Gissing and lodging-house naturalism (2)

The end of Arthur Golding’s tragic life happens amidst a sublime landscape half-way across the globe from the metropolis, when he throws himself into Niagara Falls. It is London, however, that creates the conditions for his tragedy, and indeed, it is London’s Thames that first gives him the inspiration for a watery self-made grave, which he contemplates initially in the immediacy of grief following John Pether’s death (438). Golding’s fatal tendency to return to the past and to misery rather than venture onwards to a happier future is figured geographically at the very beginning of Workers in the Dawn, when, as a recently bereaved child, he slips out of the protection of his new rural guardians and trudges back to the city, losing himself to any anxious philanthropists amidst its crowds.  This infant’s act of rejection of the countryside for the urban environment he knows better is, of course, a savage and profound subversion of the figure of the Wordsworthian child in Romanticism’s everyday Eden (the sardonic name of the slum in Whitecross Street that draws him homewards is ‘Adam and Eve Court’). But while Gissing rebutts Wordsworth’s fantasy that the urban child naturally divines the authority of nature’s parenthood, the novelist does not endorse little Arthur’s preference of the city for the country. Rather, the orphan’s active embrace of London signals proleptically to readers the first-fruits of one long naturalist descent into hell, demonstrating that his eight years’ habitation in Whitecross Street and its neighbourhood have soaked, through miasma, into his very bones, and he is already, in all probability, irredeemable.

If the tragedy of Arthur Golding can be guessed early on from the way the boy cannot help but return to London’s poorest neighbourhoods, its progress can be traced, conversely, through the character’s subsequent series of failed attempts to keep himself from being contaminated by the urban, and more specifically, by the degraded multiple-occupancy accommodation he has no choice but inhabit as a young adult. One crucial source of tension within the novel derives from Golding’s vain project to separate himself off from and raise himself above the residential spaces in which he finds himself, prominent among which are Bloomsbury’s lodging-houses. This tension recapitulates but modifies that to be found in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, which pitted the rurally-born Johnny Eames’s ambitions for upward social mobility against the contaminating urban environs of Burton Crescent. As in the earlier novel, the greatest threat to Golding’s hermetic self-improvement comes from romantic (or sexual) encounter in the boarding-house, and the possibility of a consequent bad marriage. Unlike Eames, however, Golding fails to get away from his own ‘Mealyer’ (Carrie) before it is too late. The tease of possible tragicomic marriage in Trollope becomes full-blown marital tragedy in Gissing.

The first lodging-house Golding experiences as a grown man is based in Gower Place, just south of Euston Square, on Bloomsbury’s northern borders. He and his friend Mark Challenger try to keep ‘completely apart from the other residents’, avoiding as much ‘social intercourse’ with them as possible (317):

His landlady’s name was Pettindund, and, besides her own family of grown-up sons and daughters, she had her house always full of lodgers. When Arthur grew to know these people with some degree of familiarity, they excited in him a feeling of unutterable disgust. Enthusiastic as were his hopes for the amelioration of the poor and ignorant, he saw at once that here he had come into contact with a class of people from whom it was vain to expect improvement save by the agency of time. They could not be called poor, since the weekly earnings of the family amounted to no small sum, the whole of which they regularly squandered in surfeit and vice; and their mental and moral debasement was to them no pain whatever. To attempt to influence these people by any powers of example or persuasion, which an individual could exercise, he saw at once would be waste of time. They were too completely sunk in their hoggish slough to be capable of rescue by any single hand. (281)

Golding fails to recognise that his ‘contact’ with these porcine fellow inmates can work both ways, affecting him despite his separatist intentions.  If this autodidact of a character had read Trollope’s (recently published) novel featuring Bloomsbury boarding-houses, in addition to the translation of Homer  he occasionally quotes from (421), he would perhaps have been less worried about his impotence to influence them and more wary about the dangers to himself of an insidious ‘entanglement’ there. Though not so naive as to imagine he can improve or ameliorate all of those with whom he shares a roof, Golding makes an  ‘exception’ for his future wife Carrie Mitchell that proves to be his Achilles heel. Gissing suggests that Golding’s idealistic exceptionalism about Carrie, whom he singles out from the crowd as alone worthy to be saved, plays an active role within his contamination by the very environment he opposes. In the novel’s most sophisticated revision of the Bloomsbury boarding-house narrative for the purposes of naturalism, Workers attends to the multi-relational mechanics of sexual feeling, presenting the reviled space, through the absolute disgust it generates, as an agent in the production of desire.

At first, the character’s interest in Carrie seems to announce a straightforward and unmediated sexual drive: the narrator marks down Golding’s interest in the ‘young girl’ whom he has ‘occasionally passed on the stairs’ as evidence of his ‘susceptibility’ to a ‘beautiful female face’ (317). But there is a third party that complicates the couple’s hormonal proximity to one another, adding complexity to the socio-sexual dynamics of this space: the house (and its inhabitants). In my reading of the novel, Golding’s deepening attraction for Carrie is generated not only despite the  ‘unutterable disgust’ he feels for the other inhabitants such as Mrs Pettindund, but also, in part, because of it. The landlady of the Gower Place establishment represents a louder and more unpleasant version of the already problematic figure depicted by Dickens and Trollope, who splices together roles of matriarch and business-woman to the detriment of the former. Not only does the Pettindund family lack a vigilant maternal guide to protect them from their own ‘moral debasement’, but the landlady subjects one of her own relatives (her niece, Carrie) to her most hard-nosed treatment, thus confirming her abdication of Gissing’s favoured feminine virtues. (Mrs Pettindund shows Carrie no familial mercy after she falls pregnant, for instance, and, had been charged ‘no end of money for her board and lodging’ (318) even before this event.) What is most remarkable about the Gower Place landlady, however, is not her heartless behaviour to her own kin per se, but the effect this has upon Golding in stimulating his desire for her niece.

Golding’s gradual fascination with Carrie is largely mediated by his disgust-tinged encounters with Mrs. Pettindund’s pitiless, mercenary treatment of her, as it is for instance in this scene, when he leans over the banisters to eavesdrop upon a conversation in which the landlady confronts her niece about her pregnancy and tells her to leave the house:

“Yer don’t think I’m sich a fool as to keep yer, eh?” pursued the kindly-hearted landlady. “An’ lose the good name o’ th’ouse an’ all? If you do, you’re mistaken, that’s all as I’ve got to say t’yer.”

The listener’s straining ears could just catch the answer.

“You won’t turn me out of doors, aunt?” pleaded the girl’s sobbing voice. “Won’t you let me stay till it’s over, and then work and pay you all back?”

“A likely joke that, too! You pay me back! Catch yer doin’ of it! I tell you, you leave this ‘ouse to-day, an’ there’s no two ways about that. D’ye ‘ear?”

“But you’ve always been kind to me, aunt!” sobbed Carrie “Won’t you have some pity? If I’ve done wrong, I’m sorry for it; and I shall have to suffer for it all my life. You’ve been kind to me till now, aunt; don’t be so cruel as to turn me out. I’ve no home to go to.”

“What I ‘ave been, an’ what I’m goin’ to be now, is two very different things,” returned Mrs. Pettindund, in her coarse, gin-thickened, over-fed voice, and always with that inimitable ferocity of the true London lodging-house keeper. “I’ll trouble yer to pay me twelve-an’-sixpence, too, as soon as you get it; so you’d best go to work to-day, if it’s only for the money. I’ll have no —- i’ my ‘ouse, an’ so you ‘ave it straight.” (321)

Reading between the lines, Golding’s ‘entanglement’ with the seductively vulnerable Carrie is produced narcissistically from his overt self-definition against the contaminating living space they share, a space the aunt embodies. In a series of scenes that culminates in a parody of the family get-togethers of Dickens’s Christmas stories, when Mrs Pettindund refuses entrance to the heavily pregnant Carrie on Christmas Eve, the narrator covertly invites us to connect Golding’s visceral disgust for the Gower Place boarding house and landlady with his attraction to the girl he attempts to rescue. The chapter in which the narrator first relates Golding’s growing infatuation with Carrie is entitled, by way of a Nietzschean distinction, ‘Love or Pity?’, but it could have more pointedly been called ‘Love or Disgust?’. For Gissing thus demystifies the process by which even the most vigilant occupants of Bloomsbury lodging-house accommodation could succumb to its contaminating perils. In an odd version of Girardian triangularity that deploys the detested site itself in the production of desire, the male lover’s idealistic rejection of the overly grubby lodging-house is co-opted into the doomed marriage plot initiated there.

George Gissing, Workers in the Dawn ed. Debbie Harrison (Victorian Secrets, 2010).

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