- George Gissing, the Working Woman and Urban Culture, and: Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Feminism
The social investigator Charles Booth recommended anyone wishing to understand the working-class women whose lives he was documenting for his Life and Labour of the People of London (1889) to read George Gissing's novel, Demos (1866). In her important new critical study, Emma Liggins turns Booth's recommendation around, directing her readers' attention to the writings of feminist campaigners, journalists and social investigators such as Clementina Black, Anna Martin, Mary Higgs and Clara Collet who researched women's living and working conditions in the city and campaigned for their improvement.
George Gissing, the Working Woman and Urban Culture offers many useful and interesting new insights into the narratives about the potential dangers and freedoms facing the woman worker that the social investigators shared with Gissing. Gissing prepared for Thyrza (1887) and The Nether World (1889) by reading documentary and sociological material and was as painstaking in the representation of [End Page 133] the working woman in his fiction as the investigators were in their research. In a very good chapter on the industrious independent women, Liggins shows how Black and other investigators refused to countenance the prevailing image of the woman in the slum as an abject, loud-mouthed slattern but emphasised the working woman's tenacity and her spirited determination to preserve her respectability in the face of exploitation. Although influenced to some degree by the graphic depiction of urban disorder in Zola's fiction, Gissing supports the aspirations of his working-class women characters to enjoy such leisure and entertainment as they had, to walk freely in public places and to protect themselves from unwanted advances from men. Moreover, his sympathetic handling of women's attempts to negotiate their responsibilities as wives, mothers, and workers in his novels offers a challenge to the notion of the inadequate working-class mother as the passive victim of her circumstances.
Gissing's attitudes to much of his subject matter, women, the urban poor, and reform, were shifting, complex, and deeply ambivalent. Orwell once stated that the central theme of Gissing's writing could be summarised in just three words: 'Not enough money'. It was lack of money that made Gissing's life as a writer very different from his sheltered middle-class contemporaries, set him on the path of social investigation, and which accounts in part for his often discussed sense of alienation, resentment and exile. Liggins is resolutely set against biographical approaches to the writer and a critical study that is richly informative about fin-de-siècle prostitution and its representations makes only three brief references to Gissing's own unhappy first marriage; to Nell Harrison, the young prostitute with whom the author had fallen in love and with whom he lived in abjection, and disillusionment, among the London poor. Gissing pressed his first-hand knowledge of social displacement and life on the margins of society into Workers in the Dawn (1880) and into subsequent novels including The Unclassed (1899) with its reclaimed prostitute, Ida Starr.
Liggins contends that the 'woman of the pavement' is central to Gissing's idea of femininity and begins with the figure of the prostitute as the archetypal street-walker and as the locus of a set of urban encounters and fantasies, but her researches take in other working women such as barmaids, actresses, factory hands, seamstresses, clerks and journalists who had good reason to walk the pavements in late Victorian Britain. Her argument is that Gissing's endorsement of women's claim to a public life grew out of his fascination with the street-walkers of his early fiction who sometimes display a greater confidence [End Page 134] in their transgressive appropriation of the freedoms of metropolitan public space.
In a chapter on white-collar work and the future possibilities for the 'odd...