Situating a Text Ideologically: The Case of George Gissing’s In the Year of Jubilee


The Marxist model of literary production, which was quite prevalent in the 1970s, has consistently emphasized the work of literature as the product of a complex process of overdetermination in its historical context.  It is in this spirit that French theorist Pierre Macherey states: “a book never arrives unaccompanied: it is a figure against a background of other formations, depending on them rather than contrasting with them.  It is, like all products, a second reality” (53).  In other words, a literary work is produced by and thus is the result of the convergence of various forces, forces that lie outside the work yet function to produce the work.  This rather passive conception of the process of literary production is turned into an active process of manipulation in the hands of British critic Terry Eagleton, who elaborates that the work actually “destructures ideology in order to reconstitute it on its own relatively autonomous terms, in order to process and recast it in aesthetic production” (98-99).  In other words, ideological elements are manipulated and rearranged in an aesthetic production by the text.

Be it the passive text in Macherey or the active text in Eagleton, both models then proceed to presume that the best way to learn the “truth” of the text is to learn all the “historical facts” about its day and age, which will then serve as the truth background against which the ideological coloring of the text can be determined.  Cast in an impersonal language that endows the text with the role of agency, such models suffer from all the ills of a representationalism that still demands strict approximation to a reality, all the time requiring no mediation by any subjectivity.  As a result, these models are encountering great difficulties in our age of anti-formalism.  Yet does that mean ideological analysis is completely bankrupt?  Or, can we offer a different way of presenting such a model so that we do not lose sight of its power of analyses while avoiding at the same time its formalist assumptions?  I believe it is possible and would like to demonstrate the case by presenting an analysis of George Gissing’s In the Year of Jubilee (1894),

One of the main targets of In the Year of Jubilee is the sham education that the middle-class women were receiving and what they were doing with it.  Such an evaluation of education by Gissing is issued from a specific ideological concern.  But let us begin by taking a look at Gissing’s presentation of these women.

All of the single girls in the novel–Beatrice French, Fanny French, Jessica Morgan, and Nancy Lord–are portrayed as having been educated at some girls’ institution up until their late teens.  Likewise, there seems to be no reason to exclude Ada French from the ‘educated female crowd,’ judging from the many magazines she reads every week.  All of these women profess to know quite a bit about modern languages, sciences, and other ambitious subjects.  Yet, in Gissing’s characterization, the result of such education amounts to little more than superficial knowledge.  Nancy is not sure where the Bahamas is (J 49), although it was one of the most lucrative colonies of the British Empire at the time, attracting hundreds of youths with dreams of prosperity every year.  All Beatrice can associate with Brussels, a city made famous in the Napoleonic war, is that sprouts may have come from there (J 227). Jessica’s brain, in her vain pursuit of a B. A. degree from London University, is scornfully described by Gissing as nothing but “a mere receptacle for dates and definitions, vocabularies and rules syntactic, for thrice-boiled essence of history, ragged scraps of science, quotations at fifth hand, and all the heterogeneous rubbish of a ‘crammer’s’ shop” (J 15).

The root of such a sense of dissatisfaction with women’s education may have much to do with the fact that, as Gissing observes, this sort of girls of “the pretentious half-educated class” were being turned out in thousands every year from the so-called High Schools (J 133).  Their conceit and pretence–as the most conspicuous expression of the growing power of the newly risen middle-class to which they belonged–were an unbearable sight for members of the elite class, to which Gissing belonged to, who had been educated properly through the classics, were versed in poetry, and knowledgeable in the belle letters.  And as we have learned from the contemporary debate between Matthew Arnold and T. H. Huxley on what was to be the center of a modern college curriculum (cf. Daiches), the elites’ traditional role as guardians and propagators of “the best that is known and thought” was under threat of expulsion from the college curriculum by the short-sightedness and practicality of the middle-class of which Sam Barmby and Luckworth Crewe act as spokesman.  The interesting thing is: Gissing is more bothered by the women’s sham education than with the men’s equally sham education.

If total disgust is the feeling In the Year of Jubilee conveys to its readers on the issue of education for women, then what we now know about the reality of women’s education at the time becomes a key to understanding the stance of the novel.  As far as we know, the Education Act of 1870 made elementary education available to both boys and girls in England, and in the rest of the century opportunities for secondary education for women improved also.  During the late years of the 19th century women were even allowed to take part in the matriculation exams for a few universities.  However, availability does not equal quality.  Despite the gradual emergence of a few women’s colleges which strove for serious learning, the most popular form of school for girls was still the kind not much different from Miss Pinkerton’s school attended by Amelia and Becky in Thackerey’s Vanity Fair.  The goal of such schools was to educate the girls to “a condition of total dependence” (Rees 95), preparing them to be good wives and mothers or at the most governesses: Nancy’s education certainly did not prepare her well for any job opportunities or economic independence.  The girls learned music, needlework, dancing, some modern languages, miscellaneous facts, and for the most, watered-down versions of more serious subjects taught regularly in boys’ schools (Hudson 70-75).  Generally the girls’ schools were in deplorable states, with poorly trained teachers (Buss 76-80) and low standards in arithmetic and spelling among the students.  Since women’s function in the society was seen as relational to that of men, the education offered to women was of the sort appropriate for that function and parents were more than happy to comply with that form of education because too much education would make their daughters unmarriageable.  So the general opinion was that girls did not need to pursue studies, the utility of which in daily life was not obvious.

Women were certainly not unaware of the way things were.  In fact, many women registered their dissatisfaction at the time.  One contemporary wrote: ” . . . valuable things are carefully kept from [the girls], and trifling things carefully taught to them, until their fine and nimble minds are too often irretrievably injured” (quoted in Hill 137).  Under these circumstances–without serious consideration nor encouragement from either the school or the parents–it is little wonder that many girls including Nancy found the school atmosphere childish and undesirable and withdrew from school before their term was over.

This indifference to studies and lack of interest in learning–as a result of the poor quality of education provided for women at the time more than any other reason–is nevertheless deflected by In the Year of Jubilee.  Instead of working to improve such education so that the women could be properly educated, what the novel focuses on instead is the futility of providing education for women altogether.  Gissing’s logic goes: since the women are merely interested in reading cheap magazines, in cramming trivial facts into their heads so that their names may appear in the newspapers when the matriculation exam results are announced, or in impressing men with covers of serious academic-type books, then what education gives them is only an appearance of culture and, worse, further encouragement for pretence.  If that is the case, the argument in the novel goes, education has done more harm than good to women, distracting them from their “natural” wifely and motherly duties and leading them instead to venture into areas thus far closed to them and to plunge themselves, as the story goes, into moral decline through vanity, pride, and maybe even hysteria.  Consequently, providing education for women would only bring harm to the society as a whole since it disturbs the normal functioning of the established social arrangement.  In accordance with this line of deduction, the novel’s criticism of education is aimed certainly not at improving the quality of education for women but at doing away with education for women altogether.

In the Year of Jubilee is certainly not without its own ideals for education, and it is here that the novel reveals its true nature.  In short, being educated means being conferred the mature instinct of “taste” to distinguish oneself from the lower classes in dress as well as in choosing friends and lovers.  Thus, an educated lady would not stoop so low as Nancy does to “mix with the rag-tag and bobtail” on Jubilee night (J 32).  An educated young man should be able to tell “the difference between real and sham, getting to understand things better than poor folks’ children” (J 37) and thus would not consider someone as low as Fanny French a “young lady.”  In other words, education means learning the difference between unmixable classes.  It is in actuality nothing more than class consciousness coming to the fore.

Besides maintaining class distinction, the ideal ‘education’ projected in the novel has the additional purpose of preparing the women for their traditional, subservient roles.  Couched in the words of Stephen Lord, the all-wise all-knowing patriarch in the novel whose teachings Nancy learns only the hard way, thanks to her formal schooling, a woman’s education is mis-directed if it does not prepare her well for her wifely and motherly duties, or if it does not instill a great earnestness in her to do these duties through honest hard work (J 39-40).  And since Nancy’s “wisdom acquired in suffering” toward the end of the novel is that motherly and wifely duties are “a law of nature” to women (J 368), the logical conclusion is that women really do not need formal education at all to learn what is a nature to them.  That explains why Stephen Lord’s only regret is that he should have had Nancy “taught at home all that’s necessary to make a good girl and an honest woman” (J 42).  And who was going to be Nancy’s teacher?  None other than the uneducated but “virtuous” Mary Woodruff.

Such a stance on the issue of the quality and type of education for women is then both class- and sex-oriented.  The narration seeks to assert that in order to maintain their class status and their ‘natural’ functions, middle-class women should be shielded from education altogether.  They are better off staying under the protection and guidance of their fathers, their brothers, or their husbands.  Within such a position, the voices of actual women in the historical struggles to win their right to quality education, as led by Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale in mid to late 19th century, are completely silenced in the novel.  The ideology of the novel is then definitely tilted toward the dominant class and the dominant sex.  And it is in this sense that the novel serves as a vent for social groups in late 19th century England who felt threatened by structural changes in the society, changes brought on partly by education, which may reduce or even remove their previously-enjoyed advantageous position.

While the novel presents women as incompatible with education, it nevertheless cannot be oblivious to the self-confident glow and spirit that these middle-class women sometimes emanate.  It is this spirit of independence and the accompanying vitality that make these women unusually attractive to men (Poole 195).  Those who lack this spirit, girls like Winnifred Chittle, Jessica Morgan, and the Barmby girls, seem to fade from the light of life, while girls such as Nancy Lord and Beatrice French make themselves memorable exactly for that independent spirit.  It is quite clear, however, that whereas independence is unwittingly presented as fascinating, the novel is quick to deflect that attraction by associating independence with some undesirable qualities.  Nancy’s quest for independence will serve as an example here.

Fairly early in the novel, a sense of independence invites Nancy to escape from the cheap witty remarks from Barmby:

[Nancy] felt it impossible to walk on and on under Barmby’s protection, listening to his atrocious commonplaces, his enthusiasms of the Young Men’s Debating Society.  The glow of midsummer had entered into her blood; she resolved to taste independence, to mingle with the limitless crowd as one of its units, borne in whatever direction.  That song of the streets pleased her, made sympathetic appeal to her: she would have liked to  join in it.  (my underline, J 56-57)

Nancy’s motivation to pursue independence is presented as quite honorable; she is to be commended for seeing through Barmby’s superficiality.  After all, who can stand Barmby’s constant outburst of trivial information gathered from cheap newspaper clippings?

Yet immediately following this justified reason for sneaking away, the novel presents Nancy as sneaking away to the wrong things.  She is described as wanting to mingle with the crowd, to drift without any direction, and to lose her identity.  One gets the impression that what Nancy wants is to be disconnected from her affiliation with the cheap middle-class represented by Sam Barmby, yet she blindly drifts toward joining the even cheaper lower class.  This feeling is confirmed as we read Gissing’s description.

She had escaped to enjoy herself, and the sense of freedom soon overcame anxieties.  No one observed her solitary state: she was one of millions walking about the streets because it was Jubilee Day, and every moment packed her more tightly among the tramping populace . . . the slowly advancing masses wheeled to left or right at word of command, carelessly obedient . . . there was little noise; only a thud, thud, of footfalls numberless, and the low, unvarying sound that suggested some huge beast purring to itself in stupid contentment.

Nancy forgot her identity, lost sight of herself as an individual.  She did not think, and her emotions differed little from those of any shop-girl let loose.  The ‘culture,’ to which she laid claim, evanesced in this atmosphere of exhalation.  Could she have seen her face, its look of vulgar abandonment would have horrified her.  (my underline, J 61-62).

What Nancy has acquired in her pursuit of independence then is simply a debased self; she has become a member of the “tramping populace” (a term used in the full force with which the Victorian prose writers–Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold–uttered it).  She is no longer different from any other shop-girl “let loose.”  The juxtaposition of Nancy’s assumed spirit of independence and freedom with the crowd’s unsensing obedience further undermines the desirability of the independent spirit, inducing the reader to change an admiration for Nancy’s daring sense of independence into an intellectual disapproval of the automaton state of which Nancy herself is unaware.  As the narration goes on to demonstrate, independence is the spirit that prompts Nancy to converse “unrestrainedly” with the young fellow of “clerkly order” who trod violently on her heel.  It is this foolish transgression of her proper class status that makes her speak with Luckworth Crewe, another clerkly type “without forethought, and [finds] pleasure in her boldness” (J 62).  In all of these instances, independence is presented as a concept inexorably tainted with class distinctions that are not supposed to be confused or violated.

On top of the transgression of class affiliations, Nancy’s independence on Jubilee night, along with its results, serves to demonstrate another negative effect; that is, independence on a woman’s part will lead her to step out of the boundary of behavioral norms as set up by the society according to her sex.

Henceforth [Nancy’s] position would be like that of Horace.  All she now desired was perfect freedom from responsibility,–to be, as it were, a mere lodger in the house, to come and go unquestioned and unrestrained by duties.

Thus, by aid of circumstance, had she put herself into complete accord with the spirit of her time.  Abundant privilege; no obligation.  A reference of all things to her sovereign will and pleasure.  Withall, a defiant rather than a hopeful mood; resentment of the undisguisable fact that her will was sovereign only in a poor little sphere which she would gladly have transcended.  (my underline, J 88).

This new sense of freedom, exclusively enjoyed by men only, would afford Nancy to leave everything up to “her sovereign will and pleasure” and such a freedom amounts to “abundant privileges; no obligation.”

As such privileged status–enjoyed by all the men in the novel, including Stephen Lord, Horace Lord, Lionel Tarrant, Sam Barmby, Luckworth Crewe, and even Arthur Peachey to a large extent–risks being taken over by Nancy, the narration goes to great pains to deny the usefulness of independence for women through establishing a causal relationship between Nancy’s ‘acquired’ independence and her later troubles and suffering.  Thus, her abandonment of decorum and her use of bold speech with Crewe are shown to lead directly to their first date up the monument at St. Paul’s.  And while they are on top of all London, Nancy is also at her lowest spiritual point.  In Gissing’s description, her newly acquired independence brings about highly undesirable results.  She is overtaken by “conceit of self-importance”; she feels “no humility”; she is stirred only by “envies, avidities, unavowable passions”; and she lets these undesirable feelings “flourish unrebuked” (J 95).  She even becomes willing to bargain with Crewe–someone she does not really like except his generosity in buying drinks–for a price on her hand in marriage.  All this is immediately followed by her trip to the seashore, during which the big turning-point event of her life takes place: at a moment of impulse, she rashly decides to marry Lionel.  Such mistakes are finally admitted by Nancy when she realizes that her independence has only gotten her into bondage; and a three-fold bondage it is–to Lionel, to her father’s will, and to her baby.  Then the novel is ready to put the final nail on the coffin of women’s quest for independence when Nancy exclaims: “What an exchange I have made!  And I was going to be so independent” (my underline, J 187).

The narration of this process from Nancy’s ‘fall’ to her realization stretches into a span of more than a hundred pages but loses nothing of its effect in establishing a clear causal relationship between women’s independence and their moral decline.  It serves well as an example to demonstrate how the novel can function as a mouthpiece for interest groups whose once exclusive privileges are now under the threat of being shared by non-members, thus diminishing the unique and privileged position of the members.  As women’s quest for independence takes them outside their traditional duties of providing a sanctuary for the men and taking a subservient role in household power struggles, it is definitely a threat to the absolute power of men, and the novel appropriately vents that anxiety through its defamation of the women’s efforts to be independent.

If the novel presents dubious feelings toward the emerging middle-class women, it conveys utter aversion toward another group of women–the servants, whose insolence is used to highlight the impropriety of their middle-class mistresses.

Relieved against the backdrop of faithful work done by the virtuous and obedient Mrs. Baker in the Vawdrey household and Mary Woodruff in the Lord household, the widespread master-servant problem in the late Victorian period finds vivid portrayal in the novel.  The plot practically opens with the squabble between the little domestic in the Peachey household and her mistress, Ada, over the domestic’s delayed responses to the lady’s summons.  The mistress’s vicious invective is eventually beaten away by the servant’s superior force of vocabulary.  Then followed the big incident of the nurse-girl Emma’s stealing and attempted suicide.  The incident not only represents a quite prevalent problem in Victorian England households but also provides the occasion to expose the baseness of all three of the French sisters.  The mess created by these women then provides a justified reason for Peachey’s resolution to leave his wife.

In both scenes the servant’s insolence or misdemeanor is deliberately juxtaposed with the mistress’s vulgarity.  In fact, phrased in Lionel Tarrant’s words, the servant problem is to find its root in the co-presence of “an utterly incompetent mistress and a democratic maid in spirited revolt.”  In greater length Lionel diagnoses the problem in the following passage:

” . . . before the triumph of glorious Democracy, only those women kept servants who were capable of rule,–who had by birth the instinct of authority.  They knew themselves the natural superiors of their domestics, and went through an education fitting them to rule.  Things worked very well; no servant-difficulty existed.  Now-a-days, every woman who can afford it must have another woman to wait upon, no matter how silly, or vulgar, or depraved she may be; the result, of course, is a spirit of rebellion in the kitchen.  Who could have expected anything else?”  (my underline, J 48)

A few lines later Lionel continues to say rather sarcastically that it is only natural for the servants to revolt against the mistress because the servants “have learned that splendid doctrine that every one is as good as every body else” (J 48).

The presuppositions in these remarks are indicative of a class that believes its own members are of a different but better breed than other classes, and who perceives its exclusive privileges to dominate over other classes as being under threat.  We can formulate the presuppositions as follows.  The first one states that members of a society are born with certain “innate qualities” which predispose them for specific social “slots,” and the proper functioning of the society depends on its members’ faithfully abiding by these arrangements.  Thus there are certain women who are predisposed and later cultivated to rule over their servants.  There are at the same time servants who accept the “fact” that they are born inferior–not as good as others–and thus should live to serve.  With the concurrent recognition of their given lots in the society, both classes then stay in their places, performing their roles as assigned by their “nature,” and everything is fine.  This earthly paradise, unfortunately, was coming to an end with dramatic social change following the industrial revolution.  By the brute force of wealth, not by inborn qualities or merits, new individuals previously considered not worthy to rule are joining the ranks of the former ruling class.

This brings us to the second presupposition: the disturbance of the above-described hierarchical order will lead to chaos and disaster.  Thus, lacking the innate qualities of upper-class ladies, the newly rich middle-class “ladies” in their incompetent management of household affairs have fanned the disrespect of the servants.  No less contributing is the servants’ “misconception” that democracy has somehow removed their inferiority and that they are now on the same par with their masters.  Viewed in this light, the tone of Lionel’s speech is both a lamentation and an invective.  He laments the lost ideal social arrangement and consequently lashes out against the resulting confusing situation.

But what was the social and historical situation concerning servants that had put both presuppositions in question?  We can learn a few things here from the social researchers.  As far as the first presupposition was concerned, British law concerning the relationships between master and servant had always treated the two parties unequally.  Whereas the master who broke the contract was only liable in a civil action for damages or unpaid wages, the servant who broke the contract was punished as a criminal with imprisonment and hard labor.  This inequality has its root in the 14-th century Statute of Labourers which decreed that every able-bodied man or woman under sixty without income from property or merchandise should be compelled to work for whatever master who required his/her services and that any servant departing before the end of his/her term without permission or reasonable cause should be imprisoned.  The law was elaborated and modified in a succession of similar statutes including the Statute of Artificers during Elizabeth’s reign and the more recent notorious Poor Law, but the gulf between the ruling and ruled classes was never bridged.  The additional fact that servants were excluded from enfranchisement due to their lack of domicile or property of their own only further separated the classes.  These long-standing inequities in the British legal system may have served only to further reinforce the inequality between the classes; yet, all this changed in 1875 when the Law of Master and Servant was replaced by the Employer and Workman Act.  Under the new law, the relationships between master and servant was no longer determined by their having a different status but by the contract that was set up between them, a contract to which both parties were held equally liable (cf. Simon).  The possible erosive effect brought on by the new law upon the service ethic at the time was real enough, and this dramatic change in the legal system may provide us with a fresh understanding of Lionel’s perception of the servant problem.

Viewed within the context of legislative reforms, the “innate qualities” of masters and servants that Lionel alludes to function as nothing more than mythical fabrications to justify the inequity in the master-servant relationships as well as to strengthen the masters’ unquestionable superiority and domination over servants.  The establishment of the Employer and Workman Act dispelled the age-old myth concerning the innate inequality between human beings and partly eroded the continued maintenance of class distinction.  In this light, Lionel’s lamentation over a lost age, in fact, over the defeat of a social system privileged toward his own social group, reveals Gissing’s specific ideological position.

The second supposition concerning the causal relationship between the incompetency of middle-class wives and the insolent servants also warrants further investigation.  The depiction of middle-class women in In the Year of Jubilee is by no means a flattering one.  Their abode is littered with cheap magazines which they never bother to pick up.  The general complaint from others around them is that these women do not do any housework, nor do they know how to supervise the servants to do the work.  Thus the surface of Ada’s furniture is dulled by her “slovenly housekeeping” (J 2).  There are also the fragile nerves of Ada which keep her in bed until noon on most of the mornings–but then her energetic belligerence toward everyone around her is a direct contradiction to that fragility.  In fact, none of the middle-class women are portrayed as doing any honest hard work in the novel.  They are simply inert.

The novel’s depiction of the idleness of middle-class women appears to be in accordance with the general impression, especially that one held by men at the time.  With the development of the industrial revolution, more and more of the traditional housework, such as sewing and making butter, are taken over by machines in the factories (Altick 52; Hill 90-94; Hudson 56; Lewis 112-13; Strachey 52, and esp. Hume & Offen).  The result is a drastic reduction of a wife’s economic value since now she has little production to contribute to the household.  The holding of servants, necessitated by an exhibition of status, also reinforces the impression of the “idle Victorian woman.”  Yet, life of the middle’ class women may not be all it seems.  Branca’s now classical essay has certainly challenged this old image of the idle Victorian woman by presenting the incongruence between the average middle-class income and the leisure or luxury the mistress is believed to enjoy.  Viewed in that light, the novel’s one-sided slandering of middle-class housewives is issued from a position ignorant of the realities of women’s lives at the time.

If the condition of the housewife does not get any fair treatment in the novel, nor does the condition of the domestic.  In the novel’s effort to present an ideal and subservient woman, Mary, the maid of the Lord household, is presented as a super woman.  She is already ready to tackle any situation that arises, be it Stephen’s death or Nancy’s pregnancy.  She is able to handle the housework for an eight-room house and still maintain her peaceful and contented state of mind with no complaint.  This is exactly the fantasy of the master: the servant, with no complaint or insolence, is perfectly suited to the needs of the master.  Yet, from the point of view of the servants at Gissing’s time, the reality of their lives was so undesirable that there was much openly expressed resentment on the part of actual servants concerning the drudgery, the regimentation, the work-reddened hands and arms which are the usual lots of a domestic (Cullwick 350-51).

Another historical factor that augmented the servant problem was the nature of the specific population that went into household service at the time.  It has been documented that while many members of the service force may have come from workhouses or orphanages, most of the servants came directly from country and agricultural districts, which exposed the severity of the problems of English agricultural economy (cf. Davidoff 406-28; Hill 223; Horn 28; Lewis 157).  Significantly, the country girls were favored in domestic employment over city girls because the city girls were thought to be dishonest and insubordinate, exactly the two things that characterized the servants in the novel.  Overall, the girls entered service because they were unskilled or uneducated–had they been otherwise, they would have gotten jobs in the factories or offices.  This new blood into the household service brought “rougher accents” (J 4) and more importantly an unfamiliarity with household affairs.  Coming from poverty-stricken homes in backward areas, many of these young girls, unlike traditional servants from the city, were encountering modern utensils and modern household management routines for the first time (Horn 34).  That explains why Stephen Lord thought it was hard to find “a servant of the old sort, who knows how to light a fire or wash a dish” (J 40).  Furthermore, many of the young girls were not “born and bred” to be servants as “virtuous” Mary had been.  The indoctrination of servility and obedience had not yet reached their “savage” minds.  These two facts, their unfamiliarity with the modern household and its functioning and their unfamiliarity with the basic “virtues” of servility, had even prompted the sudden emergence of household manuals which prepare girls for going into domestic service.

Nevertheless, none of these important facts concerning servants find their way into the novel.  Instead, the problem is presented from the masters’ particular vantage point.  To the servant-hiring class who believed that authority over servants was their last stronghold in a social structure quickly slipping through their fingers, the unfamiliarity and inefficiency were translated into insubordination and insolence.  And the servants got the bad end of the deal in the novel.

The underlying presuppositions of the analysis of the servant problem in the novel accord well with those underlying the novel’s criticism of women’s education.  Both are generated from the lingering but gradually disappearing phenomenon of patriarchy in the 19th century.  The woman is to the man as the servant is to the master.  The virtues in both subservient groups are the same: humility, meekness, gentleness, respectfulness, loyalty, good temper, and above all, obedience.  Seen in this light, the anguish expressed in the novel becomes understandable.  The desirable society in the novel is definitely layered, with one class dominating over another, and one sex dominating over the other, and the gulf between the sexes and the classes is unbridgeable.  As the relegation of social roles underwent changes in late 19th century, it brought on a threat to the ruling men and masters that they might lose their authority as well as their last sanctuary–the home–and the novels serves as an adequate vent for such anguish.

Besides the gradually disappearing quality life that the ruling class used to enjoy, another change directly threatened their control over the economic foundation of the household.  This has to do with a series of renovations in the legal system concerning the rights of a married woman.  For a discussion of this aspect of the novel, we must turn to the most vicious woman in the novel.

The impression of Ada is far from normal.  She is lazy, vulgar, vicious, temperamental, and scheming, with little regard for her husband or her children.  She is in fact the epitome of “abundant privilege; no obligation,” and as such she is the root of Arthur Peachey’s unhappiness:

Before [Arthur’s] marriage he had thought of women as domestic beings.  A wife was the genius of home.  He knew men who thanked their wives for all the prosperity and content that they enjoyed.  Others he knew who told quite a different tale, but these surely were sorrowful exceptions.  Nowadays he saw the matter in a light of fuller experience.  In his rank of life married happiness was a rare thing, and the fault could generally be traced to wives who had no sense of responsibility, no understanding of household duties, no love of simple pleasures, no religion. (J 219-20)

It is clear that Arthur is thoroughly and clearly disillusioned about his marriage.  Yet the novel says nothing about how Ada feels about the marriage except that she is belligerent and restless as if she were born depraved.  She simply has to find fault with someone constantly, if not Arthur or her sisters, then the servants.  The depiction seems to be aiming at creating one effect: Arthur is completely justified in leaving Ada and having her property as well as the custody rights of their son.  Such an assertion calls for some further explanation.

Unlike their counterparts in the upper class, who have considerable freedom of moving back and forth among the intricately intermarried families to attend balls and dinner parties, or their counterparts in the lower class whose function in the labor force demands their activity outside the home everyday, middle-class wives in Victorian England enjoyed few of these outlets and are pretty much isolated from any social occasions, except perhaps a few afternoon teas (Altick 50-64; Lewis 112-119).  The rest of their lives is devoted to making a good home and raising good children.  The drudgery and monotony so often complained about by married women, however, never finds a voice in the novel.

Victorian husbands, on the other hand, were free to stay away from home and occasionally have a few meals in select restaurants of their choice, as Arthur does in the novel.  He would “spend a couple of hours at a certain small eating-house, a resort of his bachelor days, where he could read the newspapers, have a well-cooked chop in quietude, and afterwards, if acquaintances were here, play a game of chess” (J 218-19).  Of course when Arthur goes home, he has to “shield this modest dissipation with a flat falsehood, alleging to his wife that business had kept him late” or face Ada’s invective (J 219).  The husband and the wife are rarely invited to social occasions together; usually the wife is excluded from any such invitations.  The husband seldom introduces his acquaintances to his wife and hardly ever talks about his work with his wife.  So in general, the daily life of a Victorian wife is that of monotonous work, social isolation, and utter boredom.  Even Edith, Gissing’s second wife, openly complained about her lonely life (Tindall 217-18).

The contrasting images of Ada and Arthur become all the more significant when we consider the on-going contemporary legal battle waged by married women to win rights over their children and their property in case of a divorce.

British law concerning marriage relationships had been definitely tilted in favor of man.  The legal doctrine of couveture stated that husband and wife were as one and that one was the husband.  Since the legal existence of the wife was suspended during the marriage, she lost all control of whatever property and its income to her husband.  Such was the case of Ada.  Being daughters of a lately deceased Camberwell builder, Ada and her sisters have each inherited a patrimony “sufficient for their support in elegant leisure” (J 5).  Yet, Beatrice’s and Fanny’s patrimonies free them from having to work and they can sit back and enjoy a  @140 yearly income–of course minus the 24 shillings for board and lodging with Ada and Arthur.  As for Ada, since she is married at the time, her patrimony naturally becomes Arthur’s.  Together with a small capital in Arthur’s possession, the patrimony helps to make Arthur a junior partner of the disinfectant enterprise of which he is formerly only a clerk.

As the French sisters live under the same roof, the contrast in their life styles is clear.  While Beatrice and Fanny have financial independence and much freedom to do what they want to do, Ada is legally tied to Arthur, apart from whom she has no separate identity.  She is allowed only the secluded lonely life mentioned above.  The additional bondage, if not the responsibility, of household affairs and child care would only make her more irritable.  Nevertheless, none of these limitations and pressures on Ada in her actual daily life are evident from the narration.  In fact, the novel makes Ada look so bad that no reader could have any sympathy for her.

The image of Arthur, in contrast, evokes a lot of sympathy for this victim of his wife’s coarseness and the loving father who is only trying to save his son from neglect and abuse.  Arthur’s image is made even more appealing and admirable as he arranges for Ada’s life after the divorce:

” . . . Tell your sister that she may go on living here, if she chooses, for another six months, to the end of the year–not longer.  She shall be supplied with sufficient money.  After Christmas she may find a home for her self where she likes; money will be paid to her through a lawyer . . . You know very well, both of you, why I am taking this step; think and say about me what you like.  I have no time to talk, and so I bid you good-bye.”  (J 225-26)

Such calmness and benevolence, with which Arthur makes these arrangements, are said to arouse admiration even from Fanny and Beatrice, who used to think little of him.  Even the brainless Fanny agrees that what Ada gets is better than she deserves.  It is in this spirit that Arthur and his son can be said to head for the countryside “in love and blamelessness” (my underline, J 227).

The use of the word “blamelessness” reveals a lot about the silences underneath the presentation of the scene.  It is a scene contrived to tilt the scale toward the husband, who can now rightly dump his undeserving wife.  The word reminds us of another scene, in which Stephen Lord tells Mary, the faithful servant, his heart-wrenching story of desertion by his wife: “But I count on you [Mary] to make my girl think rightly of me, if ever there’s occasion.  I count on you.  When I’m dead, I won’t have her think that I was to blame for her mother’s ill-doing.  That’s why I’ve told you.  You believe me, don’t you?” (my underline, J 130).  In both cases the husbands are presented as victims in marriage.  It is only Lionel, who takes control from the start of his relation with Nancy, who can stay on top and avoid being victimized.

This partiality in the stance of the novel links up well with historical changes in actuality.  The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878 and other Acts passed in 1886 and 1895 gave wives more power to control their lives.  They now had the right to take the initiative in asking for a separation or divorce on grounds of assault, cruelty, or desertion (Hudson 59), and the husbands were obliged to pay for the wives’ weekly maintenance.  This was a drastic change from what it had been before.  In previous times, at least before 1870, divorce and separation were causes which could be initiated by the husband only, and always at a very high legal fee and a lot of complex redtape through Parliament, which were beyond the reach of a propertyless woman–propertyless exactly because she was married.

Seen in this light, the rising power of wives in separation and divorce suits is a noticeable absence in In the Year of Jubilee, an absence that is instead replaced with pitiful depictions of innocent, kind, and responsible husbands victimized by horrendous wives who really do not deserve anything in their favor.  In addition, there is the Act in 1891 which established the new principle that in questions of custody, the welfare of the child was to be considered first.  To be more specific, the father was to be granted custody of the child only if he could satisfy the court that he was the best person to have the child.  This step was also a giant one from the previous ruling that the father would naturally get the custody of his child.  In the backdrop of this change, the elaborate depiction of Arthur’s tender love for his son serves to fulfill the requirement of the law as well as further strengthening Arthur’s case against his wife.  In short, the growing legal status of wives is omitted from the novel and replaced with the image of a justified and all-worthy husband.

The historical environment concerning women’s property rights is another interesting issue here (cf. Holcombe, Shanley).  The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 allowed a wife to use any property she might acquire during the period of a judicial separation–but not if she simply left her husband–or after a protection order made on the grounds of desertion.  The Married Women’s property Act of 1870 made it possible for married women to keep all their own earnings up to a maximum of @200 a year.  A further milestone was the Married Women’s property Act of 1882 which abolished a husband’s automatic rights to his wife’s property upon marriage.  In short, after thirty years of struggle, women were gradually emerging as full human beings of equal merit as their husbands, at least in their legal status to own properties.  Against the background of this series of legal renovations, the move to portray Ada as the unreasonably menacing wife who is not really worthy of her property or her son, and Arthur as the forgiving victim whose suffering and generosity warrant both sympathy and admiration, has serious ideological implications for the novel itself and for its contemporary readers.

If we accept the premise that “in ideology men ‘represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form'” (Althusser 163), and that the relationship between literature and general ideology is that of reciprocal production–ideology feeding into literature and literature feeding into ideology, then In the Year of Jubilee can be seen as one aesthetic formation in which certain interest groups, distinguished by class and sex, live out their imaginary relationships in face of challenging changes in reality in an effort to vent their anxiety and to shape the future of their continued domination.  The absences of references to the general struggle put up by dominated groups–women and servants–in turn serve to reveal that reality has been delineated to the subterranean level, a level on which actual struggles of power are being played out.  The presences and absences in the novel, then retell the story of its own conception amidst its ideological matrix.  By studying the social history and other extra-literary materials surrounding the text, we will be able to understand better how the work is born at the conjuncture of social forces.  And by studying how these social forces “produce” the work, we will furthermore be able to explain the effect it has on its contemporary readers, who are likewise situated in their own ideological matrices.



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