Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Commonplace 241 George & His Contemporaries - Israel Zangwill

Israel Zangwill 

We have seen (in Commonplaces 80 and 81) how Frederic and Ethel Harrison - whose influence over George's early adult years was immense - were staunch anti-suffrage supporters, happily invoking George's name post-death to support their views. I'm not sure George would have been happy with the reference Ethel made in her letter to Queen magazine, though all it paired him with was the widely-held view that 'a woman's place is in the home' - utter tosh, we know, but there you have it. One of George's wider set who was very for Votes For Women was Israel Zangwill, a prolific and extremely successful author, playwright and political commentator click (though he disapproved of arson and the more dangerous of the Suffrage movement's tactics).

George and Israel might seem to be natural confederates, as both covered superficially similar ground, particularly in their writings about the lives of the impoverished and marginalised from the poorer districts of London. George had his Workers in the Dawn and The Nether World and Israel gave us, amongst other influential works, Children of the Ghetto: A History of Peculiar People. In February 1895, long after poverty ceased to be a topic of interest for George and his writings, he read 'Children' and wrote of it in his Diary: 'a powerful book'. Which, for George, was high praise.

Israel Zangwill was writing from the sort of experience George could only imagine, being as how he was born in one of the country's poorest areas (Whitechapel), and into one of the world's greatest disadvantaged groups (the Jewish faith), which gave his work an authenticity and feel for his subject that is more akin to Dickens by way of Henry Mayhew. George's colder, more distant responses and his stance of critical, middle class sociologist observer, seem all the more judgemental for this lack of emotional connection.

Israel proudly backing the women.
Israel's Children of the Ghetto click is a series of snapshots of life lived under great stress and privation in the poverty and deprivation of London;s poorest district. Israel clearly has great affection for these disadvantaged souls, and encourages the reader to feel at ease in their company. This is partly due to the humour and the wealth of detail about the many instances of neighbourly goodness between his characters, but it is also because the author gives reasonable explanations in mitigation for the behaviour of his people. We feel he likes his characters and we can see he might sit with them and take tea.

George's jaundiced world view, apparent at the beginning of his writing career and only eradicated much later in his life, cannot mask his distaste for his characters, even though they live in similar situations to Israel's. George's 'ironic' critical voice, cold and analytical, not concerned with offering a defence for their predicament except for the 'fate' he relied on to defend the indefensible in life, makes us feel he despises his characters - the ones who fail in his 'Poverty' books. Isaac throws us in with his folk and makes us feel the texture of their lives, allowing us to see some intrinsic value in the culture they represent. George gives up the ghost to 'fate' and almost sneers at the poor as having no culture to celebrate. For George, the only culture seems to be the one approved of by white, middle class well-educated males who live in London. Israel allows his to be intrinsically worthwhile and full of potential. For George, the poor are a burden on those who are 'natural' aristocrats - and he includes himself in that category, of course - who will rise up and smash whatever they can get their greedy mitts on. To get a feeling for the differences in approaches to similar subject matter: Israel describes the tragedy of losing children in childbirth as 'worse than barrenness' - George says it should be a cause for celebration. In comparing the two, in her book about Zangwill: A Jew in the Public Arena', Meri-Jane Rochelson (2008) refers to George's writing about poverty as 'brutal' when compared to Israel's click.
The Woman of Fashion - La Mondaine - by James Tissot 1885
George's first Diary entry (July 15th 1893) mentioning Israel comes when Algernon sends a cutting of a piece written in the third edition of the brand new Pall Mall Magazine. George has recently moved home to leafy Brixton and is getting the house ready for Edith and Walter to join him. Miss Collet has begun their whatever it was she enjoyed with him and George is about to start his drive to groom her for the future role as minion and eternal sympathetic maternal bosom offerer. It is summer so George is moaning about the heat and the amount of sweating he is doing. (Makes you wonder how many layers of clothes he kept on, even at home, poor chap, though hyperhydrosis is a recognised medical condition, and does not affect the aprocrine sweat glands, the ones that produce odours, so he was not smelly).

Algernon's cutting, according to the editor's (Pierre Coustillas) note in the Diary:
In a series of paragraphs about Gissing Zangwill wrote: Gissing has this supreme distinction: he is the only man of the age who has never been paragraphed - not even meticulously. His movements are a mystery, his style of dress is known only to his tailor. Shakespearean in his range of character, he is Shakespearean also in his incorporeality. But unlike Shakespeare, he has not kept his personality out of his books - and in so doing he has missed being the Shakespeare of our day.
Evening On Karl Johan Street by Edvard Munch 1892
Superficially, George was not much impressed by over-praise - presumably, he had surfeited on that during his school-days! - but he was impressed enough to read, and admire, Zangwill, and, on June 25th 1896, records that he finally met his fellow-writer at a Cosmopolis dinner, and subsequently paid him a couple of social calls. Can we take this praise at face value, or is hyperbole meant as facetious sarcasm? Or, was there something more spiteful behind the piece?

It was after the first of these that Israel wrote the famous letter to Montagu Eder (September 2nd 1896) where it is revealed quite a few people knew about George's past colourful life:
The mysterious Gissing has come within my ken at last and sitting in my study poured out his sad soul. He is a handsome youthful chap but seems to have bungled life in every possible way, and after a terrible uphill fight to be still burdened with some woman who, I suspect, breaks out in drink. He hates woman and is not in love with life. From another source I hear that the cloud on his career had its origins in imprisonment for stealing money from overcoats &c when he was the pride of Owen's College, Manchester. This statement being 'libellous' please do not 'publish' this letter. He is now making a fair income but unfortunately he has no interest in his old books and he will probably never write anything again as good as Thyrza or New Grub Street or Demos or the Nether World. Still, I encouraged him to go on, in his old groove, and not now knuckle under to the popular demand. 
The Tyger of Wrath by William Blake 1790-93
It's interesting to note that George has given the impression Edith (his wife in 1896) 'breaks out in drink'. Was he up to his old trick of assassinating his current wife's character - to a virtual stranger - to get sympathy? (Creating the impression she was a drunkard? And yet some biographers fail to notice this tendency in George to portray his wives as drunks! Hmm... ) Anyhoo, it is clear George gave enough of himself away for Israel to form the opinion George had issues with 'woman' (let's park the bit about not being in love with life - George was such a whinger about how miserable he was, we can take it as read he was a sad sack all of the time he wasn't in Italy haha). 

Did George see Israel as a fellow traveller in the world of misogyny, and so feel free to expand on his pet subject? If so, it back-fired. He would not have known that anyone but his closest confidantes (as Paul Delany notes in his biography, Frederic Harrison might have been the ratfink source) knew about prison and Owens' - which is a blessing, but also a legitimate qualification for our sympathy. To not know people talked about it behind his back - and may have judged him negatively on it - is a sad state of affairs. However, if he was reckless in his choice of confidante (though he would have trusted Harrison, and if he couldn't trust Fred, who could he trust??) in order to screw that ridiculous sympathy out of them, he only had himself to blame - again! If only he had adopted the approach Stephen Fry uses when he discusses his youthful crimes click - to 'fess up and say he has moved on, George would have lived it down by turning it into part of his legend. (If only he had had me for an agent... haha).  
Composition 7 by Wassily Kandinsky 1917
One of the great unknowns of George's life, is how his contemporaries' knowledge about his Owen's debacle affect his writing career - did publishers hold it against him and pay less for his work because they knew he would not argue and risk becoming associated with wrangling over money, because money was a touchy subject? George certainly didn't seem to make much for of his work - unlike Israel Zangwill who ended his days in the exact sort of home George would have loved for himself 
(East Preston in West Sussex click - and died in Midhurst, HG Wells' literary 'Wimblehurst'.) 

Fairy by Arthur Rackham 1918
Israel went on to tremendous success both sides of the Atlantic and George went on to France and his place in our literary hearts. One is hardly read any more and one is now a National Treasure who is hardly read any more. Kismet.

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