Jeremy Harte, Bourne Hall Museum
Curator, has written an article on George Gissing's stay in Epsom, without being aware of Brian Bouchard's interest in the subject. I feel that these accounts complement each other so I am very happy to include both on this page.
George Gissing in Epsom
Date and source unknown
When George Gissing arrived in Epsom in 1894, his domestic life was in tatters. Many people knew the young novelist through his books, which recount the personal and commercial struggles of the lower middle classes, as well as the proletarians on whom they depended. Few were acquainted with him personally, since George had cut off contact with the literary world after his disastrous second marriage. Reading his diaries, you wonder - as so often in the biographies of great writers - how someone with such a profound insight into other people's lives could make such a hash of his own.
The son of a Wakefield family, George went to university at Manchester, where he took with Nell Harrison, a young prostitute, and in a gallant attempt to keep her off the streets he began to give her money - first his own, and then other people's. This was soon found out, and after a month in prison George was shipped to America where he began a new life as a journalist. Returning to England in 1877, he married Nell, who gave up prostitution and became an alcoholic instead. They separated in 1883 and she died five years later.
A stream of novels brought George to fame but he retained a profound lack of self-worth. Dismissing the possibility of marriage with someone from his own background, he determined to marry 'a decent work-girl' and in 1891 he introduced himself to the first young woman he met on the streets. She was Edith Underwood of Camden Town, and George was convinced that she was so 'gentle and pliable' that, once she had got used to country life and been trained out of her working-class accent, she would make an ideal wife. Edith thought otherwise. By the time they were married, in 1891, it was obvious that things were going to go wrong.
At first the Gissings lived in Exeter, where their first child, Walter, was born. He was about the only thing that his parents had in common, and Walter was a demanding baby. The complete isolation from family and friends became too much for them, and they moved back to the London suburbs. 'More than half the misery of life is due to the ignorance and childishness of women', wrote George. Edith didn't write to anyone: but she said a lot, and loudly. And it is in this state of things that we find them moving, in September 1894, to Worple Road.
'Eversley', at no. 48, was the future home. George, characteristically, seems to have decided on the property without asking his wife: he took a yearly tenancy, at £40, which was a bargain as 'it has a bathroom, of which I had begun to despair' (the Gissing diaries are full of detail, if a bit glum). Saturday 15th was to be their first day in the new home. The night before, George came down to supervise the arrival of the furniture, hire a charwoman, and slept overnight at the Spread Eagle, which was charging 7 shillings for B&B ('too much').
For a while everything was busy: unpacking eleven crates of books, putting up curtains, doing a little gardening, and stretching out in the hard-won bath. First the looking-glass wouldn't fit into the new dressing table, and then it would. Edith went shopping in London and George took long walks on Epsom Common and the Downs, trying to think up stories. Walter (aged 2) liked Epsom. 'In the morning we ran about the garden for an hour… In the afternoon we walked about Ashley Road, much engaged in looking at a steam-roller at work'. Walter slept better and his breathing had improved, which his father put down to Squire's Chemical Food and Cod Liver Oil, although the let-up in the war between his parents was probably a factor. Edith was more or less trapped at home. George was in London every week, negotiating with editors and meeting up with enthusiasts, such as Clara Collet who had researched working-class life in the East End and was therefore interested in the earlier Gissing novels. George mentioned that he'd like her to come down to Epsom; it didn't seem to occur to him that his friendship with a young female admirer might set Edith's nerves on edge.
The calm didn't last. On October 10th came the sound of shouting from the kitchen, where Edith was letting fly at the maid-of-all-work about some dirty boots. George had hired the girl ('she is very hard working') and given Edith orders not to interfere, but that went for nothing. Edith was starting to snap at Walter, too. The autumn weather set in: 'gloomy, cold'. George spent his days stomping over the Downs, returning home in the evening and sitting up till midnight working on stories for the popular magazines. Even this was beset with pitfalls. One evening 'a maddening drum and fife band, planting itself before the house at 8 o'clock, compelled me out in a rage, and I sent them packing'. The band don't seem to have taken kindly to this, and four weeks later the diary says: 'Still pestered by the blackguard drum and fife band. They play to-night in the garden of the house opposite, and defy me from private ground, the people of the house encouraging them. I went again to the police station, but found there is no help'.
November passed in alternate fog and gloom, although Walter was pleased with the copy of The Owl and the Pussycat which got on his third birthday. His father was also rising in the world of literature and found himself increasingly sought after at London gatherings. He met up with other authors, as well as publishers and guests like the feminist Eliza Orme, who pulled out her cigar and smoked with the men. It made a change from Worple Road, where a week before Christmas the (formerly) hard-working maid had done a runner - 'good riddance' - so that Edith decided to hire a daily help instead. Walter went down with a cold but was still delighted with the Christmas tree and crackers, and with the blazing plum pudding. Edith went to bed early with a cold of her own, and George sat up looking at the fire.
By January 1895, Scott's Emulsion had worked a complete cure and Walter was outdoors again - 'greatly astonished at seeing a frozen pond'. George bought Edith a shawl for her birthday. They looked after a greenfinch which George had rescued from the icy weather in one of his walks through Ashtead Park. It was a bitterly cold spring, and even indoors the water froze in the cisterns. After the weather had improved they all went to Eastbourne, but this was not a success - wet days, damp sheets in the lodgings, and too many changes on the trains. The only consolation was to find on returning that Annie the new servant 'had given the house a genuine spring cleaning from top to bottom'. And Edith remained baffled by her husband's isolation in his study, and by the proliferating bookcases. To cap it all, he would talk about spending days at a library in Bloomsbury. Why should he want to do that, when he had so many books at home?
A postcard view of Ashtead Park
On April 17th the first cuckoo was heard on the Common. Soon afterwards Edith received an invitation - from Clara Collet - asking her to come and stay for a few days at Richmond. George wrote back on her behalf explaining that Edith couldn't come as she was no good at making friends and didn't want to leave home. For a few glorious weeks the weather improved, and then it was 'very hot… oppressively hot'. This was the year of George Moore's novel Esther Walters, with its vividly imagined scenes of Derby Day. A pre-publication copy had arrived at Worple Road: George found 'some pathos and power in latter part, but miserable writing'. Now fiction had turned into reality and the crowd was streaming up Ashley Road. Writing was impossible. 'Did nothing, oppressed by atmosphere of the races', wrote George on Tuesday. Next day, 'as blackguardism reached its height, I went off by train to Bookham, walked thence to Box Hill, and back through Norbury Park'. Two months later George was back at Box Hill, this time as a guest of the Omar Khayyam Club in the company of George Meredith and Thomas Hardy; a completely different atmosphere from the house at Epsom.
Summer holidays in Yarmouth were dampened by a quarrel with the landlady, who impounded the Gissings' furniture and wouldn't release it until compelled by the police. Edith, who was three months pregnant, had to walk back to the town until a cab could pick her up. Then when they returned to Epsom, storms had blown the creeper off the front of the house and flattened the sunflowers. But the gardener soon saw to that, and in August George, Edith and Walter went for an outing on Box Hill, together for once. Servants didn't stay long in the household, and they were reduced to hiring young girls, who were less picky.
George, soon to be a father of two, was thinking of the future. He wrote to Clara Collet, discussing her offer to act as guardian for the children if he died? Collet wrote back explaining gently that Edith could hardly be left out of this arrangement, and took the opportunity to come down to Epsom and have a talk with her. She admired George as a novelist, but she sympathised with Edith as a woman. Couldn't they get on a bit better? George wrote back to explain that this was simply impossible because Edith wouldn't do as she was told. If only she would run the house smoothly, let her husband sit upstairs writing, and stop making such a fuss. 'All Edith has to do is not to quarrel with her bread and butter'. And why, with an educated husband to tell her what she should and should not like, would she persist in having such awfully vulgar tastes? Why, at Yarmouth she had even taken Walter down 'to hear the blackguard singers on the beach' - despite strict instructions to the contrary. The boy was humming the tunes for days afterwards, proof that his mind was infected. 'No man could, or ought to, endure such behaviour', George fumed. And that hour of chilly musical rebellion on the beach seems to have been Edith's last stand.
Now it was time for Walter to start his schooling; he was only 3 years old, but there may have been plans to get him out of the house when the new baby came. On a September afternoon George 'took boy to see his schoolmistress, Miss Taylor, in Ashley Road. Unfortunately she is rather deaf, but seems a nice woman. She gave the boy two apples'. Walter came back from his first day at school with flying colours, having been perfectly good despite (or because of) seeing a little girl in his class have her hands caned for some offence. Two months later he went down with a childhood infection - 'doctor thinks it is not scarlatina' - and George prepared to convert his study into a second bedroom. Walter slowly recovered; presents of ham, eggs, and chicken came from Rosalind Travers in Weybridge, another admirer of the Gissing novels who had become a friend of the family. The sanitary inspector was called for to make sure that there was nothing wrong about the house, but reported that he 'could see no sign of defective drainage'.
It must have been some more intangible atmosphere that made Eversleigh an uncomfortable house: at all events, servants took against the place. In November 'the useless idiot woman named Sparkes happily left', and in her place came Mrs. Mantle from a farm at Leatherhead, where details of the Gissing ménage seem not to have been known. For two weeks all went well: 'meals are well cooked and tasty; everything kept clean'. Then the exemplary Mrs. Mantle declared herself dissatisfied and left. The Gissings' second Christmas at Epsom was not a success, featuring 'a small joint of wretched beef, with a plum pudding like lead and a leathery mince tart'. But Walter played with his new toys, and Edith liked her scent.
'Gloom', wrote George in January 1896, presumably referring to the weather, and then 'Gloom. Day wasted'. The long-suffering Collet wrote offering to find them a maid. On the 17th Ethel's waters broke; by this stage they had no servant at all, and for once it was George who 'got up early, lit fires, got breakfast, peeled potatoes etc'. Three days later an urgent call brought in Dr. Beaumont and the nurse, Mrs. Barcock of Woodcote Rise. After a short labour, Alfred Charles Gissing was born.
And still there were problems. Edith's milk wouldn't come; the new baby was hungry and noisy; Mrs. Barcock turned out to be 'an old idiot'. It is not clear whether Edith had post-natal depression, or whether she was just depressed all the time; her husband noted a 'familiar mood of surly revolt and anger against everyone'. Father and son sat downstairs reading Hans Christian Andersen, not perhaps the best choice of book for a traumatised little boy at a difficult time. After 'The Tin Soldier', Walter looked sad; at the close of 'The Ugly Duckling' he burst into tears, and could only be consoled with difficulty.
Edith got better, and was soon strong enough to feed the baby and quarrel with the nurse. George and Walter kept out of the house whenever the weather was fine, walking to Ashtead Park and the Downs. Writing short stories was a gruelling business - the editors wanted them to be light and cheerful, a mood which was hard to sustain. Then in February, on the same day that Alfred was taken for his first outing, the gasfitters arrived to connect Eversley to the main. This took a week, until at last a man was sent to test the gas pipes, which he did by holding a candle next to the joins. In the resulting explosion, the drawing-room ceiling was completely blown out, a chair and some bedclothes set alight, and the water supply broken open, while young Walter (who had been watching it all with great interest) had his hair singed. Everybody had to move to rooms in Dorking while the damage was made good.
Within a month the plasterers had finished repairs and the house was as new. Unfortunately this was not true of the Gissings' marriage, which had reached a state of 'utter misery'. Another servant fled, sending a message that she was ill and couldn't leave a friend's house. On April 8th George felt he had had enough, scooped up Walter and got on a train to Wakefield, where his sister was prepared to put them up for a while. Walter, who was not benefiting from this regime, sat in the bath and screamed. Undeterred, George went on a walking holiday in North Wales ('beautiful day… a day of much pleasure') and came back a week later to Wakefield, noting that the boy was glad to see him. Then he wrote to Edith, explaining that it would be much better for her son to leave her and live in Yorkshire instead. 'I shall pay £10 a quarter, and of course cost of clothing'.
He arrived back at Epsom a day after the letter. 'Of course a terrible scene with E; won't bear speaking of'. But he was sure he had done the right thing, and wrote to Clara Collet explaining as much. After that, things were quiet around the house. George did a little gardening and found himself making progress with the next novel. Letters full of news came from Wakefield, including little missives from Walter, and George wrote back with accounts of his walks and a few pressed flowers. Edith wrote to him too - confused, tumultuous letters saying how pleased she is he is enjoying himself, how angry that he doesn't need her, and how pleased again that he is not a bad boy, ending with 'many kisses and no beatings'. Walter kept his mother's letters, doodling on one of them with a picture of a woman holding a stick. Then the servants wanted to leave Eversleigh - two at once this time - and the sound of angry voices echoed again from the kitchen. George rushed downstairs, paid the girls off and agreed to get a daily charwoman in instead.
The summer holidays were approaching. With a sinking heart, George took rooms at Mablethorpe. The pace of writing slowed down; he blamed hot weather, but the impending family reunion may also have been a cause. Walter was glad to be with both his parents again, but soon found himself taking sides first with one and then the other. This was not the son that George had anticipated. 'The poor child is ill-tempered, untruthful, precociously insolent, surprisingly selfish'. (He was only 5). They went walking on the sand-dunes and Walter was fascinated by everything mechanical - sluices, windmills and so on. Not a budding novelist then, either.
Back in Epsom, George settled into a steady routine of writing. He was still a great walker; when a friend telegrammed to announce that he was walking over from Guildford, George put down his pen and set out to meet on the road. They caught up with each other at Leatherhead, and both walked back to Epsom, but there could be no question of accommodating a guest in the house; he stayed instead at the Fox (soon to be renamed the Ladas).
By October, little Alfred was pulling himself up on the furniture and trying to walk. 'On the whole, a good child', wrote George approvingly, 'very easy to manage'. Then came a letter from Collet, saying that she had been to see Walter and the family at Wakefield. Could she come down and talk about it? 'This created an uproar in the house - rage and fury'. Edith, whose tolerance for this relationship had reached breaking point, drove her husband out into the rain, where he walked to Ewell (it hardly seemed worth waiting for a train) and then telegraphed to meet his friend up in London. After that, it was hard to return home. George walked out whenever it was fine; in November he went through Nonsuch Park, which he had not seen before.
H.G. Wells had just moved to Worcester Park, and that December George, always fond of socialising with other authors, went over to see him. It was a friendly house ('his wife a nice woman') and he stayed until 11.00. Christmas came, but without much fuss; Walter was still in Wakefield, and Alfred played with the toy pussycat that came from his relatives, but George was soon glad of the chance to walk over to Cheam. January brought fog and rain, 'ceaseless quarrel and wretchedness'. Wells' house at Heatherleigh was a beacon of domesticity. Next month the servant girl, who had lasted ten months, was about to leave until brought round by an offer of higher wages. George sourly recorded his success at bargaining with a fifteen-year-old 'gutter-child'. Dr. Beaumont gave him a check-up, and there was bad news: phthisis in one lung. Edith was unsympathetic. Why had he married her at all if he was going to turn out an invalid who couldn't take care of his family?
And at that point the diary breaks down. In the middle of February 1897 George walked out the door, took a train to Budleigh Salterton, and sat on the Devon sands in search of health, having totally abandoned any attempt at living with his wife. Walter came down for the summer holidays, ran around on the hills and got himself a tan. Wells and his wife arrived on their new tandem bicycle and took lodgings so he could be with his friend. That was followed by an open invitation to Heatherlea in Worcester Park: 'at any hour or season he may find convenient, he will be fed and given drink, tea, lemonade, or alcoholic fluids as he may prefer, and he will be conversed with in a genial but respectful tone…'. Meanwhile, Edith was terrified. She was alone with a baby, no family and no possible source of income; her husband was now distant physically as well as mentally; and what guarantee was there that he would support her? Eliza Orme came down from London, ostensibly to arrange for forwarding editorial proof and letters, but in fact to persuade Edith to stay put. George wrote to Clara Collet to say how happy he was all on his own, and got back a letter with some sharp some truths; even friendship has its limits. On the first day of June George returned to Epsom, noted with relief that Alfred was plump and well, and began plotting his escape.
There was one more summer holiday to get through. On a hot July day the Gissings struggled from Epsom to King's Cross, where George found seats in two carriages (one for himself, one for Edith and Alfred). They had taken rooms at Bolton Castle, where they met up with Walter. At first Edith liked it - it was so nice to be somewhere new - but the boys were a nuisance. The food was bad, and country people didn't empty their privies. Still, Alfred was a darling. He could recognise the animals in picture books, and came each night for a kiss. But Walter was quarrelling with his mother now, and seemed to be turning into a scruff. George had begun clinically writing down Edith's every outburst, at first in the diary, and then in a pocket-book as events happened. Sometimes he asked Walter to quote words as a witness. Things could hardly have got much worse.
On September 14th, George bought a portmanteau for storing his papers. The same day, he received an offer of help from Eliza Orme. Closer acquaintance with Edith had weakened her instincts of sisterhood, and she was now ready to help smooth the break-up of the marriage. Edith and Alfred could go and live with her instead of taking lodgings; that seemed best, and it could be done for £50 a quarter. After that it was time to pack the books (15 cases of them) and the furniture. The removal van arrived on the 17th, and by 1.30 everything was stowed away. Edith - raging to the end - accompanied her husband to the station, where they took the 2.59, the wife changing trains for Tulse Hill and the husband going on to Victoria. And so, after three traumatic years, the Gissing connection with Epsom was at an end.
Jeremy Harte © 2011
Paul Delany, George Gissing: A Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2008).
George Gissing, London and the Life of Literature in late Victorian England: The Diary of George Gissing. Novelist, ed. Pierre Coustillas (Harvest, Hassocks, 1978).
Gillian Tindall, The Born Exile: George Gissing (Temple Smith, London, 1974).