Thursday, 7 June 2012

Not (not) the Jubilee

Always one to get the timings wrong on this blog post, I was thinking about the Jubilee. No, not the Jubilee that’s just passed, the one held in 1887. The reason why I was thinking about the one 125 years ago was because George Gissing wrote about it in his novel In The Year of the Jubilee (1894). Gissing was born in Wakefield, in 1857 and died in 1903. As a young man he was a brilliant student and won several academic prizes, but he was caught stealing from his fellow students at the University of Manchester, in an attempt to keep his prostitute girlfriend Nell (Marianne Helen Harrison), off the streets. He would later marry her, but the couple separated and Nell died of alcoholism. Gissing married a second time, this time to a lower class woman who also separated from him and was sent to an asylum. ‘Oh dear’, I can hear you saying, ‘this is grim’, but he wrote some exceptional novels which seem coloured by experience. Many of his novels are preoccupied with scenes of working class life in cities and Gissing is regarded as a fine realist. On his deathbed H.G. Wells and his (unofficial – he was still married) third wife Gabrielle Fleury argued over how he should be nursed and fed. Gabrielle in the French corner – starvation to combat the fever - and H.G. Wells in the British corner – beef and brandy.
Anyhow, this illuminating piece of context is drifting away from the Jubilee theme, so let’s return. What’s clear about the way Gissing depicts the Jubilee celebrations in London is the absolute lack of nationalism. It’s all about drinking and partying for the working classes if we are to believe him, as opposed to the 2012 Jubilee, which is more concerned with dainty bunting:

“Beyond sat a working-man, overtaken with liquor, who railed vehemently at the Jubilee, and in no measured terms gave his opinion of our Sovereign Lady; the whole thing was a 'lay,' an occasion for filling the Royal pocket, and it had succeeded to the tune of something like half a million of money, wheedled, most of it, from the imbecile poor. 'Shut up!' roared a loyalist, whose patience could endure no longer. 'We're not going to let a boozing blackguard like you talk in that way about 'er Majesty!' Thereupon, retort of insult, challenge to combat, clamour from many throats, deep and shrill. Nancy laughed, and would rather have enjoyed it if the men had fought.”

It’s also about women getting out of the house. The main character Nancy Lord, rebels against her father, in an effort to taste a bit of freedom:

"I should like to walk about all lots of people will. The public-houses are to be kept open till two o'clock. . . . It's horrible to be tied up as we are; we're not children. Why can't we go about as men do?"

Strident words from Miss Lord. I wonder if our present-day street parties where supermarket magazines advised women on the art of making bunting and decorating cakes with Union Jack colours are actually a step towards a return to conservatism. Or maybe not a return, but a class issue. Middle-class women don’t drink at street parties, they make the sandwiches. Nancy Lord is a lower middle-class woman who wants to have a night off respectability. Gissing is just one voice here, but I imagine he saw a fair deal to support his writing. Also there’s the argument of whether or not women of the time needed a man to do their talking for them, which is one to take into consideration. Still, it’s interesting from a 2012 perspective.

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