Christine Huguet and Simon J. James eds., George Gissing and the Woman Question: Convention and Dissent, Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. 215 p. ISBN: 978-1409466581

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1George Gissing is a novelist whose singular work has only recently begun to receive the critical attention that it deserves. He is known as an astute observer of the late-Victorian period’s changing constructions of class and sexual differences. But in the last two decades, the edition of his correspondence, the re-edition of some of his short stories and novels (such as Demos and Workers in the Dawn both edited by Debbie Harrison in 2011 and 2012, and Tyrza edited by Pierre Coustillas in 2013), together with the publication of new monographs (such as Simon J. James’s Unsettled Accounts: Money and Narrative in the Novels of George Gissing, 2003, or Emma Liggins’s George Gissing, The Working Woman and Urban Culture, 2006), as well as of two biographies (Paul Delany’s George Gissing: A Life, 2008, and Pierre Coustillas’s The Heroic Life of George Gissing, Novelist, 3 vols, 2011–2012), have stimulated fresh academic research concerning this author.

2Informed as it is by the latest developments in Gissing scholarship, George Gissing and the Woman Question: Convention and Dissent is an important study of the novelist’s major and lesser-known works. In this volume, co-editors Christine Huguet (Université de Lille) and Simon J. James (University of Durham) together with thirteen other international Gissing scholars ‘[take] stock of where gender criticism has brought the study of Gissing’s work, and [offer] approaches nuanced by attention to history, ideology, other literatures and above all to his language and his artistry as a writer’ (8).

3George Gissing and the Woman Question is organized in two sections. The first one focuses on Gissing’s ‘complex discourse of (New) Womanhood’, examining Gissing’s conflicted blend of progressive and conservative discourse on the ‘woman question’, emerging modern masculinities, and the marriage debate at the turn of the century. David Grylls’s opening essay reminds us that Gissing’s unusual, often sympathetic and transgressive examination of late-Victorian womanhood was informed by his love affair with the young prostitute he later married, Nell Harrison. Tracing the writer’s changing views on prostitution in his fiction from ‘The Sins of the Fathers’ (1877) to his last novel, Veranilda (1904), and from Demos (1886) to later works such as Denzil Quarrier (1892) or The Crown of Life (1899), Grylls concludes that it is Demos which marks the turning point in Gissing’s writing career. Focusing on Workers in the Dawn (1880) and The Unclassed (1884), Grylls further demonstrates that Gissing was both radical and conservative in his depictions of prostitution, combining frank descriptions (especially in earlier versions of these texts) with conventional literary tropes derived from earlier fiction by C. Dickens, E. Gaskell, W. Collins, or D. G. Rossetti. Finally, Grylls suggests that Gissing’s later fiction evolved from the portrayal of literal prostitution towards a metaphorical treatment of the theme.

4In the second essay, Constance D. Harsh concentrates on four Gissing novels from the 1890s, when the novelist turned his attention from the poorest levels of London society to the world of the middle class. The Emancipated (1890), New Grub Street (1891), The Odd Women (1893), and In the Year of the Jubilee (1894), Harsh argues, all present sophisticated, intelligent women protagonists who are sharp analysts of the world they live in and who challenge the conventional categories of good woman/bad woman. These 1890s novels explore female subjecthood, sexual desire, the problems of masculine authority, and the cultural implications of modernity. But Harsh suggests that these female protagonists, complex and fascinating as they may be, are in fact used by Gissing as a creative way of engaging with the topic he thought most important in his work, that of the unclassed/declassed male and the constraints of late-Victorian masculinity. Gissing’s treatment of modern masculinity is further analyzed in the next chapter by Tara McDonald through a searching analysis of The Odd Women (1893). While this novel describes the hopes and struggles of late-Victorian feminists, it also explores the problems of ‘New Manhood’. Indeed the male characters of this novel also feel ‘odd’, out of place, and out of touch, and they often experience a sense of troubled masculinity—either because of financial difficulties or because they struggle to discard their outdated ways of life and adjust to the New Woman’s increased freedom. In The Odd Women, MacDonald claims, Gissing thus explores alternative narratives of romantic relationships, but remains rather pessimistic, ultimately limning a story of failed, abortive New Manhood.

5In chapter four, Roger Milbrandt looks at Gissing’s diary and correspondence in order to examine Gissing’s evocation of his first wife, Nell Harrison. The nuanced portrait which emerges from Milbrandt’s analysis complicates our notion of the role played by Nell Harrison in Gissing’s life and writing, as it differs significantly from Morley Roberts’s highly influential, negative depiction of Nell in his 1912 novel, The Private Life of Henry Maitland.

6Gissing’s shorter fiction is the object of the next two chapters by Emma Liggins and Rosemary Jann. In the 1890s, the short story became extremely popular as a compressed genre well suited to the turbulent pace of modern life. In contrast with the long novel, it conveyed only glimpses or fragments of life, thus enabling writers to experiment with new narrative trajectories and literary techniques, innovative characters or points of view, and more open, potentially subversive, endings. In the more than 75 short stories and novellas which he contributed to a variety of popular and intellectual periodicals between 1893 and 1903 (later collected in Human Odds and Ends, 1898; The House of Cobwebs, 1906; A Victim of Circumstances, 1927; Stories and Sketches, 1938; and The Day of Silence and Other Stories, 1993) Emma Liggins shows that Gissing succeeded in raising serious issues about the single woman worker and transforming the image of the ‘spinster’, often anticipating twentieth-century feminist debates. His psychological sketches are favourably compared with those of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Sarah Grand, George Egerton, Evelyn Sharp, and Katherine Mansfield. In her own analysis of Gissing’s short fiction, Rosemary Jann examines another, less progressive aspect of Gissing’s short stories by looking at the complicated cultural politics of domesticity that shapes the author’s approach to middle-class identity. While Gissing was at times sympathetic to educated women who chafed under the constraints of traditionally gendered practices, Jann demonstrates that he also generally privileged a rather conventional masculine point of view in matters of sexuality, child-rearing, household management and domestic duties.

7In the last essay of the first section, Anthony Patterson brings out yet another paradox in Gissing’s writing by examining the polarity between the civilized and the barbaric in Gissing’s delineation of the working class in The Nether World (1889). In this novel, working-class violence is gendered as feminine and contrasted with the middle-class narrative voice’s cultural refinement. However, Patterson claims that the novel complicates as well as it reinforces the class and gender oppositions which it mobilizes. Two conflicting narrative tendencies are shown to be operating, reflecting the author’s mixture of repulsion and attraction to the savage working-class protagonist, Clem Peckover. Ultimately, Patterson argues, Gissing’s contradictions and ambivalences in his representation of the working class can be traced to the inevitable clash between his aesthetic ideology of refinement and his literary and ethical commitment as a novelist to bear witness to modern social realities, cruel and repellent as they may seem.

8The second section of George Gissing and the Woman Question proposes a more explicitly intertextual approach, in order to bring out the specificity of ‘Gissing’s voice’. This section is composed of six comparative studies of works by Gissing and such novelists as Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, Paul Bourget, Theodore Dreiser, Ella Hepworth Dixon and May Sinclair, or twenty-first century novelist Steve Martin.

9In Chapter 8, Cristina Ceron takes a fresh look at The Odd Women (1893) considered as a novel about the all-pervasive power of literature and fictional constructs. For Ceron the various protagonists are all victims of a sort of Bakhtinian ‘novelization’ of life, marriage, and love, with certain characters even suffering from Flaubertian bovarysm. The metaliterary discourse thus forms a major element in the development of the novel’s plot. Furthermore, Gissing’s choice of performing an internal critique of the influence of literary clichés by writing a work of fiction likens The Odd Women (1893) to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895).

10In the next essay, Debbie Harrison contrasts Zola’s and Gissing’s representations of urban poverty and alcoholism in L’Assommoir (1877) and The Nether World (1889). While Zola is shown to depart from the experimental method and to employ the Gothic mode in his depiction of the female addict, The Nether World, Harrison argues, offers more psychological insight into the tormented mind of those predisposed to alcoholism through the combined influence of hereditary and environmental forces. Moreover, Harrison shows how Gissing’s narrative differs significantly from Zola’s wholly pessimistic vision, as his female protagonist Pennyloaf Candy ultimately overcomes her genetic predisposition to addiction through her courage and determination to rise above her tragic destiny.

11In chapter 10 Adrienne Munich looks at Gissing’s ambivalence towards late-Victorian consumer culture. By analyzing the character of the fin-de-siècle shopgirl in Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), James Tissot’s La Demoiselle de magasin (1883–5), Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893), Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), and Steve Martin’s Shopgirl (2000), Munich explores the modern, independent shopgirl as a liminal and paradigmatic figure in fiction and art and her role in the consumer imaginary. Munich demonstrates that in contrast to Zola, Tissot, Dreiser, and Martin, Gissing is reluctant to depict consumer desire, consumer pleasure, or consumer knowledge/learning, thus ultimately denying his shopgirl any means of empowerment. By disowning any form of ‘shopgirl epistemology’ (153), Gissing draws back from modernity and marks his distaste for the culture of consumption, the commodification of human relationships, and the fetishization of goods.

12Chapters 11 and 12 tackle the issue of women’s intellectual emancipation in Gissing’s fiction. After looking at female readers and book lovers in Gissing’s novels, Maria Teresa Chialant explores the figure of the female writer in New Grub Street (1891). By comparing this novel with Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman (1894), she demonstrates Gissing’s indirect influence on Dixon’s novel and reads Dixon’s Mary Erle as ‘Harold Biffen transgendered’ (167)—but a Biffen who chooses to go on living in the literary and marriage markets. In the next essay Diana Maltz considers the female artist, suggesting fascinating analogies and differences between May Sinclair’s Audrey Craven (which Gissing read with much enthusiasm) and Gissing’s The Whirlpool, both published in 1897.

13In the final chapter M. D. Allen examines Gissing’s novel Born in Exile (1892), paying particular attention to the figure of Godwin Peak as exemplary of the author’s gifted but moneyless young male characters who are unable to find a satisfactory mate and thus repress sexual desire. Gissing’s extensive knowledge of French literature is acknowledged, especially the influence of Balzac and George Sand (and indirectly that of Stendhal, Molière, and Vallès), but Allen’s focus is on the similarities between Paul Bourget’s portrayal of Robert Greslou in Le Disciple (1889) and Gissing’s Godwin Peak, two ambitious, amoral, and areligious protagonists who fail in their hypergamous attempts to secure the right/advantageous spouse. Gissing’s portrayal of Peak, influenced as it is by Bourget’s articulation of the theory of multiple personality, challenges conventional representations of hegemonic masculinity.

14As a whole the volume offers an extremely valuable contribution to Gissing studies, treating Gissing’s novels as aesthetic artefacts rather than mere manifestos and demonstrating the complexity of the author’s engagement with realism and modernity.

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Catherine Delyfer, « Christine Huguet and Simon J. James (eds.), George Gissing and the Woman Question: Convention and Dissent »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 84 Automne | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2016, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Catherine Delyfer

Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès

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