I’ve had a few days away from the computer, largely thanks to having friends to stay and an essay to work on. And normally I wouldn’t talk about a book until I had finished it, but this time I just couldn’t help myself. And anyway, I’m only two chapters from the end. This weekend I have been enraptured with The Nether World by George Gissing. It’s for an essay, but no matter, this novel is simply brilliant.
It’s bleak and angry vision of the late nineteenth-century London slums (in this case, those in Clerkenwell) and of the damage that poverty, violence, and alcohol wreak on families forced to live therein. Believe me, there are no happy endings here.
We have the Snowdons – grandfather Michael and grandaughter Jane – living together in modest rooms. But there’s more to Michael Snowdon than meets the eye, and his secret has ramifications on several lives around him. There is Jane’s estranged father Joseph and his awful wife Clem, who are constantly trying to outwit each other. There are the Hewetts: John, daughter Clara, son Bob, and three younger children. Clara desperately tried to escape her deprived circumstances but inescapable fate pulls her right back down to the bottom. There’s Penelope ‘Pennyloaf’ Candy, who on her wedding night (she marries Bob Hewett) lies beside her new husband, who has passed out from all the booze, listening to her mother being savagely beaten by her father in the street outside, all the while knowing she’ll have to pawn her wedding ring the next day.
The novel makes for compulsive but uneasy reading, and more than once did I find myself welling up while reading it. The most striking thing about it is the futility of anyone trying to escape their hideous circumstances, because every time someone tries to make a bid for freedom from the slums, something or someone contrives to drag them back down. Life is hideously difficult and money is hideously scarce: at one point the narrator notes that the only good thing to happen to one couple is the death of their youngest child. It’s one less mouth to feed.
It’s the anger about poverty and the misguided attempts to give charity from “the upper world” that saves the novel from mawkishness. There is tragedy, but these tragedies are everyday tragedies, and sad as they are, these are the realities of the conditions. Gissing obviously feels the injustices of the conditions very strongly – in his own life, his first wife was an alcoholic who died of her affliction in 1888. The Nether World was published the next year.