Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Commonplace 239  George & His Tendency to Tyranny. PART ONE

Part of the Jake and Dinos Chapman Installation
at White Cube Gallery Summer 2011
Like many of those caught between two social classes, George had difficulty in expressing his true feelings to equals and those by whom he strove to be accepted. But he was, by nature, secretive and his need to control others' perceptions of him and his doings made the class thing so much worse. Caught between a variety of worlds both internal and external, he struggled with personality and character flaws (aloofness, lack of empathy, pride, arrogance) and set himself almost unwinnable goals - such as a happy marriage to an ordinary working class woman.

Many converts become zealots and George was lured into the frenzy of middle class aspirational dogma - but embraced it wholeheartedly. There are no other words for it: he was a snob. The very worst snobs are those so ashamed of their roots they have to prove they are, despite financial elevation, not still mired with their origins
I qualify it as middle class because there are also working class snobs and presumably, all cultures and all peoples have snobs, too. Snobbism, like the creation of the Universe, is not a steady state. Like the Universe, it is expanding relative to place and time click ;) It's essence is about classifying selected others as inferiors but it requires a constant evaluation of everyone who is U and Non-U, as they say.

An example of George's snobbery is his criticism of Edith's accent. How hard he must have worked to rid himself of his Yorkshire one! This, I believe might go some small way to explain why Edith's accent offended him so. Neither of George's parents were from Yorkshire, so his 'mother tongue' was not infected with a Wakefield twang - for info on the varieties of Yorkshire accent click. There is in England a north-south social divide, between the more affluent south and the poorer north. In George's time, this would have been a significant marker of social class, despite the money being made by northern industrialists, many would have been looked down upon for their native accent.  Then there is the regional difference in accent between Yorkshire and Lancashire - the county where George went to school and college. These two counties have their own internecine conflicts based on historic claims to the English crown, but accent is a sign of which camp you are in. Both are united in their mistrust for and hatred of, southerners. Again, accent comes into play. Generally, southerners think northerners are oiks; northerners think southerners are snobs. Southerners have variations in accent with layers of inbuilt snobbery which will quickly mark out the rich from the poor - and the U from the Non-U - hence, the fear of being mistaken for a cockney. Edith's north London accent would have sounded 'cockney' to George. As a southerner with excellent RP (Received Pronunciation), myself, I have no idea why it matters haha. click for examples and more info.
Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome 1872
Born in Exile - of which George said the hero Godwin Peak 'is myself... one phase of myself' (in a letter to Eduard Bertz, May 20th 1892) is the epitome of this torment of enforced social mobility at a time when there were few ways for a lower middle class boy to rise. Godwin is eventually crippled by his self-loathing and disgust at having to become someone else in order to win the limp tiny hand of Sidwell Warricombe, who didn't give a hoot about his class, but did care about his lying, scheming ways.

Is it possible to say how George became first the over-achieving scholar and then the bullying weak and vacillating creature he was post-Owens? Perhaps the trauma and shame of imprisonment discombobulated his mojo and turned him into a passive-aggressive with deep undercurrents of resentment and frustrated rage. People who don't feel powerful often bully those they believe to be powerless beneath them. Amongst what he saw as the 'inferiors' - such as working class people, servants, children, wives - he could be quite the martinet. Sadly, he seems to have lacked leadership qualities of charisma and dynamism which might have inspired others to willingly follow; generally, 'might was right' to our man, and this was exacerbated by his point of view that the deference of others was his birthright.

For example, take his holiday in Paris and Italy with his German Friend Plitt. George invited himself along and then spent the trip telling his Diary what a rubbish travel companion Plitt was turning out to be. He moaned about all sorts of trivial things - see Commonplaces 20 and 21 for more. George could not bring himself to say what he thought and so he had to stew in his own juices. Plitt seems to have been a much more authentic communicator, which George wrongly attributes to vulgarity and stupidity.

And, then there is his bullying treatment of Marianne aka Nell; when she failed to comply with his house arrest orders he locked her up. This was for his good, not hers. And when she became an invalid he dictated she must live apart in a separate dwelling when her epilepsy confounded him once too often. Not because she wanted to live alone or with totally inappropriate strangers, but because George wanted to have her out of the way. Of course, he no doubt dressed it up as 'wanting the best for her' - to her face.
Mr Gissing Meets Miss Underwood and Won't Take 'No' For an Answer. 
Edith was also a victim of his Darwinian need to dominate. I suspect in the late 1890s George carefully redacted the Diaries to reduce future censure when posterity read of his increasing unreasonable and obsessional rage at Edith's failure to come up to his snobby standards. With Gabrielle in France, when he was reviewing his Life's achievements, did he read the picky, spiteful, hate-fuelled entries and decide to edit out the worst of it? He claims he didn't make thorough entries because they would all be the same, but that's nonsensical as he was such a moaner, and needed a sympathetic listening board, and the Diary was the one friend on tap who wouldn't talk back. HG Wells had once told him not to be so hard on Edith and to treat her better; Marianne's friends had made a similar plea in response to his neglect of her. After George's death, a darker side to our man began to come into focus - more of that another time! No wonder George thought maybe he needed a better version of his life for posterity to absorb. Was Ryecroft supposed to balance the yin/yang thing and show the old bully was a softie inside? If so, it didn't work - well, not on me. And not on HG Wells.


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