I was introduced to George Gissing’s novel The Nether World during my M.A. I had never read Gissing before so wasn’t sure what to expect and was completely charmed by the unexpected heroine of the piece Pennyloaf (Penelope) Candy.
Pennyloaf is a poor needle woman who lives in Shooters’Gardens,( one of the worst slums in the novel) with her violent father and alcoholic mother. Our first encounter with the novel’s heroine is inauspicious as she is described in less than flattering terms:
She was a meagre, hollow-eyed bloodless girl of seventeen, yet her features had a certain charm-that dolorous kind of prettiness which is often enough seen in the London needle-slave. Her habitual look was one of meaningless surprise
The fawn-like Pennyloaf seems at the mercy of those around her, she stumbles wide eyed and innocent into a marriage with Bob Hewett which leads to complete misery. This marriage although starting off well, later resembles that of Pennyloaf’s parents. Bob succumbs to alcohol (much like Pennyloaf’s mother Maria) he embarks on a fling with the malign Clem Peckover, falls into criminal activity and then puts Pennyloaf and their children through period of neglect and severe privation. In the final mirroring of the Candy marriage he beats Pennyloaf.
It would be easy for Pennyloaf to fall into the same pattern of alcohol addiction as her mother, yet she does not. However it is apparent that the conditioning exists within Pennyloaf for addictive behaviour as can be seen in her indulgent eating of treacle:
Treacle she purchased now and then, but only as a treat when her dinner had cost less than usual; she did not venture to buy more than a couple of ounces at a time, knowing by experience that she could not resist this form of temptation, and must eat and eat till all was finished.
That Pennyloaf is cognisant of her addictive tendency gives her restraint all the more pathos, her love of treacle would not damage (except perhaps dentally) her or her family yet she shows such willpower and determination not to follow in her mother’s footsteps. However, when she is profoundly miserable she uses her mother’s addiction (illustrating her cognisance that to follow her mother’s path would viewed as a fall) as leverage to elicit sympathy and support by declaring to Jane Snowdon:
I’ll go an’ do like mother does-I will! I will! I’ll put my ring away, an’ i’ll go an’ sit all night in the public ‘ouse! It’s what all the others does, an’ I’ll do the same. I often feel i’m a fool to go on like this. I don’t know what I live for, p’r’aps he’ll be sorry when I get run in like mother.
It is clear that this is an idle threat because when Jane Snowdon in turn threatens the removal of her friendship from Pennyloaf, as she could not be friends with a person know to frequent the public house, Pennyloaf laughs and the moment is broken, the bombast melts like snow. What this episode reveals is that Pennyloaf is dependent upon Jane and her ‘words of strength’ and that her declaration was no more than attempt to extract the succour she needed. In short Pennyloaf, as would anyone in her circumstances, sometimes needs reassurance and support from another human being. Her threat is not evidence of a weakening of her will but a desperate need to be shown humanity.
At the end of the novel, after Bob’s death, Pennyloaf rises phoenix like from the ashes of her former misery and want. With an acquaintance she starts a business recycling old clothes to sell and manages to provide for herself and her remaining child. Pennyloaf’s trajectory through life is astonishing. Despite her life circumstances conspiring to drag her into the mire of slum life Pennyloaf emerges untainted and ends the novel as an industrious and contented character:
And she talked, she talked-where was there such a talker as Pennyloaf nowadays when she once began?