George Gissing's Psychology of "Female Imbecility"

By Schmidt, Gerald | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

George Gissing's Psychology of "Female Imbecility"


Schmidt, Gerald, Studies in the Novel


In a letter to Eduard Bertz dated 2 June 1893, Gissing wrote that he was "driven frantic by the crass imbecility of the typical woman. That type must disappear-or at all events become altogether subordinate" (Letters 5: 113). Gissing's tone is not easily reconciled with the general mood of the novel that is the occasion of his letter: The Odd Women (1893) is justly regarded as a key novel of the women's rights movement. Nor can there be any doubt that Gissing's emphasis on the term "imbecility" and a specific "type" is deliberate. "The average woman," he insists, "pretty closely resembles, in all intellectual considerations, the average male idiot-I speak medically" (Letters 5: 113). My aim is to resolve, as far as .possible, the conflict between what Herbert Spencer called the "comparative psychology of the sexes" and Gissing's unquestionable concern for the plight of the "odd women," destined never to marry because women vastly outnumbered men.

As I hope to show, this conflict is best understood in the light of successive phases of liberal reform. I am thinking especially of Gissing's father, whose views on liberal reform broadly accorded with those expressed in journals such as Dickens's Household Words and All the Year Round. Gissing embraced many of his father's firmly held beliefs, but was also keenly aware that they were coming under intense pressure as Darwinian natural selection extended its reach beyond natural history to issues such as penal reform and provisions for the poor. The confidence of earlier liberal reformers was fast ebbing away. Gissing's use and critical treatment of Dickens will provide an important point of reference here. John Goode has suggested that"the distance between Dickens and Gissing is marked by Darwin" (6). He is certainly right in asserting that evolutionary science played an important part in the transition from Dickens's London to Gissing's "muddy whirlpool" of "social disease" (The Whirlpool 216). Gissing, as will become clear, never quite abandons either the values that he inherits from his father's generation or those associated with the emerging discourses of social and mental science.

Consider, first of all, the following comments on Dickens's "poor unfortunates": "It is an obvious fault of his [Dickens's] work, when he exhibits victims of social wrong, that it takes no due account of the effect of conditions upon character." Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit are given as examples of characters who "must be good in spite of everything." The problem is that, "in a day of sociology, such ideals are uninteresting." If Oliver Twist (1837-38) and Little Dorrit (1855-57) betray an imperfect grasp of "sociology," Barnaby Rudge (1840-41) lacks a convincing "psychology": "Of psychology-a word unknown to Dickens-we, of course, have nothing; to ask for it is out of place" (Critical Study 248-49, 127).

Before moving on to analyze Gissing's attack on "female imbecility" in his letter to Bertz, it is worth asking what exactly he meant by "sociology" and "psychology." Gissing himself provides the useful context of "advanced thought." In a letter to his youngest brother Algernon (19 January 1878), he states with regret that "we have no thorough-going weekly," by which he means one that is "bold enough to advocate principles at all worthy of advanced thinkers" (Letters 1: 141). He suggests that Algernon read Auguste Comte and Spencer, the latter of whom may well have prompted his interest in "principles." In a later letter to Algernon (16 May 1880), he observes that not enough people "keep a keen eye on contemporary matters of science, literature & art." "To whom," he asks, "could you go if you wanted to talk reasonably of the modern theory of Evolution, in all its applications?" (Letters 1: 273). Gissing's preoccupation with "contemporary matters of science" was not lost on his middle brother, William, who, in a letter written on 4 December 1878, mocks those who hold "so-called advanced views resulting from the exercise of their mighty minds in deep thought. …

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