Our book today is George Gissing’s 1894 novel In the Year of the Jubilee (referring of course to the Golden Jubilee in 1887, marking Queen Victoria’s 50th year on the throne), a lesser-known effort by the man who gave the reading world The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and The Odd Women.
This novel was written in Gissing’s best, strongest period, the decade or so immediately following the battery-charging winter trip he made to Italy, which acted on him the way it always does on writers, by igniting hidden layers of talent he didn’t even realize he possessed. Prior to that 1888-89 trip, he’d written novels so turgid and craftless even he couldn’t stand to read them. The rejuvenating atmosphere of Italy (and the attentions of several comely Italian women – at the time, Gissing was still extremely good-looking) not only filled him with new ideas but – far more importantly – helped him to discover that most elusive of all a writer’s tools: his voice. He came back to England knowing not only what kinds of things he wanted to say but also how he wanted to say them.
In the Year of the Jubilee is fairly typical of this period. It’s a multi-faceted satire exhibiting passion, intelligence, and long patches of imperfect control. The center of the book is the courtship and disastrous marriage of Lionel Tarrant and Nancy Lord, each of whom in their separate way has bought into some impossible version of the social optimism that afflicted the aspirations of the middle class at the height of Victoria’s reign. Their marriage was never a good idea (Gissing rather ham-handedly makes sure we know that), and it inevitably shatters under the weight of their expectations. More than any of his contemporaries, Gissing was the laureate of dysfunction (the more you know about his lamentable personal life, the easier this is to understand), and In the Year of the Jubliee, like its more famous cousin New Grub Street, is full of unsavory characters striving in vain to stave off calamity.
Gissing was by this point in his career a thorough professional about his craft. He took copious writing notes, wrote copious drafts, and like all literary pack-rats, he found a way to use just about everything good that came from his pen. Lyrical scene-settings are plopped into the sordid events of this novel not only because Gissing wanted them to ironically offset the darkness of his plots but also because they came out well, and he couldn’t bear to set them aside:
But inland these discontents are soon forgotten; there amid tilth and pasture, gentle hills and leafy hollows of rural Devon, the eye rests and the mind is soothed. By lanes innumerable, deep between banks of fern and flower; by paths along the bramble-edge of scented meadows; by the secret windings of copse and brake and stream-worn valley – a way lies upward to the long ridge of Haldon, where breezes sing among the pines, or sweep rustling through gorse and bracken. Mile after mile of rustic loveliness, ever and anon the sea-limits blue beyond grassy slopes. White farms dozing beneath their thatch in harvest sunshine; hamlets forsaken save by women and children, by dogs and cats and poultry, the labourers afield. Here grown the tall foxgloves bending a purple head in the heat of noon; here the great bells of the convolvulus hang thick from lofty hedges, massing their pink and white against the dark green leafage; here amid shadowed undergrowth trail the long fronds of lustrous hartsglory. Here, in many a nook carpeted with softest turf, canopied with tangle of leaf and bloom, solitude is safe from all intrusion – unless it be that of a flitting bird, or of some timid wild thing that rustles for a moment and is gone. From dawn till midnight, as from midnight till dawn, one who would be alone with nature might count upon the severity of these bosks and dells.
Even at his best (and this novel has some of his best published stuff, lean and often daringly elliptical), Gissing never displays the tight-fisted narrative control possessed by so many of his writing contemporaries. He can get carried away. He can get sloppy. At one point he has whining, self-pitying Nancy pause from her busy day of woe-is-me-ing:
Fatigued into listlessness, she went to the lending-library, and chose a novel for an hour’s amusement. It happened that this story was concerned with the fortunes of a young woman who, after many an affliction sore discovered with notable suddenness the path to fame, lucre, and the husband of her heart: she became at a bound a famous novelist. Nancy’s cheek flushed with a splendid thought. Why should she not do likewise? At all events – why should she not earn a little money by writing stories? Number of women took to it; not a few succeeded. It was a pursuit that demanded no apprenticeship, that could be followed in the privacy of home, a pursuit wherein her education would be of service. With imagination already fired by the optimistic author, she began to walk about the room and devise romantic incidents. A love story, of course – and why not one very like her own? The characters were ready to her hands. She would begin this very evening.
Gissing has her reflect that this story-writing could be done from the comfort of home – and then, clearly, in Gissing’s mind she is home. She begins to pace and immediately tells her house-mate that she’s got a wonderful new idea for self-employment; both she and Gissing have forgotten that she’s supposed to be in a lending-library. When reading Gissing, this is the price you pay for his impetuous, often scathing vision.
And in In the Year of the Jubilee, the reader also gets all those lyrical bits! They continue to crop up right to the end of the book, Gissing simply expanding on whatever reflection his own writing has prompted in him. As is perhaps fitting in a novel whose title is a prepositional phrase, the scene-setting in these pages is quite often the most memorable part of the book:
It was one of those cold, dry, clouded evenings of autumn, when London streets affect the imagination with a peculiar suggestiveness. New-lit lamps, sickly yellow under the dying day, stretch in immense vistas, unobscured by fog, but exhibit no detail of the track they will presently illumine; one by one the shop-fronts grow radiant on deepening gloom, and show in silhouette the figures numberless that are hurrying past. By accentuating a pause between the life of daytime and that which will begin after dark, this grey hour excites to an unwonted perception of the city’s vastness and of its multifarious labour; melancholy, yet not dismal, the brooding twilight seems to betoken Nature’s compassion for myriad mortals exiled form her beauty and her solace.
Readers new to Gissing shouldn’t start here. He didn’t write enough truly first-rate stuff to justify starting anywhere except with his first-rate stuff – so off to The Odd Women you all go, and lucky you are, too! But for those few of you who take a liking to this author’s peculiar ways and means, In the Year of the Jubilee will bring an hour of great delight – and maybe a little insight into an age eerily like our own.