- George Gissing’s Demos: Public Discourse and the “Many-Headed Monster” of Socialism
When, in 1888, Edith Sichel wrote an article in Murray’s Magazine about George Gissing’s pessimistic outlook on the working classes, she stated that Gissing was one of the writers whose attention was now turned to “that many-headed monster Demos” (506). Although nowhere does Gissing’s novel Demos contain such a colourful metaphor to describe the masses of New Wanley, Sichel’s phrase is clearly suggested by the tone of the novel. The article in Murray’s puts Gissing’s social “pessimism” side by side with Walter Besant’s philanthropic “optimism” (516). It is commonplace to consider Gissing’s novels as a break from mid-Victorian social and political commitments. As a turn-of-the-century novelist, Gissing casts doubt on mid-Victorian eagerness to offer ready solutions to social evils. Representing a “new style of realism” (DeVine, Class 41), Gissing’s Demos does not share Besant’s optimism and hence is not the mainstream Victorian novel embedded in a middle-class vision of social reform. Demos dismisses the idea of cultivating middle-class values in the poor as a comforting fantasy. Gissing’s case study of socialism(s) suggests that the public sphere is best represented as a fragmented kaleidoscopic canvas of political causes, styles, and self-identifications. In doing so, Demos marks a shift in Victorian conceptions of the public sphere and reformulates the means and the ends of political discussion therein. This novel enters into the late-Victorian debate around “that many-headed monster Demos” to question the premises of philanthropic projects and to suggest that perhaps the notion of truly transformative action lies not in the clamorous arena of the public discourse but elsewhere. I suggest that a central aspect of Gissing’s break from Victorian legacy lies in his revision and rejection of the Victorian imaginings of the public sphere.
I focus on the novel’s preoccupation with the question of agency in the public sphere as it imagines two main alternatives: large-scale political movement versus individual pursuit of art. Gissing, in the end, is skeptical about both. The novel shows that any idea, however benevolent, would gain resonance in the public sphere only to dissolve under the centrifugal forces of selfish ambitions, plural interpretations, or even mutations into its very opposite (as is the case with Richard Mutimer’s socialism turned into “Democratic Capitalism” ). The kinds of socialisms that we see in [End Page 141] Demos—from Westlake’s intellectualism and Mutimer’s moderate agitation to Daniel Dabbs’s zeal for “stamping and shouting” (35), Roodhouse’s violent revolutionism, and even a Russian variety with a “nihilistic” flair—point to the limits of a unified social action or the impossibility of large multitudes articulating a political argument. Such diversity and incommensurability of political ideas and movements make a shared discussion forum unfeasible. The illusory voice of the people inevitably splinters into many styles and agendas. Therefore, the novel suggests that the practical aspect of participating in the public sphere entails a loss of pristine political notions, the impossibility of a shared dialogue, and an inability on the part of multitudes to exert a concerted collective action. As if by a law of entropy, collective action loses its momentum before it even begins.
Another alternative is embodied in the aristocrat Hubert Eldon’s individualistic pursuit of art, which includes preserving Wanley in its pre-industrial, pastoral condition. The socio-political and the aesthetic planes do not intersect in the novel, as evidenced by Eldon’s rhetorical question, “What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?” (77). While Hubert’s individual pursuit of art dangerously withdraws him from social concerns in the public sphere, Mutimer’s political agitation for a mass movement is compromised even more. Although Gissing wrote Demos “from a very Conservative point of view” (Mattheisen et al. Letters 2: 363) and Eldon’s eco-preservation and taste for the beautiful are presented favourably, Gissing does not intend to imply that Eldon’s aesthetic conservatism presents a solution to late-Victorian social anxieties. Demos does not seek a solution or prescribe a...