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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Book Review: The Emancipated by George Gissing

First published in 1890, The Emancipated tells the story of a group of English people who encounter each other in Naples. Miriam Baske, a young and recent widow, has travelled abroad with the Spences to regain her health. Also in the area is artist Ross Mallard, an under-appreciated landscape painter. During his stay, his ward and Miriam's cousin Cecily Doran arrives with her chaperone, Mrs Lessingham. It soon becomes clear that Mallard has feelings for his ward but tries to battle them by remaining aloof from her. Also arriving in Naples, though, is Miriam's brother Reuben who immediately takes a shine to the new and improved Cecily. He is a useless young man who hopes to make a career in literature but has no definite plans. Mallard tries to steer him away from Cecily but this proves hopeless and matters are taken out of his hands.

There are a few things I found difficult with this novel. Firstly, the scope is off-putting. As well as the characters mentioned there are various others we are introduced to, and share the lives and thoughts of, including the Denyers - a mother and her three daughters who she has made as pretentious as possible. They are searching for husbands. Madeline has a potential suitor in another artist, Clifford Marsh, while Barbara is cultivating a friendship with the older Mr Musslewhite. Gissing diverges far too much from his main plot to deal with these situations, and to little effect. The novel would have been better if it had been more compact and focused solely on the thoughts and feelings of the main players. The Denyers do create a neat contrast to Cecily, though, and what happens to Madeline in the second half of the book makes her marginally more interesting.

However, all that said, Cecily is a rather boring character with little personality, especially in the first half of the book. She's a typical nineteenth-century woman, attractive to three of the men in the novel in an almost tiresome way. Far more interesting is Miriam, a Puritan who battles with her religious devotion and struggles at first to immerse herself in the beauty of Italy in case she is betraying her values. Her alteration throughout the novel is measured well by Gissing and she is by far his most successful character in The Emancipated. Ross Mallard is a reasonable creation and it's his growing relationship with Miriam that fascinated me most.

Another issue I had with the book was the fact that the first quarter seems to be a travel guide to Italy. After saying that the beauty of Naples is so well-known that it needn't be described, Gissing spends a lot of time describing it. This means that the story doesn't feel like it gets going until later on. Actually I pinpointed this on the Kindle copy I was reading from as 44% of the way through - at that point I began to want to know what would happen next. This desire didn't kick in properly, however, until three-quarters of the way through the book. I was glad I persevered with it but I know many people probably wouldn't bother.

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