Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
No matter how many classics I read it never fails to surprise me how little people, or even society, seem to change. The realism of The Whirlpool reminded me at times of those scripted reality shows (specifically Made in Chelsea). The protagonists belong to a class where working for a living is considered un-gentlemanly if it can in any way be avoided, and where the idea of a woman working is scandalous. Appearances must be maintained regardless of the cost and without regard to practicality or comfort, and money is a constant worry as expenses constantly threaten to eat into capital and so diminish income.
Harvey Rolfe is a bachelor in his late 30s, perfectly satisfied with his life and the £900 a year (equivalent to roughly £100,000 in today’s money) that he currently enjoys, all the more so because in his youth he ran through a limited patrimony and had to work hard to live. His friend Hugh Carnaby has recently married a remarkably beautiful woman – Sybil – who has a fortune roughly equal to his own: they have around £1800 between them of which we can assume every penny is spent. Then there is Alma Frothingham, daughter of a wealthy speculator, Sybil’s dearest friend, and an object of some interest to Harvey. These four are destined to make each other spectacularly miserable.
When Alma’s father goes bust and commits suicide he leaves both his daughter and Sybil penniless, and the ripples of the crash carry on, bringing misery and disaster to more of Harvey’s circle. He in turn shows himself to be a decent enough man, first in casual but sincere acts of generosity towards those of his acquaintance who most need it, and then in offering Alma the safety of marriage.
The Alma, whom the world, and at first the reader, meet is an attractive girl in her early twenties with a passion for music. As the story unfolds she is revealed to be shallow, vain, without real talent and in every way a bad wife and mother. Harvey finds himself trapped in a relationship based not on the love he had imagined he felt but on a physical attraction which slowly diminishes. For both Harvey and Hugh marriage is a personal disaster.
Read something of Gissing’s own terrible marriages, and the antipathy he displays towards these women makes some sense. Alma’s vanity, specifically her need for praise, is a deeply destructive force. Sybil’s determination to be maintained in luxury indirectly causes the death of one man and the imprisonment of another – and of course the women’s relationship deteriorates into enmity.
What fascinates me is seeing how Gissing’s prejudices cloud his judgement. Neither Alma or Sybil are attractive characters, though Sybil as the cleverer of the two manages to get away with her misdemeanours. Her guilt is inferred though never explicitly stated but she is ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants. Alma is less lucky. There is a pyschological depth to the character which saves her from becoming a caricature but a wilful refusal to examine the deficiencies in women’s education, or the constraints society placed on them, which would go a long way to explaining why she is what she is. In the end however it’s Gissing’s antipathy which encourages the reader to feel some sympathy for Alma.
This is a book with a lot to recommend it. If you like sensationalism there are three suicides, a murder, indecent proposals, blackmail, intrigue, and scandals, all of which go to make The Whirlpool a real page turner. Underneath that is a serious examination of bad marriages, human nature, and society generally, all of which gives the reader plenty to think about. It is, in short, everything I love about Victorian literature.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader where she finds she can’t resist a Victorian villainess.
George Gissing, The Whirlpool (Penguin Classics: London, 2015).97800141395647, 471pp., paperback.