Thursday, 3 November 2016

Commonplace 221  George & Marianne. PART ONE. The First Time Ever He Saw Her Face.

'The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see.' Ayn Rand

Marianne Helen Harrison - sometimes referred to as Nell - was born on February 25th 1858. Her marriage certificate tells us she was born in Shrewsbury, the county town (or state capital) of Shropshire, an historically significant place, and mainly agricultural area (mainly sheep-farming and brewing) in the west Midlands of England, not far from the border with Wales. In a simple twist of fate, Shrewsbury was also the birthplace of George Darwin (1809-1882) click, father of the famous Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection that George studied so closely. Below, we have a snap of Shrewsbury from the middle of the 1800s, so you can see it was a quaint, slightly backward (not in a bad way) place, with few prospects of employment for the poor  girl we assume Marianne to have been.

Shrewsbury c 1860
It may have been that she set off to a big city to find work after her father died; it is presumed her mother died earlier. If her father had been a farm worker the family accommodation might have been 'tied' click and when the male householder died, the family would have had to move out.

Marianne might have left Shrewsbury much earlier than assumed, and arrived in Manchester in her childhood or early teens - we just don't know. She was about 16-17 when she met George, which would have been in 1874/5, and she may have known him for some time before they were an item. Manchester was a hugely prosperous place; in Marianne's time there, its fortunes were in part dependent on the labour-intensive cotton industry. Manchester University was and is a place of pioneering research and development of the latest advances in science, technology and engineering. The cotton industry made good use of these advances. Textile production requires hands as much as brains, with tens of thousands of workers employed at all the stages of product production. Women workers were required not just for their skills and aptitudes, but because their wages were much lower than their male counterparts.

We don't know if Marianne was employed in the cotton mills or the garment trade when she met George, but it would not have been unusual for young girls in Manchester to find work in these two occupations. However, there were a large number of girls who worked as domestic servants; even a relatively modest family required skivvies to do the dirty, heavy work, and young girls were the most likely candidates for this sort of slave labour. And, she could have worked in a shop - George, himself, came from parents who ran a shop in Wakefield. Shop work was hard and the hours were long (some shops opened from daybreak  'til midnight) - is it any wonder Monica Madden in The Odd Women buckled under the strain and succumbed to the persistent advances of the obsessed stalker, Edmund Widdowson? When she chose to marry him - despite not finding him attractive or lovable - she was clutching at a lifeline to save her from the drudgery of shop work. 
Portsmouth Dockyard (or How Happy I Could Be with Either)
by James Jacques Joseph Tissot 1878
The advantage to servant work over the mills for a single orphaned girl was the possibility that living accommodation went with the job. The work of slavey was less dangerous and maybe even less arduous, but it was still a physical grind as employers wanted every drop of toil for their slave wages. As for needlework, it was gruelling monotonous labour, equally back-breaking and bad for the eyes, and often carried on in the worker's home, which required an additional financial outlay for lighting and heating. Part of the textile trade was the production of goods such as bed sheets, and as it was fairly straightforward, it paid a pittance.

The more advanced work making costumes and clothes would have been slower to accomplish but might have paid a lot more per item as it required excellent skills. None of this sort of work paid a living wage. It was piece work (meaning you only got paid for what you made), often with what we now term 'zero hours' contracts click - which is the fate of some of today's unskilled, exploited workers. There were also health hazards associated with the dyes and materials used in clothing finishes - Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter (though the author never used the name himself) is associated with a popular phrase that was inspired by the brain damage caused by mercury used in the hat-making trade.

It is still the case that employment depends upon the whims of the marketplace. If silk flowers on hats went out of fashion, then the entire artificial flower industry went to the wall; if a crop of asparagus fails, the farm labourer goes hungry. To have some understanding of this sort of labour, think of the child toiling to make a cheap T shirt in the Far East, and you will begin to have some idea of the lot of a late Victorian needle-worker. If employed in the sewing trade, Marianne might have lived in the sort of house that provided a hub for sewing work opportunities (a sweatshop on a small scale), where girls rented sewing machines, and lived above the workshop. The cost of rent, light and materials was deducted from the wage, or the girls would do the housework to offset these costs. The advantage to this was that work was brought to the workshop and the needle-workers didn't have to go out looking for it, thus saving valuable paying work time. If this sort of place did tailoring repairs, or made cheap clothes, George could have met Marianne when he called in as a customer.
In Bed: The Kiss by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1892
It is true that many poor young girls and women (and males) had to resort to prostitution to augment their pitiful wages. Child prostitution had been a British national scandal occupying the attention of many distinguished female social reformers and the likes of the controversial, charismatic WT Stead click. However, there is no reason to suspect that Marianne was ever so poor that she had to resort to prostitution. The need to simplify her life down to a stereotype is at the heart of why Gissing biographers promote the notion this was Marianne's start in life. Again, it comes from a mostly middle class failure to understand working class people's lives, maybe informed by penny dreadful novelettes or scandal sheets, and by over-valuing the novels of the time that focused on this particular social problem. The middle classes then and now have this notion that all members of the working class are particularly enthusiastic about vice - crime for the men, sex trade for the women. (Of course, George was a lower middle class criminal!) In reality, there were many ways Marianne and George could have met other than her picking him up as a trick. But, if you want to frame Marianne as a vampire sucking on George (!) you have to give her fangs - which is what these biographers do when they claim she was a corrosive influence. They need someone to blame for George's fall from grace at Owen's College, and women are frequently used by men to account for their morality fails.
Bat Woman by Albert Penot 1890
We don't know where Marianne and George met. As ever, avoid all those who claim to know what happened simply because elements of George's life appear in his fiction, albeit transformed into chunks of pathos. Novels such as Workers in the Dawn, The Nether World and Tyrza convince some that George lead the life of a bohemian denizen of the slums, and George did his best to exploit this fantasy whenever it suited him - usually in pursuit of the accursed sympathy that he so craved. But that is romancing up his mundane existence; he lived in a world where, in any city, you could not help but rub shoulders with deprivation as there was so much of it. The area of Grafton Street where George lived was by no means a slum, even though it was to become more run down towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, the biographers who want George to be some sort of victim, prefer to think he was living in the second circle of hell (Lust) in a squalid slum, and so cling to the notion he was a poor wee soul adrift in a lonely city, snapped up by the worldly-wise and gold-digging prostitute. Whereas, in reality, Chorlton-on-Medlock was a socially and economically mixed community - and Elizabeth Gaskell was born and lived in this part of Manchester click and click for more interesting stuff about historic Manchester. But, 'poor George' needs sympathy, so they make him a martyr.
Cupid and Psyche by Jacques Louis David 1817 (isn't he cute?)
There is no evidence Marianne was George's first or only girlfriend at Owens - he had been there for enough time to have built up quite a social network, though some biographers choose to think he was a solitary, virginal bookworm. As his sister Ellen once said George did not like being alone and always insisted everyone went together on family excursions, it seems likely that he tagged along with his male peers whenever he could. Therefore, he met girls in the usual places - pubs and ale houses, or public dances which were always popular venues, then as now. In all those fallow hours when generally dossing about the streets between lectures, don't all young folk like 'hanging about' in groups, especially when there is a craving for company? George would have frequented cafes, coffee houses, the market, the library, the music hall and anywhere sexes could legitimately mix, or where introductions could be made through friends - in fact, the usual places all of us meet our prospective partners. Those biographers who insist Marianne was a drunk will assert they met in a pub. Those who claim she was a sex worker will tell you she must have picked him up on the street. Both of these are 100% supposition and again, say more about the mind-sets of middle class male biographers than they do about the social politics of mid-Victorian England. To them, I say: 'Honi soit qui mal y pense'.

Saint George and The Dragon by Paulo Uccello 1470
Morley Roberts later claimed George blamed his mother for his lack of moral fibre. George claimed that, by sending him away to live alone at the age of 16, she was responsible for his fluid morality, George went as far as to complain she should have sent one of his sisters with him. As Ellen was aged 6 then, it seems to be another of Morley Roberts' lies or 'mis-rememberings'. George was no child when he found his own place to live. According to Patricia Hodson who compiled a brief account of George at Lindow Grove School (Published by the Wilmslow Historical Society), George continued to live and teach there until 1875 when 'Gissing took a room in Manchester' - when, if he left at the end of the academic year, he would have been 17 yrs 8 months. I suspect he couldn't wait to leave lodgings with his old school to set off on his voyage of independent self-discovery willingly, enthusiastically, not least because it gave him more chance to meet girls in the evening without needing to catch a train home. That the city was not the easy place he was used to was not the fault of the city, or his mother. That he was now a small fish in a big pond would be the way of the world for the rest of his life.  
The Kiss by Edvard Munch c1895
A worldly, experienced working girl might have taken advantage of George but Marianne in no way subscribes to this type, if we are to factor in the views expressed in the letters of William and Algernon Gissing, who both met Marianne and liked her. By socialising in the city near to Owens, George was bound to associate with girls who were on the edges of the social chasm. I expect, like most budding artists, he was drawn to the demi monde seedy side of life (I know I was when I studied Fine Art), but only as an onlooker and to build up his cv. I have no doubt whatsoever that George would not have had the nerve to have sex with a prostitute - he was too particular about his own body; too delicate in his sensibilities; too provincial and scared of his mother to attempt it, too frightened of catching something, too afraid of being judged and found wanting, too skittish about yucky stuff, too afraid of intimacy on any level. And, with all the single and married men around Manchester with enough money to seriously spoil a girl, why would a working girl waste time on a tiddler with a pittance for pocket money? Besides, this apprentice bohemian always considered Marianne to be wife material - would he really have thought so if she were a sex worker? I mean, really? Wouldn't he want to be able to have a harmonious relationship between his wife and his family - would he really have subjected the Wakefield set to the embarrassment of keeping company with a prostitute? It doesn't make sense, even taking into account George's shocking lack of self-awareness, to think he would fall apart at the seams and forget all he learnt about keeping himself decent and proper, which he would have imbibed at his mother's breast.
1877 Women making sacks by street light in Newcastle and being paid 2d a sack click 
Now, some people tend to assume sexual intercourse began in 1963 click and everyone before that date was a virgin before marriage, had never indulged in heavy petting or given or received oral sex. Courting couples have always engaged in all kinds of sexual behaviour, and. in the heat of the moment, taken some hefty risks of unwanted pregnancies. It would not be surprising to discover George and Marianne enjoyed some kind of sexual experiences while they were courting - after all, George was a fan of open marriage and they didn't actually formalise their union until 1879. But, if George had ever contracted an STD, what evidence is there that he caught it from Marianne? Was he celibate in America? I doubt it! George needed love too much to remain aloof from whatever females he could find. But I don't think he ever did have an STD (more of this another time). Most likely he was working himself up in a frenzy of sexual excitation and doing what comes naturally to relieve the pressure - maybe overdoing it and wearing out his privates at the same time click. Hence the damaged parts John George Black writes about. Read more in PART TWO.
Anti-Masturbation Device 1880-1920

No comments:

Post a Comment