EESE 8/2002

Fictions of Empire:
Imperial Vision in George Gissing's Later Fiction,
with special regard to Henry Ryecroft (1903)

Ralph Pordzik

In his study The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction (1956), Mario Praz described the widespread movement towards the "democratic art" of the late-nineteenth century in the following words:

Lacking heroes and heroines, attention becomes concentrated on the details of common life, and these aspects of life are closely studied; the most ordinary things, by dint of being looked at with intensity, acquire an important significance, and intimate beauty of their own, more profound for the very reason that it is muted. (375)

This tendency to transform minute realistic observation into representations that enliven the ordinary and irradiate the commonplace worlds with "intimate beauty" Praz adequately termed "Intimism" (374). To him, the novel which employed this method to intensify the reader's gaze or to produce some brand of intimacy between reader and text, presented the most suitable approach to the modern age and the new perspectives and literary techniques it required.

George Gissing's Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, a rather neglected late work of this underestimated Victorian writer, can be seen as a rare instance in this process of gradually transforming realist modes of writing in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Being the financially most successful book Gissing ever published, it is also the most private and intimate of his longer works.1 Written without the keen sense of grudge and agitated depression that mark his realistic novels, it presents Gissing's alter ego Ryecroft as a man sufficient unto himself, a loner and enthusiastic reader content with living permanently in a little cottage in Devon:

The dark days are drawing to an end. Soon it will be spring once more; I shall go out into the fields, and shake away these thoughts of discouragement and fear which have lately too much haunted my fireside. For me, it is a virtue to be self-centred; I am much better employed, from every point of view, when I live solely for my own satisfaction, than when I begin to worry about the world. (Ryecroft, 288)

The real Gissing was said to be "grieved" by his enforced absence from the British Museum Reading room (Collis, xxiii); his fictional pendant Ryecroft, however, is satisfied with spending his remaining days in the countryside, reading, musing, taking long walks - and contemplating England's influential political role in the future clash of European nations! Indeed, it is curious to note that this privatising gentleman who wants to "spend the sunny half of a twelvemonth in wandering about the British Isles" (104) is at the same time a not wholly immodest warden of his country's achievements, a defender of Britain's international supremacy who registers with indignation the gradual decline of the country's imperial and institutional power. One is surprised to find so many clichés, discords and contradictions amassed in a personal book written by an author well-known for his critical acumen, thoroughly researched novels and carefully drawn plots. It is disconcerting, e.g., to hear one of the most committed critics of social injustice in England maintain that no "country in the world can show such multifarious, vigorous and cordial co-operation, in all ranks, but especially, of course, among the intelligent, for ends which concern the common good" (Ryecroft, 125). It is equally discouraging to find him celebrating Queen Victoria's "Jubilee" as "an occasion of sadness; it meant that so much was over and gone - so much of good and noble, the like of which the world will not see again" (Ryecroft, 269). Obviously, Ryecroft's desire to circumvent the forces of the modern world and to find refuge in a private idyll is counterbalanced by his need for community and for a powerful nation-state protecting the privileges and rights of its citizens. He doesn't seem to be aware of these contradictions and 'blind spots' in his own narrative, however. Although he constantly stirs up his readers against English self-righteousness (274) and "Pharisaism" (275), against the power of the military (57) and the humiliation caused by poverty and destitution, his narrative finally expresses as well as enacts a longing for the English mentality and "moral superiority" (276), the empiricism of the liberal tradition, and the average Englishman's conscious "deal[ing] with things as they are" (Ryecroft, 132). The Englishman, according to Ryecroft, believes that

what he has done is pleasing to God and beneficial to mankind. He may have lied and cheated for every sovereign he possesses; he may have polluted his life with uncleanness; he may have perpetrated many kinds of cruelty and baseness - but all these things he has done against his conscience, and [...] he will make atonement for them in the way suggested by such faith as he has[.] [...] He is, if you like, a Pharisee; [...] he is Pharisee absolute with regard to the foreigner. And there he stands, representing an Empire. (Ryecroft, 274-75)

This attitude is intriguing for the fact that it consolidates the very sovereignty of the Victorian frame of mind - its expansionist spirit and self-validating social power - which it seems to question. It purports to think beyond the intellectually limited space of fin-de-siècle political debates only to reinscribe a typically insulated view of power, religion and morality. A reason for this could be that Gissing invented Ryecroft as a thinly disguised persona for voicing some of the deep resentments and frustrations resulting from his own isolated position in late-Victorian culture. Because he had a persistent sense of his own exilic marginality, Gissing wanted to be part of the cultural tradition that appeared to reject him. This conflict led him to deliberately qualify Ryecroft's narrative with the provisionality and ambiguity that came from standing at the very juncture of this capitalist, money-making world with another, more idealistic one. It is certainly no fortuity that the society he evokes in his semi-fictional autobiography exhibits all the major traits of what Benedict Anderson has termed an "imagined community" (Anderson 1983). "Both inherently limited and sovereign" (6), the nation according to Anderson is a fictional construct that exists only in the minds of those who wish to create a particular identity for themselves: it is imagined because the "members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (6). Gissing the artist, impecunious but fastidious, rejected by many as a writer of tedious 'problem novels' and finally leaving England to make a living in the South of France, likewise tried to reinscribe into Ryecroft's account of himself the sense of belonging to a great nation, the sense of communion and solidarity, the institutional success, denied him throughout much of his life. Reading the Private Papers today, in the light of the ongoing revisionism of empire, nation and cultural identity, it is almost impossible not to touch on this often neglected historical dimension of the book.2 As Edward Said argued, convincingly, we "are at a point in our work when we can no longer ignore empires and the imperial context in our studies" (Said 5). And Gissing certainly belonged to those for whom, at the end of the century, the idea of an expanding empire, a 'community of progress', created illusions of security with regard to the returns that would accrue to those who invested in this enterprise at a time of international competition, crisis and strife. This is not to argue that the realities of empire - economic exploitation and colonial disempowerment - are perceptibly in evidence in all his novels; but Gissing reveals himself to have assumed their importance to the situation at home. He accepted that if Britain wanted to make its economic future a long-term and profitable concern, it had to cling to the work ethic and mercantile spirit of late-Victorian entrepreneurial society - "the natural tendencies of English blood" (Ryecroft, 136). Yet this spirit is not separable from its social and imperial basis - it is not floating in a kind of political or ideological void - and Gissing symbolically reflects as well as confirms the process of imperial expansion involving trade, production and consumption that underlies and guarantees this spirit. This is also true of those novels in which Gissing appears to question the practices of empire, such as The Crown of Life (1899). Although the book, taken at surface value, is an indictment of global imperialism and budding militarism, it also takes sides in a world of decreasing professional options and economic manoeuvrability. It defends rather than crosses the already established cultural and national boundaries, making a deliberate move towards the domestic reconnection of estranged social classes and aiming at the restoration of Victorian values and their allegedly "civilizing influence" (Ballard, quoted in Crown, xvii). Its hero, though heroically defending pacifism against chauvinist doctrines, clings fiercely to middle-class notions of individuation, aspiring consciousness and active idealism and thus reveals the validity of the values underpinning the ideology he attacks. At closer inspection, Gissing's later works thus appear to be more implicated in the "rationale for imperialism" (Said) than at first sight they have been. To ignore this conflictual dimension in Gissing's representation of himself and Victorian England would be to miss an essential connection between his work and the historical world to which it belongs.

Gissing's Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and In the Year of Jubilee, like many other narratives of the period,3 make constant references to themselves as somehow participating in England's political and economic expansion, and therefore create a mood that supports and consolidates the practice of empire, though often in an oblique and indirect fashion. Their main purpose is not to raise questions but to keep the nation and the established practices of dominance in place, especially those controlling the relations between rich and poor (e.g. Ryecroft, 135-38). The way in which Ryecroft, e.g., presents the English 'way of life', recalls and parodies, yet ultimately relies on the idea of English superiority with its belief in unlimited opportunities for private and commercial advancement. The following longer passage is an extract from Ryecroft's musings on the occasion of Queen Victoria's "Jubilee":

English monarchy, as we know it, is a triumph of English common sense. Grant that men cannot do without an overlord; how to make that over-lordship consist with the largest practical measure of national and individual liberty? We, at all events, have for a time solved the question. For a time only, of course; but consider the history of Europe, and our jubilation is perhaps justified. [...] Britons are minded for the present that the head of their State shall be called King or Queen; the name is pleasant to them; it corresponds to a popular sentiment, vaguely understood, but still operative, which is called loyalty. The majority thinking thus, and the system being found to work more than tolerably well, what purpose could be served by an attempt at novas res? The nation is content to pay the price; it is the nation's affair. Do we find that countries which have made the experiment are so very much better off than our own in point of stable, quiet government and of national welfare? The theorist scoffs at forms which have survived their meaning, at privilege which will bear no examination, at compromises which sound ludicrous, at submissions which seem contemptible; but let him put forward his practical scheme for making all men rational, consistent, just. Englishmen, I imagine, are not endowed with these qualities in any extraordinary degree. Their strength, politically speaking, lies in a recognition of expediency, complemented by respect for the established fact. One of the facts particularly clear to them is the suitability to their minds, their tempers, their habits, of a system of polity which has been established by the slow effort of generations within this sea-girt realm. They have nothing to do with ideals: they never trouble themselves to think about the Rights of Man.
[...] The Constitutional Compact has been well preserved. Review the record of kingdoms, and say how often it has come to pass that sovereign and people rejoiced together over bloodless victories. (Ryecroft, 130-33)

If Gissing had lived a normal span, he probably would have witnessed the crowds of August 1914 in London and elsewhere, clamouring for war and violence. At a time when the older filaments and institutions were beginning to fray, and when the social pressures of administering English society mounted, Gissing felt the clear need to project the power of the English monarchy backward in time, giving it a history and legitimacy that only tradition and longevity could impart. That this picture is largely drawn with a view to the practical spirit of the liberal tradition is Gissing's own way of acknowledging the fact that during the 1890s and after the 'business of empire', formerly a rather adventurous and often ignominious enterprise, had become the commonsensical 'empire of business' ("expediency", "established fact", etc.) - a useful instrument to conceal the involvement of English capitalism in the ongoing struggle for markets and resources, highlighting the virtues of industriousness and practical efficiency at home. His argument leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign force of 'tradition' (i.e. "Common Sense", 132), "monarchy" and "loyalty", and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion: "To them [i.e. Englishmen], all things considered, it has been of vast service; one may even say that the rest of the world has profited by it not a little" (Ryecroft, 132).

It is important to underline the mobilizing power of the images and traditions brought forth in Ryecroft's account, their romantically coloured quality and, most of all, their being founded on the ideal of good 'common sense': "The Jubilee declares a legitimate triumph of the average man. Look back for threescore years, and who shall affect to doubt that the time has been marked by many improvements in the material life of the English people?" (Ryecroft, 132) Or: "assuredly the average Briton has cause to jubilate; for the progressive features of the epoch are such as he can understand and approve." (Ryecroft, 133) In the context of the renewal of British imperial trade and expansion in the closing years of the century, the liabilities of such essences become clear: they have much to do with the embattled imperial contexts out of which they come and in which they are felt to be necessary. As Ryecroft points out, there is no looking for other alternatives; the system of "Common Sense", its epistemology and politics, has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. In this he seems to agree with Tarrant, a character of Gissing's fine Fin-de-siècle novel In the Year of Jubilee, who chimes in with the universal call for a 'rejuvenation' of British imperial practice:

Before the emancipation of the niggers, the Bahamas flourished wonderfully; now they are fallen to decay, and ruled, so far as I understand it, by a particularly contemptible crew of native whites, who ought to be kicked out into the sea. My friend's father is a man of no energy; he calls himself magistrate, coroner, superintendent of the customs, and a dozen other things, but seems to have spent his time for years in lying about, smoking and imbibing. His son, I'm afraid, waits impatiently for the old man's removal to a better world. He believes there are immense possibilities of trade. (Jubilee, 46-7)

Clearly, it is not the legitimacy of empire which is at stake here but the idleness of the "contemptible" ruling class of white landowners. Their outrageous behaviour and excessive wealth is contrasted with a new generation's assumed propriety and right of inheritance, a generation still trusting in the "immense possibilities of trade". In their view, not to stick to the doctrine of British diligence and perseverance is the fatal flaw which begins to eat away slowly at the heart of empire. They seek to realign the holding of power and privilege abroad with comparable virtues and activities at home; they realize that what assures the economic progress and political balance of one is the efficiency, productivity and regulated discipline of the other. In this manner, references to British overseas possessions are threaded through this and many other Gissing novels; businessmen have connections with the empire, plantations and colonial towns are everywhere a crucial setting, and characters of widely different class origin share an almost philosophical sense of imperial mission. In Born in Exile (1892), e.g., Malkin feels "there is a good deal to be said for going out to the colonies. A man feels he is helping the spread of civilization; and that's something, you know" (Exile, 347). Tarrant, on the other side, would "rather die than drag out his life in one of the new countries" with their "atmosphere of commercialism unrelieved by historic associations" (Jubilee, 165). He ignores the fact that Victorian commercial success is largely founded on the fruits of labour done 'elsewhere'. Here as in other narratives, the empire functions as a codified, if only marginally visible, presence, usefully out there and available for exploitation and subordination through the ruling classes - as all the other characteristic Gissing populations of part-time employees, servants and hack-writers. But while Gissing gives a good deal of attention to these, the reality of those people on whom the economy and policy of empire actually depend is generally overlooked or treated with neglect. This is especially true with regard to Henry Ryecroft, as John Goode has pointed out in his fine study of Gissing's literary work. To him, this late book signifies the final victory of an entrenched provincial consciousness over radical or romantic drives to transcend it:

From a realistic assessment of what oppression means, Ryecroft withdraws from any confrontation with that recognition into a crude, aestheticised version of Young England. It is a very typical moment in Gissing - a dangerous sympathy with the oppressed met with a pessimism which turns itself into the sentimental endorsement of an oppressive system. (Goode, 45).

To some extent the centrality of imperial vision registered by Gissing is effectively disguised by his shifting responsibility to competing empires. Writing with an exclusively English audience in mind, he reprimands other European nations for their aggressive expansiveness while at the same time glossing over the fact of British overseas enterprise and its importance to the process of maintaining wealth and political freedom in England. In his opinion, the affluence of the English middle class is based on a national, collective effort. It is threatened not by the misconduct of British colonial officials but through competing forces such as the "revival [...] of monarchic power based on militarism" (Ryecroft, 56), clearly an allusion to the militarist bureaucracy created by Bismarck in Germany. Britain's answer to this threat is made unmistakeably clear: "Let England be imperilled, and Englishmen will fight; in such extremity there is no choice" (Ryecroft, 56). Certainly, the political leaders of Germany were prejudiced against the global influence of British political institutions, a development that became dangerously noticeable when the country started to build its own powerful fleet. However, this must be seen in relation to the general background of European involvement in world-wide imperial enterprise in the 1880s and 1890s. The years after 1870 saw the 'new imperialism', dominated by the 'scramble for Africa' and colonial expansion in the Near and Far East. J. R. Seeley's The Expansion of England (1883), which Gissing read in March 1895, propagated the concentration and unification of English power all over the world. In addition, the demand for Home Rule in Ireland remained unabated, surviving well into the twentieth century; the months immediately preceding the turn of the century eventually saw the outbreak of the Boer War. All these developments must be taken into account if one wants to understand the general ideas and wider experiences from which Gissing draws support for his project of writing "in praise of things English" (Ryecroft, 243). At any rate, the general legitimacy of western domination is never substantially questioned in his fiction. On account of its ambition to improve and educate man, western culture is superior to all who dare challenge its universal claim for power: "Every one who can think at all sees how slight are our safeguards against that barbaric force in man which the privileged races have so slowly and painfully brought into check" (Ryecroft, 56). Reading this, one immediately thinks of Nancy Lord's reaction when Tarrant, in The Year of Jubilee, tells her about his idea of going to the Bahamas: "A vision of savages flashed before Nancy's mind. She breathed more freely, thinking the danger past" (Jubilee, 47). Again, this appears to insinuate that the "finer hopes of civilization" (Ryecroft, 56) are grounded in the Englishman's loyalty to the British tradition of common sense and the practical and educational virtues connected to it. If any threat to this tradition arises, it will arise from outside the 'splendid isolation' of Great Britain, from those alien forces which go to bring war about without thinking of the coloniser's moral obligation towards others: "Democracy is full of menace to all the finer hopes of civilization, and the revival, in not unnatural companionship with it, of monarchic power based on militarism, makes the prospect dubious enough. There has but to arise some Lord of Slaughter, and the nations will be tearing at each other's throats" (Ryecroft, 56).

All this shows that Gissing situates his work in and derives it from a carefully surveyed territorial "Greater Britain" (John Wolffe). In both Henry Ryecroft and In the Year of Jubilee, we find common values about contest, surmounting odds and obstacles, and patience in showing or explaining how the English perform acts of imperial mastery at home or abroad: "I see the true-born son of England, his vigour and his virtues yet unimpaired. [...] when the insensate cry is loud, the counsel of wisdom overborne, he will hold apart, content with plain work that lies nearest to his hand, building, strengthening, whilst others riot in destruction." (Ryecroft, 290) Not to revolt but "to make it his duty and his service to stand and wait" is the task of the self-professed defender of the Empire (Ryecroft, 290). To a certain degree, Gissing is willing to criticise established authorities on the grounds of their failure to reform but at the same time he depends for his critique on the existing institutions of bourgeois society. Narratives such as Henry Ryecroft exhibit the "global concordance between the domestic and imperial situations" (85) Said has written so eloquently and persuasively about, connecting a late-Victorian global consciousness to local arenas of cultural and economic contest and mapping their respective plots in the master 'texts' or discourses of the imperial centre. I would like to suggest one qualification, however: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell have certainly contributed to shaping the idea of colonial England in such a way as to give it substance, identity and ways of reusable articulation in their work (Said, 70); and part of this idea was the importance of the relationship between 'home' and 'abroad': home was surveyed, evaluated and made known to the public whereas 'abroad' was referred to only en passant, without the immediacy lavished on rural or domestic scenes. In Gissing's work, however, the true-born Englishman's former domicile has already started to give way under the mounting pressures of late Victorian times. Austen's safely protected private world may have been based on an unacknowledged imperial world order4 but at least it was a social milieu deserving the name 'home'; in Gissing's own time, the middle-class writer seems to have been deprived of this privilege. Just as the world of finance and global capital has penetrated the fashionable salon world founded upon it, so the sanctities of domestic life have become mortgaged to the forces of change and social insecurity. In the Year of Jubilee, The Whirlpool, Henry Ryecroft and other late writings explore the operation of these forces in personal life and intensify the "persistent sense of insecurity" (Greenslade, xix) haunting so many late nineteenth-century characters. The quest for domestic peace is undercut by personal tensions, by constant dislocations and relocations in space; social restlessness becomes a universal metaphor to diagnose the consequences of the modern condition (cf. Greenslade, xix). The reassuring sense of really taking part in the larger project of national consolidation is gone: this explains why for Gissing it seems to have become so important to evoke it persistently in the realm of fiction, especially in the scenes of idyllic rural peace and tranquil domesticity which make up large parts of Henry Ryecroft. However, with one vital element of the domestic / imperial 'concordance' gone, the other cannot fail to loose impact and meaning. This means that the entire system of social reference packed into the nineteenth-century novel is also, at least partly, undermined and questioned in its overburdening significance. Like many other narratives of the late-Victorian period, Gissing's books are internally dissonant, a dissonance that arises from their specific relation to and treatment of ideological issues. Far from construing some unified message or meaning, they bear inscribed within them the marks of certain "absences which twist [their] various significations into conflict and contradiction" (Eagleton 89). My reading of Henry Ryecroft has tried to show how a writer derives authority from a system he appears to shun and how he is constantly affected and influenced by the very factors that seem to disturb him. Keeping Ryecroft's ambiguous stance towards imperial power and tradition in mind, it is thus not unreasonable to argue that imperialism and the novel as an artefact of modern English society depend on each other, that the dynamic of modern aesthetics does include "a response to the external pressures on culture from the imperium" (Said 227). Colonialism as a "way of life" (Williams 1980) has survived, while the novel turned into an international forum for social revolt and linguistic experimentation in the twentieth century. Some of this, I feel, has been anticipated by Gissing and is reflected in his peculiar way of translating into narrative consciousness the loss of safety and social stability. The most productive stroke of his later works is their embodiment of alienation and exile in a wide range of different modes: sociological anatomy, domestic realism, semi-autobiography and, very strikingly, forms of insinuating speech, where little is explicated and much is understood. As I would argue, this is an instance of Gissing's ambivalent modernity which to see through with Said's and other postcolonial writers' critical apparatus will finally prove rewarding.


Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. London: Verso, 1991.
Collis, John Stewart. "Introduction" to George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982. vii-xxiv.
Cope, Jackson. "Definition as Structure in Gissing's Ryecroft Papers", Modern Fiction Studies (Summer 1957): 127-40.
Eagleton, Terry. "Ideology and Literary Form", Criticism and Ideology. A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. London: NLB, 1976. 102-61.
Frye, Lowell T. "An Author at Grass: Ironic Intent in Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft", English Literature in Transition 24.1 (1981): 41-51.
Gissing, George. The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. With an introduction by John Stewart Collis. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982.
----. The Crown of Life. With an introduction by Michael Ballard. Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982.
----. Born in Exile. Ed. David Grylls. Everyman Library. London: J. M. Dent, 1993.
----. In the Year of Jubilee. Ed. Paul Delany. Everyman Library. London: J. M. Dent, 1994.
Goode, John. George Gissing: Ideology and Fiction. London: Vision Press, 1978.
Greenslade, William. "Introduction" to George Gissing, The Whirlpool. Ed. William Greenslade. Everyman Library. London: J. M. Dent, 1997. xvii-xxx.
Poole, Adrian. Gissing in Context. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975.
Praz, Mario. The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction (La crisi dell'eroe nel romanzo vittoriano). Translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson. London et al.: Oxford UP, 1956.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. 1993. London: Vintage, 1994.
Williams, William A. Empire as a Way of Life. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980
Wolffe, John. God and Greater Britain. Religion and National Life in Britain and Ireland 1843-1945. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.


1 Private Papers went into four editions in the first year of publication. It was the topic of conversation in London literary circles; and in the English 'colony' St. Jean de Luz in France "it was read by everyone" (Collis, xxiv). The importance of the book has been recognized by Adrian Poole: "the significance [...] consist[s] entirely in the retrospective valuation it confers on his earlier writing. For it is against the voluptuous relaxation of Ryecroft that we should measure the fierce tenacious endurance that characterises Gissing's finest work" (207). See also the useful articles by Cope (1957) and Frye (1981).

2 For a selected list of criticism see the "Bibliography" section in the 1982 Harvester edition, edited John Stewart Collis, xxvii-xxxi. It is curious to note that among the ever-growing number of books, articles and reviews none can be found that explicitly addresses the issue of empire and nation in Gissing's writing.

3 For further details, see in particular Said 1994, pp. 20-35 and 95-116.

4 As Said puts it, "in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park [...] Thomas Bertram's slave plantation in Antigua is mysteriously necessary to the poise and the beauty of Mansfield Park[.] Austen [...] sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half-dozen passing references to Antigua." (69-70).