Why This Is Clerkenwell, Nor Am I Out of It

George Gissing, The Nether World (1889)

Here be spoilers

I’ve been too busy to write this up in a timely manner, but here we go. I note that the notes in my edition were a bit haphazard; I couldn’t spot the asterisk for some, some foreign phrases go untranslated.

The opening is straight out of Dickens but the similarities shift quickly. Dickens I guess is our shorthand for the stratified nineteenth-century London – the orphan left alone in the world, the indifferent or cruel officials, the adorable heroine, the grotesques whether outside the law or the criminal. The novel begins with a rich old man in search of his lost family: the Snowdons.

Michael Snowdon has been in Australia (Magwitch?) and has inherited money from his dead son – he is in search of his other son and finds a granddaughter, Jane, neglected by Mrs Peckover and more so by daughter Clem Peckover. Michael will give Jane the money if she proves virtuous, but for the benefit of others rather than herself. The Peckovers have an eye on this money, as does (obviously), Michael’s estranged son Joseph and machinations begin to deprive Jane of any inheritance. Meanwhile, Michael engages Jane’s friend Sidney Kirkwood in his plans – a potential suitor for Jane but who ends up married to Jane’s other friend, Clara.

There are myriad other characters, trying to get by, competing for work and trying to track down places to live. The closest we get to seeing how the other half live is in a trip to the countryside; otherwise the action is circumscribed by Clerkenwell and parts of Islington. There seems to be no sanctuary to be sought in religion and the social housing that is established is described as being like barracks. The slums turn into opportunities for further exploitation. Radical politics are no help whatsoever. The few escapes into pleasure lead to further degradation – pubs seem gateways to alcoholism and ruin. A day out to Crystal Palace turns into a near riot and a fracas. Good intentions evaporate with the inheritance. A character’s escape through theatre leads to her permanent disfigurement.

George Gissing (1857-1903) had been born in Wakefield, but was educated from the age of twelve at a school in Alderley Edge and attended Owens College, a precursor of the University of Manchester. His university career was ended by his relationship with Marianne Helen Harrison, usually called Nell and allegedly a prostitute. Gissing apparently stole to support her and was sent down. After a month in hard labour, he went to Boston and Chicago in 1876, returning to London the following year with Nell. He self-published Workers in the Dawn (1880) with an inheritance, having failed to sell this or Mrs Grundy’s Enemies (1882 – although to be fair he sold this but the publisher refused to print it). He was successful with The Unclassed (1884), Isabel Clarendon (1886), Demos (1886) and Thyrza (1887), all accounts of working class London life. His relationship with Nell disintegrated, although he paid her alimony until her death in 1888.

Gissing lived on the edge of the territory of his novel – 5 Hanover Street, now 60 Noel Road, Islington – at a space of refuge and failed promise for some of the characters in the novel, just on the other side of the canal. Like Dickens, Gissing had wandered round the city to absorb its character, Richard Pearson arguing that “Sociology, anthropology, and ethnography were, from an early period, the moving forces behind Gissing’s thought and practice” (Pearson 2004: 40). The Nether World is a product of and maintained by The Upper World, although we don’t see that world here (although Upper Street is in Islington). There are moments: “In the upper world a youth may ‘sow his wild oats’ and have done with it; in the nether, ‘to have your fling’ is almost necessarily to fall among criminals.”

Gissing apparently became increasingly anxious about which side of civilisation and savagery the two worlds lay on – the Nether World is repeatedly described as brutal. But the project to “civilise” that brutality results in the barracks-like accommodation. Gissing as omniscient narrator declares “Really, we shall soon be coming to a conclusion that the differences between the nether and the upper world are purely superficial.”

The ending of the novel offers no catharsis, no eucatastrophe. Jane and Sidney come, by chance one year and thereafter by tacit understanding, to Michael Snowdon’s grave at Abney Park Cemetery:

In each life little for congratulation. He with the ambitions of his youth frustrated; neither an artist, nor a leader of men in the battle for justice. She, no saviour of society by the force of a superb example; no daughter of the people, holding wealth in trust for the people’s needs. Yet to both was their work given. Unmarked, unencouraged save by their love of uprightness and mercy, they stood by the side of those more hapless, brought some comfort to hearts less courageous than their own. Where they abode it was not all dark. Sorrow certainly awaited them, perchance defeat in even the humble aims that they had set themselves; but at least their lives would remain a protest against those brute forces of society which fill with wreck the abysses of the nether world.

Their missions will fail them – but the missions sustain them.

Andrew Whitehead gives an account of The Nether World as hell, with a useful comparison of Gissing to Dante. (Nell is Beatrice?) He notes Gissing’s familiarity with all of London, but the focus here is tight on Clerkenwell, with London expanding around it. He notes that Clerkenwell had been paid particular attention by a Royal Commission and was a centre for radicalism for centuries. Lenin was to edit Iskra there. It was to go through a series of waves of revival and failure – now I’d say it’s on the edge of hipsterdom and the poles of Labour represented by Corbyn and Blair. I know Tysoe Street (“It is a short street, which, like so many in London, begins reputably and degenerates in its latter half. The cleaner end leads into Wilmington Square, which consists of decently depressing houses, occupied in the main, as the lower windows and front-doors indicate, by watchmakers, working jewellers, and craftsmen of allied pursuits.”) from visits to the Olde China Hand (which doesn’t seem to gain a mention). The book sets a tone for London as Hell – will this be followed through?

Bibliography


  • George Gissing (1992) The Nether World, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics).
  • Richard Pearson (2004) “George Gissing and the Ethnographer’s ‘I’: Civilisation in The Nether World and Eve’s Ransom, Critical Survey 16(1): 35-51.
  • Andrew Whitehead (2013) “George Gissing The Nether World (1889)”, in Andrew Whitehead and Jerry White (eds) London Fictions (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications).

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