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  • Reading and Misreading the Country House in the Novels of George Gissing:The Dangers of Fiction
  • Rebecca Hutcheon

GIVEN THE ESTABLISHED CRITICAL PROFILE of George Gissing as one of the foremost late-Victorian authors of London working-class life, Isabel Clarendon (1886) and A Life's Morning (1888), in fact written between The Unclassed (1884) and Demos (1886), might seem peculiarly out of place. Indeed, in 1885 Gissing writes to his brother how George Meredith, then manuscript reader for Chapman and Hall, had advised him against the departure from "low life scenes" into more upper-class or plutocratic settings.1 This frequently cited early reaction to Isabel Clarendon sets the tone for the subsequent readings of the two novels.2 In contrast to the apparent realism of Gissing's early proletarian novels, they have been understood as "a product" of the writer's contact with the Harrisons and the Gaussens.3 The novels' milieu are recurrently read as "idealised" or a "digression" from Gissing's "proper setting."4 In part, this biographical approach has contributed to Gissing's early examination of middle- and upper-class places being largely overlooked and, despite Pierre Coustillas's early claims for its "richness," Isabel Clarendon rarely receives the critical attention it deserves.5 The novel has been widely regarded as incompatible with the accepted trajectory of Gissing's oeuvre from working-class London in the 1880s, through the middle-class suburbs and a commercialised fin-de-siècle urban centre, to later texts of rural retirement.6

Gillian Tindall, in The Born Exile, provides a habitual analysis of aristocratic place in Gissing, claiming that "the bourgeois idyll [and] the tame prettiness of the upper-class house" represented "much for which he had always longed," and as such are poorly rendered.7 "Rurality," Tindall continues, "or apparent rurality, of an old-fashioned, traditional, pre-industrial kind, was extremely meaningful to Gissing. In … [End Page 341] Isabel Clarendon … it represents escape, not merely from the actual and moral filth of industrial civilisation into a supposedly purer past, but escape from a lower class into a higher one, and from ignorance and prejudice toward wisdom and enlightenment."8 Tindall's biographical reading overlooks the narrative dynamic of Isabel Clarendon that the falsity contained in the "tame prettiness" of the country house is, at least to some degree, a deliberate device on Gissing's part to illuminate the very speciousness inherent in the upper-class world. This is further enhanced by the highly self-aware nature of the narrative form. Isabel Clarendon is in its characterisation, theme, subject, and tone preoccupied by deceptiveness and hollowness.

Rather than displaying an uncritical and envious desire for the self-willing blindness of the bourgeois world—which the general critical synopsis suggests—this reexamination of Isabel Clarendon reveals how it heralds the far from quixotic view of the privileged domains found in Gissing's later works. Richard Pearson, writing on the shift in Gissing's narrative perspective, suggests that from "the early social novels … Gissing moved to explore a higher class of life … and in doing so … his work became more self-reflexive and self-critical, and the issues of viewpoint, identity, and delusion became central in his work."9 These elements, aptly recognised by Pearson as characteristic of Gissing's later writing, are, in fact, not only present in but integral to the earlier novel's discourse. Accordingly, this discussion seeks to identify the signs in this early novel that establish explicitly and unwittingly an alternative and extrapolative pattern in Gissing's works.

These signs are overtly detectable in the financial and cultural instability of the country house milieu which denotes an implicit challenge to the paternalistic aesthetics of upper-class or bourgeois ideologies by undermining whilst simultaneously accentuating its inherent materialism. A further, less explicit indication is couched in the novel's recurrent fixation on myth and hearsay. Similarly, the frequent self-deliberation of the narrative, which interrogates the romanticising and presumptive tendencies of the conventional Bildungsroman register, also openly confronts both the idealisms of aristocratic place and compliance with them.10 In this way, rather than offering an anachronistic escape into idealised culture, the country house appears a void...


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pp. 341-358
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