Paul Delany, Introduction to In the Year of Jubilee, by George Gissing. (London: J.M. Dent, 1994)

1. Gissing in the Suburbs. In June 1893 George Gissing came back to London after living for two years in Exeter, and took lodgings with his second wife at 76 Burton Road, Brixton. Before he moved to Devon Gissing had been a north-of-the-river person, writing working-class novels about seedy areas like Clerkenwell (in The Nether World). Now he realised that in South London there was a new territory open to a novelist’s exploitation. From Burton Road he went for long walks through nearby Camberwell, soaking up impressions of the way of life he saw emerging there. Soon he began work on a novel about the romantic and sexual initiation of a suburban heroine, Nancy Lord. He called it “Miss Lord of Camberwell,” though his publisher persuaded him later to change the title to In the Year of Jubilee.

Suburb is an old word in English. It meant originally a disreputable place outside the city walls, full of prostitutes, thieves, and stinking workshops. Only in the nineteenth century did suburbs become places for respectable people to live - and also targets for snobbery. “Vulgar, dowdyish and suburban” was Byron’s jeer. Gissing was a snob too, yet he was deeply impressed by the sight of a new class in the making: the metropolitan lower middle class. It was happening, south of the Thames, on an enormous scale, in a featureless cityscape whose population was increasing by fifty percent every decade.

Gissing had been born into the provincial lower middle class (his father was a manufacturing chemist), and his income from writing of about two to four hundred pounds a year kept him at that social level. But in South London the lower middle class was no longer a subordinate one, sandwiched uneasily between workers and professionals; it had become a self-confident civilisation, whose red-brick houses stretched to the horizon and marched on relentlessly into the countryside of Surrey and Kent. Gissing is not a cheerful soul in any of his books, but what depresses and frightens him in Jubilee is the success of the culture he describes. Samuel Barmby, the “suburban deity” who epitomises “Camberwell man” is one of Gissing’s most repellent characters; Nancy Lord, one of his most attractive heroines, has to be rescued from Camberwell at the end of the novel and sent across London to live in Harrow.

The lower middle class has long had a bad name in English culture, as a by-word for everything vulgar, pretentious, and emotionally dishonest. What specially disturbs Gissing, in 1894, is how rapidly it is increasing its power. Two new forces are spreading lower middle class culture like an infection: popular journalism, and advertising. In the Peachey sisters’ living room, newspapers, illustrated weeklies and penny novelettes are spilling off the sofa and crawling across tables and chairs; (I, 10) in the public space of railway stations and piers, Luckworth Crewe’s advertisements have the same threatening power of self-multiplication. Gissing made himself our first really modern novelist by seizing on the emergent mass culture that would dominate the twentieth century; yet his portrayal of that culture is driven by hate, and by the conviction that any sensitive person can only survive by fleeing it.

2. Gissing and the Crowd. London had always had its dangerous mobs, like the anti-Catholic Gordon rioters of 1780 that Dickens described in Barnaby Rudge. But by the time of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 (the fiftieth year of her reign), London had ten times as many people, and new kinds of mass transportation - omnibuses, tramways, railways, and the Tube - allowed them to concentrate within a mile radius of Trafalgar Square. To Gissing, these great London crowds reveal the biological forces determining human life: sexuality and aggression. As the Jubilee crowd swallows her up, the refined Nancy Lord turns into a different person: “She did not think, and her emotions differed little from those of any shop-girl let loose.” (I, 120) When she allows a drunk to put his arm round her and serenade her, we know that neither of them would ever behave that way except in a crowd.

The celebrations that conclude Part One of In the Year of Jubilee show the menace of mass behaviour in what is now by far the largest city the world has ever seen. Advertising, as it invades every public space, doesn’t just tell people what to consume; it proclaims that urban life is made up of passions in conflict - “relentless warfare,” as Gissing puts it. (III, 37) Three months after the Jubilee these tensions produced mob warfare with the police, when a crowd of ten thousand sacked and burned the Lillie Bridge athletic grounds. The Times reported that “such a scene has not been witnessed in modern times in London.” (21 Sept. 1887)

Luckworth Crewe gives an accurate description of the Lillie Bridge riot in Jubilee, and tells Beatrice French how much he enjoyed it. But Gissing himself takes no enjoyment from the emotions that sweep through people in crowds. If he had lived a normal span, he would have seen the great crowds of August 1914 in London, clamouring for war - and seen the two-year-old son who played in his room as he wrote Jubilee killed on the first day of the Somme.

Gissing mistrusted both the crowd as a whole, and its effects on the individuals caught up in it. When Nancy Lord looked down on teeming London from the top of the Monument, she felt herself to be “the mid point of the universe. No humility awoke in her; she felt the stirring of envies, avidities, unavowable passions, and let them flourish unrebuked.” (I, 184) Obsessed as he was with Darwinism, Gissing saw the members of a crowd as receptacles for the emotions of the swarm. For men like Luckworth Crewe, this emotion was the aggression of modern economic life: his love of fistfights corresponds to the advertisements that he sends out to do battle in the marketplace. For a woman like Nancy, the emotion is a “vulgar abandonment” that signals her compulsion to breed. Allowing the stranger to embrace her on Jubilee night leads directly to Nancy’s being literally carried off by Lionel Tarrant two months later in Devon. The Darwinian title of Part Two of Jubilee - ”Nature’s Graduate” - suggests that female self-restraint will crumble in the face of the biological (and social) forces that now are pushing young women towards sexual expression.

3. The New Woman and the Old Rules. In an essay on Balzac, Georges Simenon wrote that “a novelist is a man who does not like his mother, or who never received mother-love.” This was certainly Gissing’s case. His father, whom he loved and admired, died when he was thirteen; his mother seems to have been emotionally cold, as well as oppressively religious and narrow-minded. Yet it is too simple to view Gissing the novelist as someone working off a purely personal grudge against women. Like Simenon, Gissing creates a series of compelling female characters, with no rosy haze of sentimentality to blur their desires and ambitions. Gissing has no Dickensian Doras or Agneses, simpering in their crinolines; his women, for better or worse, are in business for themselves.

Barbara Harman (see “Critical Response” below) examines Gissing’s suspicion of women’s increased participation in the “public sphere” of employment and mass recreation. But it is hard to extract from Jubilee a single rule for how women should behave. Beatrice French, for example, is a cigarette-smoking “New Woman” who has much of the male in her: she lives alone, likes a good steak, knows how to make money, and is willing to give Nancy a hand regardless of her tarnished reputation. She comes across much more favourably than her conventionally feminine sister, the predatory and self-satisfied Fanny French. Other female characters cover a whole range of contemporary types, from the old-fashioned housekeeper Mary Woodruff to the nerve-ridden “examination girl” Jessica Morgan. Gissing is certainly suspicious of any woman with intellectual ambitions, and he makes Jessica into an extreme case of the damage caused by a rejection of woman’s “normal” condition. But in other cases - Rhoda Nunn in The Odd Women, the mannish Miss Childerstone in the story “Comrades in Arms” - he portrays feminists with sympathy and respect.

What is common to all the younger women characters in Jubilee is their awareness of the new roles open to them in a changing society. Mr. Lord’s mother is described as the last of her kind, “one of the old-world women whose thoughts found abundant occupation in the cares and pleasures of home.” (I, 42) Gissing admires old Mrs. Lord; yet it is typical of his divided consciousness that he knows no young London woman can live such a life again. Stephen Lord’s diatribe against “young women as they’re turned out in these times” (I, 77) is not just unfair; it is futile. Every young woman in Camberwell must look to the demands of life outside her home and, unlike her grandmother, she is obliged to choose and to think.

The women in Jubilee each represent a single response to modern life - except for Nancy Lord who, in her complex and shifting commitments, covers a far wider emotional range. In the first half of Jubilee, we see Gissing’s interest in the sexual independence of the late Victorian “New Woman,” and his sympathy with her rebellion against social conventions. Yet at the end of the novel he safely tucks Nancy away in private life, deferring to her husband. We might compare Nancy to Jane Austen’s Emma: she is the most attractive, intelligent and economically secure person in her little society - and, not coincidentally, arrogant and lacking in self-knowledge. But where Knightley is a moral tutor to Emma of unquestioned authority, Lionel Tarrant is a much more problematic figure.

When Nancy and Lionel are first getting to know each other, their romantic potential is obscured by class tension. Nancy’s father is still active in trade, and she feels uncomfortable about climbing Champion Hill to meet Lionel at his uncle’s house. Lionel went to Oxford and is a gentleman of leisure; Nancy has the manners and clothes of a lady, but she is only half-educated, and she fears that Lionel will patronise her if she gives him any chance. Though he finds her sexually attractive, he is afraid of getting involved with a young woman who is, he believes, “in every respect his inferior.” (II, 20) Nancy has an admirable independence and self-respect; unfortunately, she belongs to a class that accepts its own inferiority, and she has no idea of making a career for herself. Her only escape from the narrowness of her father’s house is to marry - and not someone of her own class, like the egregious Samuel Barmby, but someone “higher.”

Nancy and Lionel complete their uneasy courtship on holiday at Teignmouth, in scenes that reveal Gissing’s typical (perhaps unique) qualities as a novelist. The beginning of their falling in love is Tarrant’s confession that his grandfather did, indeed, make his money from “Tarrant’s Black Lead.” (I, 220) (1) This means that he and Nancy have the same origin, though Lionel is two generations away from it to Nancy’s one. Now that they are on a more equal footing, we would expect a conventional courtship to unfold, leading after a year or so to an equally conventional marriage. Instead, Nancy allows herself to be literally carried off into the woods to lose her virginity; and by the end of the week she has secretly become Mrs. Lionel Tarrant.

We might assume that Nancy has “caught” the eligible husband who had always - consciously or unconsciously - been the object of her ambition. But that is not how Gissing explains it. He leads up to her tryst in the woods with what may be the first description, in the English novel, of a respectable young woman indulging her solitary desire:

A debilitating climate and absolute indolence favoured that impulse of lawless imagination which had first possessed her on the evening of Jubilee Day. With luxurious heedlessness she cast aside very thought that might have sobered her; even as she at length cast off all her garments, and lay in the warm midnight naked upon her bed. (I, 199)

Nancy goes into the woods with Lionel because she desires him physically; only afterwards does she fear the consequences, and want the protection of marriage. Lionel marries her because it is the gentlemanly thing to do, while complaining that “But for Nancy’s self-abandonment, he might have come to love her in good earnest.” (II, 26) If her class had been a bit lower, he would have made her his mistress; if it had been higher, he would have expected her to preserve her virginity until marriage. Nancy’s sexual forwardness, and his own impulses, have trapped him in a marriage that is at once legal, and irregular.

The conventional part of Nancy wants to be recognised as Lionel’s wife; the “New Woman” part desires independence above all, even as a clandestine mother abandoned by her husband. In the middle sections of the novel, Nancy grows in stature by taking responsibility for her child and writing an autobiographical novel about her situation. By the time Lionel returns from America, Nancy seems firmly established as a feminist heroine who has every right to treat her husband with contempt. It is only after he comes back that Nancy becomes a complete New Woman by taking a job with Beatrice French’s dress company. Yet as soon as Lionel begs her forgiveness, she turns into a loving, conventional wife - suppressing her novel, giving up her job and social circle, and accepting Lionel’s financial support. The only unusual thing about their marriage is Lionel’s determination to go on living as a bachelor in town: he wants to be an old-fashioned husband, but treats Nancy more like a mistress than a wife.

Lionel’s emotional history seems simple enough. He is a “selfish fellow” who runs off to America because of the shock of losing his money: “Poverty is the devil,” he tells Nancy, “and it overcame me.” (III, 147) On returning to England he regains his morale, becomes a successful journalist, and expects to claim his masculine prerogatives over his wife and child. Yet Gissing chose to cut a passage in which Tarrant dreams that he is a “naked, crying child,” abandoned by its parents. This passage shows a vulnerability behind Tarrant’s arrogance; by removing that vulnerability, Gissing seems to be forcing Tarrant’s opinions on the reader, without giving us any reason to like the person who expounds them.

A further difficulty, for a modern reader, is to understand Nancy’s “rational acquiescence” (III, 216) in what seems to be a sadly diminished status. Nancy justifies her submissiveness in Darwinian terms: “Nature doesn’t intend a married woman to be anything but a married woman. . . . I should like to revolt against it, yet I feel revolt to be silly. One might as well revolt against being born a woman instead of a man.” (III, 201) Nature made Nancy give herself to Lionel, and once he has returned to play his proper biological role - to protect his wife and take part in the “beastly scrimmage” (III, 244) of male economic competition - she is obliged to accept hers. The inconsistency here is that Gissing is usually critical of people who use an ideology, such as religion or socialism, to deny their own desires. Jessica Morgan’s breakdown, followed by her enrollment in the Salvation Army, is an example of such pathological belief. Gissing makes an exception for Darwinism only because it happens to reinforce his own pessimism about the true earthly powers, which are sex and money.

In the Year of Jubilee has another novel hidden inside it: the one that Nancy writes about the same events, and which Lionel doesn’t want anyone to see - because it is “a little bit of Nancy’s mind and heart” that should not be peddled in the literary marketplace. (III, 243) Gissing makes Nancy much more attractive than Lionel, but will not allow her to break the limits that Lionel sets to her existence. For Nancy to defy Lionel’s wish to dominate would make one kind of novel, and for them to live conventionally ever after would make for another; but Gissing, as usual, writes a “problem novel” that does not offer any comfortable solution to the questions it poses.

4. Gissing Between Victorian and Modern. Gissing, a century before our time, already has a stark and prophetic vision of the forces that will create twentieth century Britain: advertising, prosperity, the rise of mass culture and suburbs, the shift from religion to materialism, the sexual and economic emancipation of women. For some, this might add up to progress; but Gissing sees the unworthy successes, the misfits, and the victims. He sees how much is being destroyed and looks for some escape, if only for the sensitive individual who cannot fall in step behind Samuel Barmby and Luckworth Crewe.

The traditional escape from modernity, in English literature, is into the bosom of Nature - or Nature’s surrogate, woman. But the fate of English nature in the twentieth century is prefigured in what Crewe has in mind for Whitsand. When he has finished with it, the picturesque old fishing village will have become a resort: a profit-making parody of what it used to be, served up to jaded Londoners as a substitute for the real thing. (III, 174) Tarrant wants to do something equivalent with Nancy: to make her into his refuge from the nastiness of the literary marketplace. Nancy cooperates by willing herself to become a “natural” woman who sacrifices herself to her child and accepts her husband’s guidance. Yet the novel, before this, has repeatedly shown Nancy as a woman of the market rather than the home. She enters the labour market as a worker and the marriage market as a potential heiress; she wants to make money from her novel; she toys with the idea of selling herself to Luckworth Crewe; (I, 186) and Tarrant assesses carefully the social value of her charm and beauty. Her retreat into private life at the end of the novel, like Rapunzel in her tower, shows the narrator “making a wish” that everything released on Jubilee Day should now be returned to custody. Many novels have fantasised happy endings; but Gissing’s fantasy in Jubilee is a desperate one, expressing his forlorn hope of escaping from the spirit of his age (or, on the personal level, of escaping from his own unhappy and contentious second marriage).

Gissing brings to Jubilee what he has learned from his great predecessors: from Dickens, the panoramic vision of London; from Flaubert’s Homais and Bouvard and Pécuchet the “suburban deity” Samuel Barmby; from Hardy the wilful heroine; from Zola a grim social determinism; from Dostoevsky the treachery and self-abasement of Jessica Morgan. (2) These elements are fused to create a true end-of-the-century novel, summing up the Victorian era and uneasily contemplating the coming age.


1. In the novel as first written, Lionel confessed more: that his father gave him the name of Tarrant, but never married his mother, an actress. Gissing removed Tarrant’s illegitimacy from the final text, either because he had second thoughts or because his publisher objected to the impropriety.

2. Gissing read Crime and Punishment while he was writing Jubilee.