This discussion of The Ivory Gate was first published in an earlier form in English Studies, Vol. 95, No. 8 (December 2014): 890-906, in an article entitled "The Conduct of Life in Walter Besant's The Ivory Gate and The Alabaster Box." The Victorian Web version appears here by kind permission of the publishers, Taylor and Francis. You may use the images added to this version without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the sources and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print document. Click on the thumbnails for larger pictures, and for more information where available.
Two locales for the two selves of the principal character in The Ivory Gate. Left: Lincoln's Inn Gate, through which Edward Dering would pass to his busy and profitable chambers (author's photograph). Right: Entrance to Gray's Inn Square, through which Dering's alter ego Edmund Gray would pass to his dingier chambers at Gray's Inn (photograph by George P. Landow). This place too, Gray complains, "is entirely filled with those who live by and for the defence of Property" (226).
One novel which demonstrates Water Besant's capacity for complexity both of vision and design is The Ivory Gate of 1892. The novelist gives himself more scope for complications here by taking double or split identity as his main motif and mechanism. The result is a work that challenges "the moral authority often associated with Victorian fiction" (Guy 4), and engages rather than simply dictates to the reader. The narrative turns on a freak of mind, acknowledged in the author's prefatory letter to Sir Samuel Sprigge, future editor of The Lancet medical journal, to be a "brain disease." Much of the time, Edward Dering is a formidable city lawyer, fully in control both of himself and of his chambers overlooking New Square, Lincoln's Inn, and looking reality steadfastly in the face. But, unknown to others, and even to his workaday self, he has an alter ego, another identity altogether. When he lapses into a kind of stupour, or sleepwalking state, Dering becomes his very opposite, Edmund Gray, an ardent, evangelical socialist who for nine years has had other chambers altogether, in the "dingy old courts" of Gray's Inn — at no. 22 in its South Square, to be precise. Gray appears at first to represent a kind of apology for or antidote to Dering, enacting a kindlier self and performing charity by proxy for him. Here, it seems, is an excellent example of the kind of psychic split that interested many Victorian writers, and that seems to have reflected deep-rooted anxieties in the society as a whole, about how to reconcile material goals with humanitarian ideals.
But it is not quite as simple as that. The novel's title introduces its tensions. It refers to an idea in Homer, echoed in Virgil's Aeneid VI. The epigraph, which explains it, is a passage from the latter:
Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish'd ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro' transparent horn arise;
Thro' polish'd ivory pass deluding lies. (Trans. John Dryden 180)
Here the sleeper is seen as subject to two different kinds of dreams, "[t]rue visions" founded on reality, described as passing into the consciousness through a gate of common horn; and beguiling delusions, described as wafting through its more precious and preciously wrought ivory counterpart. The title places the focus on the latter, with their uneasy combination of attraction and hollowness, and possibly even something worse — as implied in the bald word "lies."
Problems begin in the Prologue when Athelstan Arundel, Dering's utterly blameless and agreeable young Managing Clerk, falls under suspicion for forging the lawyer's name, and misappropriating money. In fact, as we learn later, Dering himself has transferred money to Edmund Gray in a kind of trance, for a socialist project. But since Dering is Athelstan's widowed mother's executor and trustee, the widow takes the word of the upright old lawyer on this matter, rather than that of her own son. Only Athelstan's younger sister Elsie stands by him, to his eternal gratitude.
But this is not all. There is double trouble in Dering's office. After the disgraced Athelstan, still protesting his innocence, takes himself off to seek his fortune in America, he is replaced at the chambers by young George Austin. Elsie and this new young Managing Clerk are already head over heels in love at the beginning of Chapter I. But Austin too falls foul of his employer's malady: having already proved himself capable enough to be made a partner, he is accused of a similar forgery. The loyal Elsie stands by him as well. So far, so almost symmetrical. This time, however, Elsie determines to turn detective. She is instrumental in discovering that Gray and Dering are one and the same person. There is no sudden denouement though. The apparently gentle and harmless Gray appeals to her far more than Dering does, especially in view of the problems in the family lawyer's office. She is much taken with his socialist vision of a society without Property, and, before revealing what she has found out, becomes his ardent follower. She visits his "place" in Somers Town, that is, a meeting-place in the insalubrious area behind St Pancras, where she participates in a "Fraternal Tea" and listens to one of his anti-Property talks. She also accompanies him to the mean streets of London, where they encounter the struggling poor, including a child mother; the redoubtable Mrs Moss, who sports a black eye from a recent marital row; and an almost-starving garment-maker who somehow manages to live uncomplainingly "on sweating work and sweating pay" (260).
A "False Principle"?
"East End Loafers," an illustration by Phil May for Besant's East End (facing p.168).
The contrast between Gray and Dering seems straightforward enough, and seems also to favour the former, for whom society is currently operated on the "false principle" of the few becoming rich at the cost of the many (236). However, there are discordant notes at every stage of Elsie's dealings with Gray.
When she first offers herself as his disciple, Gray gladly accepts her, not realising that she has an ulterior motive, but knowing full well the risks she will run, and even revelling in them: "You will be torn to pieces for the cause of humanity. Happy girl!" he crows, not simply unfazed at the prospect, but revelling in it. Although reason tells her that she is "listening to the voice and the dreams of a madman" (225), Elsie persists in following him. At the anti-Property meeting, however, she cannot help but note the kinds of people attracted to it: "Three-quarters of them were young men, their faces keen, their eyes hard, their manner aggressive. They belonged to the Church Militant" (232). These young men are obviously determined to combat the worst injustices of society. It is tempting to associate them with the Salvation Army, which Besant strongly supported. But this has already been mentioned by name (231), and the description of these fanatics is not a pleasant one, quite at odds with the author's admiration for the Salvation Army itself. Another man, a builder's foreman, shows yet another current that had fed into this late Victorian interest in reform: he "had been a Chartist in the Forties: he was a Socialist in these, the Nineties" (233). He too is "aggressive" in outlook, as is a working-girl who talks to them. The girl says: "I work eight hours a day, not counting the dinner hour, just to keep the boss and to make Property for him.... Where's your Kingdom of Heaven, then, if you reach out your hand ever so far, so long as I've got to work to make somebody else rich? Let's destroy Property, and then we shall see" (234). Elsie notes the blatant "confusions and intricacies" in the girl's reasoning, but bites her tongue: "she refrained. She was a disciple. She must listen" (234).
There are problems, therefore, within Gray's particular brand of socialism. Nor are the aggressive elements at the anti-Property meeting peripheral. Far from being confined to the fanatical or uneducated, they are intrinsic to the programme. For how was Gray himself to deal with the inevitable objectors? His neighbour at Gray's Inn, the forlorn, worn down and often inebriated Scholar, has already reported: "My old friend told me the other day that I should not be tolerated. They would kill me. All because I do no work — or next to none" (168). Apparently, this was not an idle threat. When Gray speaks at the meeting, he talks not only of the destruction of Property, and the arrival of a new system in which everyone would work for the common good, but of the removal of any who might refuse to pitch in, and who would therefore be nothing but "burdens on the community." His solution is frighteningly simple:
"... At first, there would be many such; but not for long. Because we should kill them. Yes, my friends," he added with a smile of the sweetest benevolence. "For the good of the community it will be necessary, without any sentimental considerations, to kill all those who refuse to work, all those who shirk their work, all those who persistently do scamped and bad work. They must die. So the commonwealth shall contain none but those who are vigorous, loyal, and true. For the rest — Death — if it means the death of a million who were once rich — Death is the only escape from the difficulty which is so often objected." 
Gray's outrageous sentiments undercut his ideals, and the "smile of the sweetest benevolence" with which he utters them suggests that they are indeed the ravings of a madman.
Elsie does not comment on Gray's plans for shirkers. But she does note later that her "Master" gives money to the poor people whom he meets, despite his own injunction against such a practice: "whatever he taught," she realises, he indulges in "the elementary form of charity possible only for those who have money." As when she listened to the working-girl, "Elsie remarked this little point, but said nothing" (263).
The nicely balanced book design for the one-volume edition of 1893.
Still apparently under Gray's spell despite these uncomfortable aperçus, Elsie continues to work for concrete proof that will clear Athelstan and and George. She has solid support, because after eight years Athelstan has returned secretly from self-imposed exile in America, a self-made man, and has made himself known to his sister and George. Having told the young men all, Elsie asks them to exercise patience while she urges Gray to write about his work. In due course, she succeeds in encouraging him to do so, preparing written statements about each of the incidents that have so disturbed Dering's office and indeed all these three young people's lives. With these "admissions" in hand, Elsie now has to communicate his extraordinary aberration to Dering himself. She is anxious lest the once confident but now troubled lawyer should be broken by the revelation, and lose his hold on sanity completely. Even Dering's aged clerk, the cunning and thin-lipped Checkley, is worried on this score, although more on his own account as an employee than on his master's. However, in the presence of everyone involved, and with all due formality, even to the calling of witnesses, Elsie manages everything beautifully. Gently but firmly making Dering aware of his other self, she issues in what looks like a conventionally happy ending. Athelstan, as a self-made man now, needs no help; but his name is cleared; and George takes over the chambers sooner than expected.
As for the lawyer himself, on retirement he is permanently transformed into a harmless, domesticated version of Gray. A softened portrait of him painted previously by the artistically inclined Elsie now becomes a true likeness of her guardian, just as she had once wished:
"Yes," she murmured, "you are a dear, tender-hearted, kindly, benevolent, simple old Thing. You believe in human nature: you think that everybody is longing for the Kingdom of Heaven. You think that everybody would be comfortable in it: that everybody longs for honesty. Before I altered you and improved your face, you were Justice without mercy: you were Law without leniency: you were Experience which knows that all men are wicked by choice when they get the chance: you had no soft place anywhere: you held that Society exists only for the preservation of Property. Oh! you are so much more lovable now, if you would only think so — if you only knew. You believe in men and women: that is a wonderful advance — and you have done well to change your old name to your new name. I think I should like you always to be Edmund Gray. [245-46]
In his old age, living comfortably with Elsie and George, Dering/Gray becomes something like the "amalgam" posited by Karl Miller in his study of literary doubles, when people have not just two different selves, but a third that moves both "towards, and away from, a social competence" (28). No threat to society now, the once practical lawyer inhabits the world of the radical's dreams, which are seemingly fully endorsed by the author:
He sees clearly and near at hand the things which might be, yet are not, and never can be until man lays down his garb of selfishness and puts on the white robes of Charity. To that dreamer the Kingdom of Heaven, which seems to some so far off and to others impossible, so that they deride the name of it, is actually close at hand — with us — easy to enter if we only choose. He exhorts his fellows to enter with him. And they would follow, but they cannot because they are held back by custom and necessity. They must obey the laws of the multitude, and so they stay where they are. And when the dreamer passes away, his memory is quickly lost, and the brightness quickly leaves those dimly-lighted lives. Yet other dreamers come — every day there arises an Edmund Gray. 
Thus we leave the once divided personality stationed at the ivory gate, happily "watching the long procession of those who work and sing at their work and are happy, work they ever so hard, because they work each for all and all for each" (358). What is more, we are told that "other dreamers" will follow him.
At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Elsie's materialistic mother can be pleased too. Things have turned out well: she has nothing to complain about, since both her son and younger daughter are now perfectly prosperous. She too is surely a representative figure. Melodramatic, grounded and idealistic by turns, Besant's narrative seems to offer the reader a resolution to satisfy everyone.
Sandwich-men. Leonard-Hill's illustration for East London (facing p.244) shows the terrible monontony of such working lives. But how was the people's lot to be improved?
However, the jarring notes at the anti-Property meeting cannot easily be forgotten. Indeed, it is quite clear at the end that Gray's vision is never going to be workable, not simply because of "custom and necessity," but because of more fundamental reasons, rooted in human nature itself. Earlier on, when finally brought to recall his life rationally, Gray had explained why he never used the money on which Dering's signature had apparently been forged, and which he had transferred for his philanthropic purposes. The fact was that he (that is, Gray) had been quite unable to find the right kind of people to engage in his project: "my scheme was good so far as it went, and it might have been started with good effect, but for the apathy of the workers," he told Elsie. He had started it, he said,
by advancing to certain working men sums which should make them independent of their employers until they should have produced enough to sell directly, without the aid of an employer, at their own co-operative stores. Unfortunately, most of them drank the money: the few who used it properly, instead of backing up their fellow-workmen, became themselves employers, and are now wealthy. Well, I thought I would extend this method. I thought that if I got together a chosen band say, of seventy or so and if, after teaching them and educating them a bit, I gave them, say, ten pounds apiece, to tide them over the first few weeks, that I might next open a distributive and co-operative store for them, and so take the first step to abolishing the middle-man the man of trade..... But as I told you, I was obliged to abandon my scheme. The men were not sufficiently advanced. They listened; they professed great willingness to receive the money; but they gave me no encouragement to hope that they would carry out my plan. So it fell through. And the men remain to this day with their employers. And so you see I never used the money. I remember that I had the cheque cashed in ten-pound notes for the purpose. [328-29]
Even if there was a perfectly sane leader, even if those who refused to cooperate were dealt with humanely, could enough of the right kind of people be found to implement Gray's plans, and to maintain the kind of society he has in mind? There seems little doubt that the answer is "no" and is always going to be "no." Gray's ideas represent the very "follies of an impossible socialism" that Besant rails against in his non-fiction work of 1901, East London (333). It seems likely that the author has Fabianism in mind here, with its anti-capitalist beliefs, its militant elements, and its promotion of eugenics. His sister-in-law Annie Besant was one of the most prominent early members of the Fabians. But he himself had already expressed his own reservations about the movement quite clearly in his dystopian novels, particularly The Inner House (1888). Here, the so-called "Evil Past," with its old ideas of "private property and individualism" is found to be, after all, "infinitely more tolerable for mankind than the Evil Present" (45-46).
Scepticism also inhabits the narrative's romantic thread. This thread, its lyrical passages saved from sentimentality by humour, seems at first to complement ideas about socialism. Yet it is by no means separate from the debate about it. To go back nearly to the beginning: Elsie is willing to marry George even when, as the son of a clergyman, he apparently has no hope of acquiring a partnership. She tells him gaily: "Of course I shall have to do everything for myself. To clean the doorstep will be equivalent to taking exercise in the fresh air: to sweep the floors will be a kind of afternoon dance or a game of lawn-tennis: to wash up the cups and saucers will be only a change of amusement." But her naïveté is all too apparent when she adds more thoughtfully, "'There is one thing, George one thing' she became very serious. 'I suppose you never did you ever witness the scouring of a frying-pan? I don't think I could do that....'" (35). Her mother is therefore justified in pouring scorn on her for not realising what such a life really entails, and for not valuing money properly.
What is more, Elsie herself comes to understand all this. As a reward for her loyalty to him, Athelstan settles a substantial sum of money on her. Dering is under instructions to notify her of this, though not of its source, on her coming-of-age. Elsie is patently, even comically, relieved by the news of this windfall. Together with Dering's unexpectedly making George a partner at just the same time, it entirely changes her personal prospects and even her world-view. "'Never before, George," she admits,"have I understood the loveliness and the power of money. We can now marry like everybody else — but much better. We shall have furniture now" (90-91). While drawing George's portrait, she then more fully contrasts the future that she once envisaged with the one now opening before them:
"... The rooms are very small, and the furniture is shabby, because it was cheap and bad to begin with. And when you come home — oh, George!" — she stuck her forefinger in her chalk, and drew two or three lines on his face — "you look like that, so discontented, so grumpy, so gloomy. Oh, my dear, the advantages — they do so greatly outbalance the drawbacks; and George — you will love your wife all the more — I am sure you will — because she can always dress properly and look nice, and give you a dinner that will help to rest you from the work of the day." [90-92]
In other words, personal wealth will make all the difference to their lives. Subsequent problems, when George like Athelstan before him is blamed for Dering's transfer of funds to Gray, have only temporarily disturbed these prospects. Thus the happy ending is actually posited on the life of property, such as that lived by Dering himself, and promoted by his professional dealings with others. The alternative has indeed terrible "drawbacks," not only for those who refuse to work, but for those who stand to lose their privileges under a new system.
Dering may have capitulated to Gray in his old age, but Gray's diatribes against property, Elsie's admiration for him, and the ending in which his dreams continue to have something deeply attractive and even noble about them, do not count for much in the real world. There, Dering's belief that "Property is Civilisation" (352) has been fully vindicated. Moreover, using devices already popularised in fin-de-siècle fiction (the double in R. L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of 1886, and the canny/uncanny portrait in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, serialised in 1890), Besant has shown that the conflict between self-interest and compassion, and between maintaining the status quo and striving for change, can provoke dangerous aberrations, both in the individual and society. The conclusion is inescapable. Despite the ostensible focus on the "ivory gate," the "true visions" are, after all, those that issue through the gate of horn.
The People's Palace on the Mile End Road, with its grand exterior and equally grand Octagon, designed by E. R. Robson and completed in 1888. It is now part of Queen Mary University, London.
Besant wrote The Ivory Gate at a time when he himself was having to question his "paternalistic fantasies" (Joyce 526). As noted earlier, according to his own criteria of social impact and commercial success, his most successful work so far had been All Sorts and Conditions of Men, because it had "helped draw the donations" required for realising what had been his own "impossible dream" (Sutherland 61), materially contributing to the establishment of the People's Palace. When Besant was presented to the Queen at the opening of its main hall, it must have been one of the proudest moments of his life ("The Queen's Visit to the East-End," 12). Yet the outcome had fallen short of expectations: "we made a most excellent beginning," wrote Besant in his autobiography, adding drily, "Everything did not go on quite well. At the billiard tables, which were very popular, the young men took to betting, and it was thought best to stop billiards altogether. The literary club proved a dead failure; not a soul, while I was connected with the Palace, showed the least literary ability or ambition" (246). There were some gains, but still, as time went by the institution bore "little resemblance to Besant's orginal design," and turned out to be an example of "failed social engineering," largely oriented towards the middle rather than the lower classes. In time, it became a place of technical instruction rather than the "palace of delight" originally intended (Joyce 514). As Besant said in the autobiography, "alas! alas ! what might not the Palace have done for the people if the original design had been carried out" (247). It seems more than likely that some of his growing disillusion with the project informs this novel, complicating its propagandist element and, incidentally, making it altogether more appealing to our more cynical age.
One might add that, as the driving spirit behind the founding of the Society of Authors in 1883, and its first Chairman (see Keating The Haunted Study, 27-32), Besant had a keen eye for practicalities. Whatever came to him through the gate of horn had to mean more to him in the end than the visions that passed through the ivory gate — even if he would have preferred, like the retired Dering/Gray, to indulge in pipe-dreams of joyful and altruistic co-operation. While his fictional character continued to dwell on his vision of such a state, the best that his creator could do was to find alternative and more workable means of promoting it, even in the teeth of his earlier disappointment. And that is what he would try to do in his novel of 1899, The Alabaster Box.
- "Novels with a Purpose": An Introduction to Walter Besant's The Ivory Gate and The Alabaster Box
- Walter Besant's The Alabaster Box, and East End Settlements
- Slum Fiction: An Introduction
- Walter Besant's Novels of East London (focusing on All Sorts and Conditions of Men and Children of Gibeon
- Walter Besant's Dystopian Novels (focusing on The Revolt of ManThe Inner House)
- The Fabian Society in Late Victorian Britain
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_____. The Ivory Gate. New ed. London: Chatto & Windus, 1893. Internet Archive. Uploaded by University of California Libraries. 3 January 2015.
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Created 6 January 2015