Is Gordon Comstock’s World an Improvement on Gissing’s?

By Loraine Saunders

Orwell certainly thought the answer to the above question was ‘yes’. He wrote, ‘There are many reasons, and George Gissing’s novels are among them, for thinking that the present age is a good deal better than the last one.’i

Despite the gloomy atmosphere pervading Gissing’s novels, he was Orwell’s favourite novelist and Orwell drew heavily on Gissing’s work, although, significantly, would not have his own novels end on a negative note in the way Gissing’s do.

In this short essay I would like to show how Orwell deliberately wrote in a more optimistic vein than Gissing. However, I must be selective and so here will concentrate on Orwell’s female characterization to show how he believes relationships between men and women to have improved since Gissing’s time. Of that period, Orwell wrote:

People who might … have been reasonably happy chose instead to be miserable, inventing senseless tabus with which to terrify themselves. Money was a nuisance not merely because without it you starved; what was more important was that unless you had quite a lot of it … society would not allow you to live gracefully or even peacefully. Women were a nuisance because even more than men they were the believers in tabus, still enslaved to respectability even when they had offended against it. Money and women were therefore the two instruments through which society avenged itself on the courageous and the intelligent (GG, CW, p. 348).

When writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying Orwell was greatly influenced by Gissing’s New Grub Street, and while there are many similarities between the central characters, Orwell does not provide narrative sympathy for the self-imposed struggles of his failing poet, Gordon Comstock particularly where women are concerned. This is unlike Gissing who gives wholehearted authorial support for the trials of his battling writer, Edwin Reardon.

Gordon Comstock spends a good deal of his time blaming lack of money for all his woes including what he perceives to be his failing courtship, but Orwell takes care to show that Gordon has a warped viewpoint. Here is part of a conversation between Gordon and his wealthy friend, Ravelston on the subject of women:

‘Of course women are a difficulty’, [Ravelston] admitted.
‘They’re more than a difficulty, they’re a bloody curse. That’s if you’ve got no money. A woman hates the sight of you if you’ve got no money.’
‘I think that’s putting it a little too strongly. Things aren’t so crude as all that.’
Gordon did not listen. (KTAF, p. 103)

The narrative intrusion, ‘Gordon did not listen,’ is put there intentionally to demonstrate how perversely determined Gordon is to keep his ‘crude’, prejudiced outlook. It is abundantly clear in the book that Gordon is absurd to think this of women because his girlfriend, Rosemary, is always charming to him and tries her best to rally him. She is no slave to social taboos and does not punish Gordon for his lack of money, the fate that is suffered by Edwin Reardon at the hands of his emotionally cold wife, Amy. Happily, by the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon has come to see all this for himself and his future is one of maturity and hope.

I cannot go deeper here but my book, The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell: The Novels from Burmese Days to Nineteen Eighty-Four (Ashgate 2008) provides detailed narrative analyses regarding the ways in which Orwell was influenced by Gissing even though he would write in an entirely more positive manner because, as stated at the beginning, he saw a good deal to celebrate in his own time.

i) Orwell, ‘George Gissing’, The Complete Works, vol. XIX, pp. 346-52 (p. 347).

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