A tragic trajectory

Decorated initial G

eorge Gissing's first published novel, Workers in the Dawn (1880), is set partly in the East End of London, and the opening chapter has more than a touch of Dickens about it. Indeed, Gissing outdoes Dickens in his startlingly grotesque depictions of the denizens of the slums, and also in the extreme pathos of the scene in which a child clings to his just-dead father amid the squalor. What follows is something of a Bildungsroman, again with Dickensian overtones. The main figures are Arthur Golding (the little boy orphaned at the beginning), and Helen Norman, the daughter of the widowed Reverend Edward Norman, the clergyman who had been an old college friend of Arthur's father, and who has taken the boy into his home. Understandably enough, eight-year-old Arthur has been damaged by his early experiences. Perhaps, too, he has inherited some of the weakness of character that had brought his father to such a pass. Unable to adapt to life in the pleasant parish of Bloomford where Edward is the incumbent, Arthur runs away from the Normans, back to the slums. But Helen's character is even then so far above the ordinary that it has made a deep and lasting impression on him. With much emphasis on their intellectual and (especially in Helen's case) spiritual development, we follow the pair from childhood until their deaths in young adulthood, the former from suicide, the latter from tuberculosis exacerbated by her tireless philanthropic endeavours in those same slums.

After the struggles of his later boyhood and early manhood, including the failure of any prospect of marriage with Helen, Arthur is in America when he learns of her early death. Tormented by what might have been, and losing all hope for what lies ahead, he is ineluctably drawn to his own extinction, and jumps into the Niagara Falls:

Yet one step, and he gained the elevation of a huge shapeless block which seemed to promise him a view straight down into the depths. But still the mists gathered thick beneath him, and from out of it called to him the voice of the whirlpool, now so loud within his ears that at length it silenced thought. For a moment his blood boiled, his pulses leaped, his brain was on fire with the fierce joy of madness; in the next he shrieked in a voice which overcame that of the falls, "Helen! Helen!" and plunged into the abyss. [II: 436]

The ending, like the opening, has come in for a good deal of critical comment, with Michael Wheeler suggesting that the novel, which begins in the abyss of the backstreets, neatly "completes its own circle" here (187).

Autobiographical elements

In fact, as the mention of the Bildungsroman suggests, the narrative trajectory is not by any means circular. The ending does, however, remind us that Workers in the Dawn is a young man's novel, the novel of someone, moreover, who has known what it is to struggle and fail, and to despair. With some variations, Gissing has visited some of his own personal calamities on his hero: young Arthur is a budding artist rather than a writer, but, like Gissing himself, he is torn between developing his creative gift and devoting himself to his radical social vision. Giving up his talent for the sake of that vision seems to make him "feel more of a man" for a while (II: 53), but neither the feeling nor his dedication to the workers' project lasts. The most striking autobiographical element in the novel, however, is Arthur's marriage to a prostitute, yet another aspect of it which has attracted considerable critical attention, especially in recent years. Although Roger Milbrandt has warned against identifying the textual prostitute closely with the real Nell Gissing (59), the similarity of their circumstances is clear, and it proves no more possible for Arthur than for his author to deflect his spouse from her ultimate fate. Most significantly, the fact that Arthur is bound to Carrie Mitchell morally as well as legally, prevents him from entering into a more fulfilling relationship with Helen, when at last such a possibility emerges. James Haydock is not alone in blaming Arthur's suicide on Carrie's "unassailable depravity" (152). But the problem runs deeper than that. In the penultimate paragraph of the novel, just before the fatal plunge, Arthur looks back over life, trying to find "any positive result, ... any real good accomplished, any real end gained — he could find none" (II: 435-36]. Here is the young man's lacerating awareness that his highest goals of self-fulfilment and service to others have both eluded him.

Nor is it only Arthur himself who succumbs to a premature death. By this time, Carrie herself, still utterly incapable of redemption, and prey to the temptations and degradations of the slums, is at death's door. She is doomed to die (indeed, by the time Arthur hears of her serious illness, she has perhaps already died) of a disease to which her moral decline has exposed her — an uncanny prophesy of what would happen to Gissing's own first wife in 1888, when "the dreariness, pathos and futility" of her struggle with her own self finally took its toll (Milbrabdt 59-60). Arthur receives the news of Carrie's desperate condition, and of Helen's death, at the same time. They, quite literally, push him over the edge. The miserable fates of the main protagonists, Arthur and the two women with whom he has been most deeply involved, lead one critic to remark, "Carrie dies in the end, like most fictional prostitutes — but in Workers in the Dawn, so does everyone else" (Mitchell 412).

The survivors

This of course is simply not true. Other characters survive, and their survival has its own significance: Gissing approved of the Manchester Examiner and Times reviewer of 1880, who claimed that each of his characters has "with few exceptions, some distinct purpose to serve" (qtd. in Coustillas and Partridge 59). One such figure is the playmate of Helen's early years, Maud Gresham, whose cynical view of society propels her into marrying a wealthy older man, John Waghorn, who turns out to be not simply a cad but a vicious one. As Maud confesses in a letter to Helen later, having married Waghorn with eyes wide open, and partly out of a stubborn sense of perversity, she had soon found herself tied to "quite an exceptional brute, and at length I bitterly repented my folly" (II: 407). By the time of this confession, she has left him, and is already (before her divorce has come through) living abroad in some style with a more securely wealthy man — a Russian prince. Maud is quite pragmatic about this socially unacceptable arrangement, asking Helen in her letter, "Are you happy, yourself? I will hope so, but I have my doubts. Depend upon it your philosophy is horribly unpractical. Think it over, there's a good girl. Your Russian prince may even now be waiting for you, if only you knew it" (II: 409). Maud's past history, however, suggests that material comforts can come at a huge expense, and involve their own kind of moral degradation. Gissing's views are shown through Helen's response: she "laid aside the letter with a deep sigh" (II: 409). We can be sure that it is a sigh of regret, not one of envy.

Nevertheless, as usual in this author's work, there are positives as well as negatives here, and there are other survivors of a different kind. The very title sounds a different note. Gissing explained it himself when saying that "the principal characters are earnest young people striving for improvement in, as it were, the dawn of a new phase of our civilisation" (qtd. in Coustillas xiv). Two such "earnest young people" are Lucy Venning, a quiet but intelligent lower class girl who becomes Helen's companion at home as well as in her labours; and the Reverend Edgar Walton Heatherley, Helen's guide to good works in London, a strapping, hearty, likeable young man "who does endless good in the neighbourhood, and all in the quietest way" (II: 118). Heatherley's growing inclination towards Lucy, whose father is one of his parishioners, is matched by Lucy's towards him, and this produces the most conventional part of the novel, and therefore perhaps the most easily dismissed as peripheral. It rarely garners critical comment, beyond the occasional remark that (for instance) "Helen Norman's star pupil, Lucy Venning, will be an immense improvement on women like Carrie Mitchell..." (Moore 82).

Indeed, Lucy is not at the "extremes of femininity" delineated in Helen and Carrie (see Mitchell 424), nor is she the kind of "New Woman" who is willing to flout conventions, like Maud. Staying with Helen as her companion, she has started helping her to teach young women from the slums so that they can improve themselves. She is very much aware that Helen's own labours among the destitute have been affecting her health. Helen, for her part, has noticed the growing affection between her two friends, and indeed has promoted it, telling Heatherley of Lucy's "intelligence... and the excellence of her heart" (II: 295). The two are clearly suited, the more so because the clergyman's efforts among the poor are rooted in his unshakable Christian faith, and Lucy shares his convictions. Helen is therefore only momentarily surprised when Lucy shows her Heatherley's letter of proposal, which comes in the very same post as hers from Maud. The contrast with Maud's outlook on marriage as a route to purely material benefits is extreme.

The proposal

Heatherley's proposal is "manly," says the narrator, and "very characteristic of the writer." Not at all a conventional love letter, it is "merely the offer of a deep and unwavering affection, of a share in all his future joys and sorrows, of active participation in his life's work." The clergyman makes no bones about the difficulties that lie ahead: "Far from drawing imaginative pictures of a lover's paradise, he clearly intimated that the duties of a clergyman's wife were often laborious, often distasteful"; moreover, he indicates what qualities would be expected in his wife, "she who would fulfil them duly must be distinguished by piety, good sense, and infinite patience," although he also expresses his confidence that she already has these, "for he had long watched her closely and every new discovery he had made had served to strengthen his affection by convincing him that it was based on reason" (II: 409). Heatherley then urges her to think over this rather challenging proposal carefully, and let some days pass before replying.

Helen sounds Lucy out, although "something of sadness" in her tone suggests that she knows how Lucy will respond. But there is no immediate rejoicing on Lucy's part. On the contrary, the young woman is distressed that her acceptance would mean leaving Helen: "Do you really mean that your love for me would overpower that you have so long felt for Mr. Heatherley?" asks Helen, greatly moved:

"Indeed — indeed I feel it does," sobbed Lucy. "Now you have more need than ever of me, now that you are so weak and suffer so much. How could I leave you alone, or, still worse, bear to think that some one else was filling my place in your regard? I am sure Mr. Heatherley does not know how ill you are, or he could not wish to persuade me to leave you."

Helen now tries to dissuade her from staying to help her. Making quite sure that Heatherley's feelings are reciprocated, and that Lucy would be willing to undertake the "formidable array of wifely duties" expected of her (II: 410), she gradually opens the way for compromise. It is not easy for Lucy, who is held back also by the thought that Helen's own disappointment over Arthur, and hesitates to "set before her a picture of happiness which could only render her desolation more bitter." Yet it is Lucy, in the end, who lays down the terms of this compromise:

"Armed with the strength of a pure unselfishness she spoke in a tone of decision which surprised her friend.

"Miss Norman, I must beg you to let me have my own way in this. I could not be happy if I left you at once and married Mr. Heatherley. And indeed I am too young; I have too little experience. It will be much better for him to wait another year." [II: 411]

At this point, Helen really tests her resolve:

"With what terrible calmness you speak of a year, Lucy," said Helen, half jestingly, half sadly. Is it not presumption in you to look forward so far into time, and say: At the end of a year I will do such and such a thing? Especially in so grave a matter as this, delay may mean the sacrifice of a life's happiness. You must not think that our parting will be so absolute, Lucy. Mr. Heatherley will not monopolise you. As soon as I get rid of this weakness and can go out again and attend to my work I shall often call at your house in the afternoon and ask you to let me sit in your parlour for half an hour. Then you will make me a cup of tea in your daintiest manner, and perhaps you will cut me thin slices of bread and butter, like you do now when you wish to coax me to eat. Oh, what chats we will have! Doesn't the picture tempt you?"

Lucy shook her head.

"When you are quite well again, Miss Norman," she said; "but not till then. I will tell Mr. Heatherley that if he will wait for me till next midsummer I will be his wife. But not till then."

"And you will keep the promise, Lucy, whatever should happen to me — I mean," she added quickly," you will not let my state of health influence you then. In any case it shall be next midsummer? Promise me that solemnly, Lucy. It will be a great comfort to me."

"I promise," said Lucy, with a sigh. [II: 412]

This touching conversation confirms all that we need to know about the selflessness of both women, who put each other's interests first, and see their own futures (in so far as Helen can see hers at all), in terms of what they can offer to the other. Lucy in particular is sensitive to Helen's heartbreak over Arthur. Yet she is not entirely the "soft-spoken, ingenuous creature" of Pierre Coustillas's description (xxx). She admits that she would be jealous of anyone who replaced her in Helen's life, and does set quite a precise date for her marriage ("next midsummer"). Compare this to the Micklethwaites in a later novel, The Odd Women, where Thomas Micklethwaite's beloved Fanny is willing to wait indefinitely for the mathematician to be in a position to marry her — in the end, the period is seventeen years. Lucy's sigh after making her promise to Helen suggests her sorrow at yielding to her request. But it may be more ambiguous than Helen's sigh after reading Maud's letter. It may include a natural regret at putting her own future on hold.

The path ahead

Is the Heatherleys' future of "laborious, sometimes distasteful" work really the one that Gissing recommends? Does he, in fact, "propose" the kind of ministration in which Heatherley and his wife will commit themselves in partnership?

Earlier in the novel, Arthur had been drawn into a radical organisation by the older, working-class Mark Challenger, whose wife had died of starvation and whose daughter (it is hinted) was forced into prostitution. The club had been organised by the aptly named William Noble, one of the few high-minded working-class leaders whom Gissing draws (see Moore 72). The idea was to support rather than to empower the workers: Noble believed "the poor must help the poor" (II: 8), and wanted the members to contribute whatever they could afford for the relief of the their needier brethren. Mark himself puts in five of the thirty shillings he earns each week. A small subscription is also proposed, for buying improving books that could be shared amongst them. The scheme is indeed a "noble" one, but Arthur's involvement with Carrie distracts him; and it fails anyway. A friend of Noble's cheats him out of much of his savings, and the kind-hearted man suffers more from the betrayal than the loss itself. The club is disbanded. Not with an eye to this particular incident, but in another context, the narrator allows himself to express his own disillusion in an aside: "It is curious, bye-the-by [sic], how incapable, as a rule, the working-class are of keeping their own savings" (II: 69).

No more viable, in the long term, is the paternalism exercised by moneyed individuals. Helen's labours, motivated by nothing but her own keen social conscience, had not only resulted in serious damage to her own health; it had sometimes seemed useless. The recipients of her help were apt to take advantage of her. She discovers, for example, that her efforts on behalf of the poverty-stricken Crick family, which include buying them furniture as well as clothes, are only fuelling their dependence on alcohol. When her suspicions about this are confirmed, she leaves their wretched quarters with a heavy heart. Heatherley advises her to be more discriminating in her charity, and not to waste her precious effort "where there appears but slight hope of its doing good" (II: 24). When such circumstances prevail, those who set out to alleviate sufferings are at risk of becoming bitter and cynical, like the anarchist John Pether, whom Arthur encounters in the slums, and who sees no virtue or future in philanthropy.

Still, Heatherley himself has become neither. His case is an interesting one. Gissing, who was influenced, like Helen herself, by his reading of Comte's Cours de Philosophie Positive (1: 215), and the writings of Shelley and Schopenhauer (I: 221), had no faith in faith, Christian or otherwise. He termed himself an agnostic (see for instance Collected Letters I: 273). In fact he allows the wise and kindly printer Samuel Tollady, who had taken Arthur as an apprentice on the boy's return to the East End, and had played the part of a foster-father to him, to make the case against religion vehemently on one of the pair's companionable walks together:

To my mind, Arthur, history of religious beliefs has always been at once the saddest and the most interesting of studies. It is nothing less than the struggle of the human mind from the black depths of ignorance and brutish fear up towards that glorious heritage of freedom to which, I cannot but believe, it is one day destined to attain....These faiths, one and all, great and small, from the most grovelling superstition of the cannibal to the purest phase of devotion nurtured in the mind of a Christian, trust me, they are nothing but remnants of the primeval darkness, clinging to man as he toils laboriously upwards, clinging in spite of all his efforts to shake them off. And woe to such as hug the darkness to their bosom. [I: 160]

Yet when it comes to the representatives of the Christian church here, Gissing reserves his scorn for the ritualist Mr Whiffle, and does no worse than, as it were, tease the well-meaning Heatherley for worrying in case Helen's atheism infects his innocent Lucy (see Coustillas xxvii). Helen herself, while in no way willing to give up her own free-thinking, thinks highly of Heatherley, and is inclined to think that "Christianity has its reason for existence, and to doubt whether, even if it were possible, it would be wise to suddenly exterminate it" (II: 29). Significantly, too, Gissing awards Heatherley the accolade of being "a Radical in politics and social views" (II: 122), and gives the marriage the indirect blessing of William Noble, who also loves Lucy, but has declared that he would selflessly yield her to Heatherley if he returned the young woman's feelings — as turns out to be the case.

Comte's religion of humanity is contested by Gissing even in this first novel: it is true that Helen herself veers towards Schopenhauer and Shelley when she argues that Arthur would serve mankind better by devoting himself to his art rather than to political activism (see Harrison 833). The novel is most profoundly autobiographical in the way it shows Arthur's severe inner conflict over these competing ideals, and its ending illustrates the triumph of Schopenhauer's: "Among Gissing’s protagonists, he is the first spokesman of Schopenhauer’s ideas" (Schäffner 11). Yet Helen abandons her efforts in the East End not by choice, but because of increasing debility. In the here and now, only such efforts as these hold promise for raising the slum-dwellers from their squalor and moral failings. At present, the "proposal" we have just looked at — not simply of marriage, but for Lucy to take over from the ailing Helen and join forces with Heatherley in promoting self-improvement — is the best hope that Gissing can offer. It is not nothing. Helen herself tells the class of girls she has been teaching,

No one can work hard for her own improvement without at the same time doing good to every one with whom she comes in contact, and to the whole world in general. I tell you with very great seriousness that every one of you who now listen to me has the power, if she choose to exert it, to make this world of ours better for her striving. There is hardly an evil from which we daily suffer which has not ignorance for its cause. If you strive to rise out of your ignorance, you will see every day more and more clearly how wise it is to be honest, and virtuous, and good; how dreadfully foolish it is to be otherwise. You will see that your own happiness lies within your reach, if you are willing to take the trouble to climb to it. [II: 415]

Heatherley and Lucy's relationship has largely escaped critical attention, but their involvement in this enterprise makes them Gissing's most practical prospect for the relief of the East End's ills.

In its concern with these ills, and with how to raise the working classes, as well as in its questioning of the church's role in this context, Workers in the Dawn is very much a novel of its age, published at the beginning of the decade in which (for example) Walter Besant's All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882), and Mary Augusta Ward's Robert Elsmere (1888), appeared. Those novels too are deeply concerned with the problems of the slums, and are both classed a "slum fiction" at a time when the East End exerted a peculiar fascination on the wider readership. For all his own free-thinking, and despite the fact that Schopenhauer came to hold more sway over him than Comte, in Workers in the Dawn Gissing allows a stout-hearted clergyman and his helpmeet to provide a glimmer of hope in a challenging situation, and to lighten the misery of his dark ending.

Links to related material


Coustillas, Pierre. Introduction. Workers in the Dawn, by George Gissing. Brighton: Harvester, 1985. xi-xxxii.

_____, and Colin Partridge' eds. George Gissing: The Critical Heriatge. Digital ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

Gissing, George. Collected Letters of George Gissing, 1863-1880. Edited by Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young, and Pierre Coustillas. Vol. I. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1990.

_____. Workers in the Dawn. Brighton: Harvester, 1985.

Harrison, Debbie. "The Triumph of Schopenhauer's Pessimism Over Comte's Positivism in George Gissing's Early Writing." Literature Compass 9: 11 (2012): 826-36.

Haydock, James. The Woman Question and George Gissing. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2015.

Milbrandt, "Gissing's Nell: Her Body and his Text." George Gissing and the Woman Question: Convention and Dissent. Edited by Christine Huguet and ‎Simon J. James. London: Routledge, 2016. 57-68.

Mitchell, Margaret E. "Gissing's Moral Mischief: Prostitutes and Narrative Resolution." Studies in the Novel 37, no. 4 (2005): 411–29.

Moore, Lewis D. George Gissing: A Critical Analysis. Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland, 2008.

Schäffner, Raymond. "Socialism and Conservatism in George Gissing’s Workers in the Dawn and Demos. The Gissing Journal. Vol. XXXIV. No. 2 (April 1998): 1-18.

Wheeler, Michael. English Fiction of the Victorian Age. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1994.

Created 5 May 2022