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58 GEORGE GISSING: ADVOCATE OR PROVOCATEUR OF THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT? By Alice B. Markow (Wes.t Chester State College, Pennsylvania) Of all the Victorian novelists, none devoted so much attention to the subject of women's rights as George Gissing. Taken as a whole, his fiction offers the most comprehensive study of the "new woman" to be found in nineteenth-century British literature, a fact which explains why such works as The Odd Women and Our Friend the Charlatan continue to appear on the reading lists of women's studies courses. Yet the question is this: was he an advocate of women's rights or a critic and provocateur? Most Gissing critics have observed the author's ambivalence and inconsistency regarding women. A few critics, such as Patricia Stubbs, Lloyd Fernando, Elaine Showalter, and John Goode, tend to regard Gissing as more or less supporting the ideal of the traditional woman, at least in his late work. Still, most critics - Jacob Korg, Paul Sporn, Irving Howe, Carol Munn, Alison Cotes, Jean Kennard, Robert Selig, and Katherine Linehan, to name a few - do view Gissing as essentially feminist. His novels are usually read as strongly advocating those rights for which the Victorian feminists agitated: education for women, equal employment opportunity, the elimination of the double standard. Though he dealt rather cursorily with other feminist issues, such as female suffrage in Denzil Quarrier and prostitution in The Unclassed , it is these three issues which seem to have engaged him most deeply. I believe that a close scrutiny of these themes will reveal that Gissing acted as provocateur; that where an apparent advocacy of women's rights is discernible, it will be discovered to be nominal onlyj and that he deliberately set up situations that would disclose the basic, often biological, inequality of women. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that there is very little, if anything, on the subject of women's rights which can be considered original in Gissing's fiction. The numerous arguments and set speeches found there are fairly literal transcripts of those promulgated in the news media and journalistic literature by the Victorian proponents and antagonists of the Women's Movement from the 1850's onward¡ moreover, most of Gissing·s novels which deal with the thfree subjects were written after I890, by which time they were either on their way to solution or considered dead issues. This consideration perhaps accounts for the fact that there was no real evolution of consciousness or radical shift in perspective concerning feminist issues in Gissing's fiction. Although I have tried, insofar as possible, to examine the three themes following a chronological pattern, Gissing's view of his last new woman, Constance Bride (Our Friend the Charlatan, I9OI), is consistent with the view of his first new woman, Ada Warren (Isabel Clarendon, 1886). It should be noted, too, that the multiple focus which characterizes Gissing's fiction as a whole also forces a consideration of the "wo- 59 man question" from various points of view. Gissing may have been too pluralistic, or perhaps nihilistic, to adopt a single point of view. In any event, the confusions, contradictions, and ironies concerning the new woman which are found in his fiction were also those of the age. For these reasons, it is possible to read Gissing's fiction merely as a forum for arguing, noncommittally, those issues which engaged the Victorian feminists, but I believe such a reading is mistaken, that the author does, in fact, take sides, and that he comes down gently but firmly on the side of the traditional, as opposed to the "new," woman. Whenever he goes to the trouble to establish a positive concept of female emancipation through verbal debate, he almost always fails to support it through narrative action . More often, it will be found that he actually "undercuts," subverts, or satirizes the new woman through a plot action, that network of consequences, which demonstrates the divorce between feminist theory and experiential reality. Sometimes he achieves the same end through a contrast of characters (the new woman with the traditional woman, with the author's emotional allegiance always going to the traditional woman) or through thematic...


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pp. 58-73
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