George Gissing’s The Nether World is a nightmare of naturalistic realism. Or realistic naturalism. In any case, it a deeply pessimistic novel, a deeply pained story of a variety of characters for whom inborn nobleness, goodness, generosity, and intelligence offer no recourse from being born on the wrong side of the class line. It almost seems wrong that this tale of Clerkenwell, one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods in the late nineteenth century, should be so well written, so incredibly readable in its horridly accurate portrayal of the urban poor. But so it is:
Go where you may in Clerkenwell, on every hand are multiform evidences of toil, intolerable as a nightmare. It is not as in those parts of London where the main thoroughfares consist of shops and warehouses and workrooms, whilst the streets that are hidden away on either hand are devoted in the main to dwellings. Here every alley is thronged with small industries; all but every door and window exhibits the advertisement of a craft that is carried on within. Here you may see how men have multiplied toil for toil’s sake, have wrought to devise work superfluous, have worn their lives away in imagining new forms of weariness. The energy, the ingenuity daily put forth in these grimy burrows task the brain’s power of wondering. But that those who sit here through the livelong day, through every season, through all the years of the life that is granted them, who strain their eyesight, who overtax their muscles, who nurse disease in their frames, who put resolutely from them the thought of what existence might be–that these do it all without prospect or hope of reward save the permission to eat and sleep and bring into the world other creatures to strive with them for bread, surely that thought is yet more marvellous. (pp.10-11)
A world so ragged seems as though it should be written of in ragged words, in language torn from the accepted byways of English usage. But Gissing was a gifted stylist, as well as an astute observer of human behaviour, and his union of raw subject matter with elegant prose makes the novel readable; I’m not certain it would be otherwise, for The Nether World is unrelenting. There is no redemption, no escape, no rescue that isn’t either temporary or laden with terms and consequences almost as unbearable as the hell left behind. The hyperbolic outrage and enthusiastic celebration of virtue in some of Dickens’ novels seems almost insulting in comparison to Gissing’s persistent realism. There isn’t one ounce of humourous obfuscation in The Nether World.
I don’t know how he managed it, but Gissing’s novel is enjoyable at the same time that it is demoralizing, even excruciating, in its unwillingness to look away from the horror. The horror: rampant and violent alcoholism; wasting hunger, unemployment, overwork and grossly insufficient remuneration; domestic abuse, especially of children; lack of education and opportunity.
That Gissing could make this a good book can only be a sign that the man was a genius. Here’s part of why: he never goes for either sentiment or easy answers. Indeed, he has no answers and that’s part of the point: reading a novel like this isn’t an end to anything except the reading of a good novel. With regards to addressing the larger social problems it embodies, it is a beginning, maybe. That’s all. It doesn’t allow for escape from reality as so many novels do–and it doesn’t allow us to forget that novelistic escape is itself a luxury unavailable to many and, even, terrible punishment to others.
There are three primary characters in The Nether World: Sidney Kirkwood, Clara Hewett, and Jane Snowdon. All three toil in the impoverished mire in their various ways. Sidney is a fairly financially comfortable jeweler–but comfortable because he is prudent and has no family to support. Clara Hewett is the eldest daughter of Sidney’s friend John, as well as his fiance–until she runs away to remake herself in more prosperous circles. Jane Snowdon is the 12-year old drudge living in constant terror with the Peckovers, the Hewetts’ neighbours.
Clara recognizes that Sidney is a good man, kind and generous. But she is angry, rebellious, and her considerable intelligence is becoming twisted in the stunting air of the extreme want her family dwells in. She rejects all familial ties and becomes an actress, a very talented one who, on the cusp of stepping into greatness, is ruined when a jealous fellow player throws acid in her face. She returns to her doting father, but refuses to leave the house; he tries everything to make her happy:
Pitying her unoccupied loneliness, he brought home one day a book that he had purchased from a stall in Farringdon Street; it was a novel (with a picture on the cover which seemed designed to repel any person not wholly without taste), and might perhaps serve the end of averting her thoughts from their one subject. Clara viewed it contemptuously, but made a show of being thankful, and on the next day she did glance at its pages. The story was better than its illustration; it took a hold upon her; she read all day long. But when she returned to herself, it was to find that she had been exasperating her heart’s malady. The book dealt with people of wealth and refinement, with the world to which she had all her life been aspiring, and to which she might have attained. The meanness of her surroundings became in comparison more mean, the bitterness of her fate more bitter. You must not lose sight of the fact that since abandoning her work-girl existence Clara had been constantly educating herself, not only by direct study of books, but through her association with people, her growth in experience. Where in the old days of rebellion she had only an instinct, a divination to guide her, there was now just enough of knowledge to give occupation to her developed intellect and taste. Far keener was her sense of the loss she had suffered than her former longing for what she knew only in dream. The activity of her mind received a new impulse when she broke free from Scawthorne and began her upward struggle in independence. Whatever books were obtainable she read greedily; she purchased numbers of plays in the acting-editions, and studied with the utmost earnestness such parts as she knew by repute; no actress entertained a more superb ambition, none was more vividly conscious of power. But it was not only at stage-triumph that Clara aimed; glorious in itself, this was also to serve her as a means of becoming nationalised among that race of beings whom birth and breeding exalt above the multitude. A notable illusion; pathetic to dwell upon. As a work-girl, she nourished envious hatred of those the world taught her to call superiors; they were then as remote and unknown to her as gods on Olympus. From her place behind the footlights she surveyed the occupants of boxes and stalls in a changed spirit; the distance was no longer insuperable; she heard of fortunate players who mingled on equal terms with men and women of refinement. There, she imagined, was her ultimate goal. ‘It is to them that I belong! Be my origin what it may, I have the intelligence and the desires of one born to freedom. Nothing in me, nothing, is akin to that gross world from which I have escaped!’ So she thought–with every drop of her heart’s blood crying its source from that red fountain of revolt whereon never yet did the upper daylight gleam! (pp. 276-77)
There is no respite. Education, the proclaimed panacea of reformists for the past several hundred years, can be nothing but a weapon turned inward for those unable to rise above the nether world into which they were born. Clara knows that the accident of her birth is just that; that the divisions of class and privilege are arbitrary and completely unrelated to worth. For stoics this might be a sort of consolation, but for her, it is nothing but bitter impetus to escape, one way or another.
Sidney, in his own metaphysically beaten and resigned way, and Jane in her literally beaten, starved, and neglected way, are unable to even conceive of escape from present circumstances. Sidney experiences the kind of malaise that probably most experience when they realize their dreams are completely and ever out of reach. Sidney embodies the quiet tragedy of knowing that he might have been something, but that the world is simply too much for him.
Jane Snowdon is broken too. Her mother dying when she’s a baby, her profligate father absconds for parts unknown and leaves her with the Peckovers, a mother-daughter tag-team of vicious harpies. Clem Peckover, 16 when the novel opens, visits all her hatred of the world and its power over her upon the even more powerless Jane–who on top of being malnourished, beaten, and overworked is also subjected to a veritable cornucopia of psychological tortures, including being forced to sleep in the same room as a corpse awaiting burial–when she’s 12.
But Jane is on the verge of imminent rescue by a long lost grandfather when the story begins; things seem quite familiarly and comfortingly Dickensian for a moment. But Gissing, in another implicit rejection of the novel of escape and consolation, sticks persistently to the real, portraying Jane as undoubtedly much happier and capable and human after a significant amount of time with her grandfather–but never completely okay.
She lives with her grandfather in comfortable circumstances; he is caring, gentle, solicitous of her well-being, patient. Sidney, the only person who ever shower her any kindness when she was in thrall to the Peckovers, becomes a firm family friend. She has enough to eat and is given access to education and work training and is safe–the latter being a concept previously completely outside her ken. But she will never be whole, not completely:
Kirkwood came by invitation as soon as the two were fairly established in their home. He found Jane sitting by the fire in her grandfather’s room; a very little exertion still out-wearied her, and the strange things that had come to pass had made her habitually silent. She looked about her wonderingly, seemed unable to realise her position, was painfully conscious of her new clothes, ever and again started as if in fear.
‘Well, what did I say that night?’ was Sidney’s greeting. ‘Didn’t I tell you it would be all right soon?’
Jane made no answer in words, but locked at him timidly; and then a smile came upon her face, an expression of joy that could not trust itself, that seemed to her too boldly at variance with all she had yet known of life. (pp. 68-69)
This and a number of other passages make it clear that Jane suffers from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or Combat Fatigue, or Shell Shock; she frequently falls into what some sufferers of this disorder call the thousand-yard stare). But she tries, and she makes progress.
In the end, however, her joy is right to not trust itself completely. She falls in deep, quiet, and abiding love with Sidney–who reciprocates but ultimately walks away out of an ugly admixture of moral cowardice and noble self-sacrifice (he marries his former fiance, Clara, after she returns because he acknowledges she will, in the long run, either starve or destroy herself).
Indeed, no one ends happily in The Nether World. Sidney and Clara are miserable, Jane is debarred from the only passion of her stunted life. And all this is both the point of the novel, as well as Gissing’s pained acknowledgment that while he can insist upon readers looking firmly upon certain rampant social truths, he can offer no consolation, no answers for them. For, what else can Sidney do? Even if he weren’t cowed by Jane’s grandfather’s plan for them (to use the money he’s unaccountably saved from his time in Australia to help the urban poor), he could not abandon someone for whom he once cared, the daughter of his dearest friend. It is not in his nature.
And that’s part of the tragedy of extreme poverty, as Gissing lays it out–even virtues in active expression lead to pain and further penury. There is no reward, in the end, for either villainy or goodness–because poverty is itself a sentence and an affliction which renders all such terms meaningful only in theory. And theory, of course, is a luxury of those who need not worry about where their next meal is coming from.