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130 GISSIMG'S FEMININE PORTRAITURE By Pierre Coustilias (Paris, France) It is hardly possible to survey Gissing's ideas on women and femininism without occasionally introducing biographical data. His thought and his marital difficulties are so closely interwoven that one may sometimes need to pause to recollect whether it was Nell or Carrie Mitchell, Edith or Ada Peachey who was concerned in some dimly remembered domestic explosion. Also, the circumstances of Gissing's life influenced the artistic tonality of his work, toward idealism during one stage of his career, toward realism during another. The correspondence between life and fiction begins with his mother. That he had little affection for her is certain. Indeed, she embodied some of the defects he soon came to abhor in woman. Though the daughter of a well-known Droitwich solicitor, she was poorly educated and showed little interest in the things of the mind. She was content to follow tradition, to be a conscientious Victorian housewife, whose sole ambition was to fulfill her domestic duties, to practice the religion inherited from family tradition or adhered to by a stubborn spirit, and to bring up her children according to rigid moral principles. Mrs. Gissing was helped in her household duties by servants whose activities she supervised with more than ordinary zeal. She was more absorbed by what went on in the kitchen than interested in her husband's scientific occupations. Gissing must assuredly have been thinking of his own mother and similar domestic-minded women when he drew Mrs. Mutimer's portrait. The family's sudden accession to prosperity which unexpectedly places her in comfortable circumstances soon gives Mrs. Mutimer reasons to distrust the new order. She pathetically tries to keep her former habits, and like Gissing's mother, she considers domestic duties as the be-aiI and end-all of married life. Gissing's two sisters—Margaret and Ellen—were all the more influenced by their mother because Thomas Gissing, the chemist-botanist, died in I870, when they were still very young children. Until they reached womanhood, Gissing encouraged them to read, to give themselves a liberal education, to break with their austerely provincial ways. He never really prevailed on Margaret to become interested in art. He apparently came nearest to defeating her self-conscious reticence when he persuaded her to accompany him on a tour (Spring, I889) to the Channel Islands and bathe in the sea. In his diary he complains that to literature she prefers the reading of "some dirty little pietistic work".' Cut with Ellen he was more successful; she was musical and now end then commented upon her brother's novels. When, in reading THE EMANCIPATED (I89O) it dawned upon her that George might have taken her as a model for the puritanical heroine, Miriam Baske, she inveighed against the spirit of the book and the so-called advanced opinions it expounded. Gissing's reply emphasized the spiritual and moral differences that lay between himself and his family. He did not attack religious faith but formalism and its manifestations. When DORH Ii! EXILE (1892) came out, 131 Margaret was moved to protest: "It isa pity you should write on a subject you so little understand as Christianity.--!t would be as reasonable for me to deny the existence of all the beautiful things you have seen and told me of in foreign countries, simply because J^ have not seen them, as it is for you to deny spiritual things you have never seen or felt, when there are thousands of people who have seen them, and are therefore as certain of them as of their own existence. How anyone can disbelieve the Bible merely because it is not written in the latest scientific language seems remarkable." Gissing copied the passage in his notebook and added: "How impossible to reply to such stuff as this.'"2 Of his life with Nell (Marianne Helen Harrison), Gissing has left a poignant record in WORKERS IK THE DAWN (l880) which, with impressive lucidity, foreshadows the outcome of his first marriage. He shows how pity was conducive to love which then degenerated through living together. Though he soon gave up all hope of the purposed reformation...


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pp. 130-141
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Will Be Archived 2021
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