‘An Old Maid’s Triumph’ by George Gissing: Short Story Analysis
We remember George Gissing because of his most famous work New Grub Street. I especially think of him as a writer who blends hard work with misery in his written works. He was a man who had faced hardships, and this is shown clearly in this short story which to me is more of a character sketch, as my second favorite writer Ruskin Bond (the writer from the hills of Mussoorie), would say in his essays. ‘An Old Maid’s Triumph’ is a work that is penned in a form of a subtle message to the readers of Gissing’s time about one of his favorite topics, which is women suffrage and feminism. Miss Hurst, in this story, has served as a governess to young people for a whole thirty-year-period. She is the epitome of austerity, self-refinement, a disciplinarian, and a person who enjoys a sort of ‘somber cheerfulness’. She is basically what everyone in today’s world would consider as being an anomaly, exactly how the Victorian era saw its single and unmarried women. Since Miss Hurst has not married, she is deemed as a bother to the society in which she lives. Indeed, in her time, there were institutions present to cater to single independent women. Even her soon to be ex-employers the Fletchers mention this in the first part of the sketch. Gissing in this sketch paints such a stark picture of early Victorian feminism that a reader wonders whether being a scrupulous miser, given to extreme forms of self-denial throughout a thirty- year career, and being stingy, is a ‘triumph’ or not.
Miss Hurst was in the current situation fifty-eight years of age. She had never married. She had always been one of those women who consider themselves to be the epitome of ‘upright’ behavior. She now is too old to teach the young and so was to retire. This is so ironic and so different from women’s situation today, or is it? Even today sexism and gender bias are present in its urban as well as rural forms. A woman is only regarded as worthy to be taken note of in certain societies if she is ‘attached’ to a man, the ‘patriarchy’ in any way. A woman is either identified as someone’s sister, daughter, wife, or mother. But what about people like Miss Hurst who seem to have had no one to call her own, what then? Do we stop respecting their status in society? Was this situation only predominant in Victorian England or is it raising its ugly hood even in our day and time? Single women are not looked on with respect if they are promiscuous. Single men on the other hand when they are promiscuous are seen as sexy men or very attractive; the more fun they have, the more does society applaud them. Not so with women. Not so with Miss Hurst. Note to what level she has deprived herself of comforts for the past thirty years, such as traveling to places she liked, books, and comfortable lodgings to live in. She bore it all patiently because she wanted to retire as an independent woman with an annual income of fifty-two pounds, which is 20 shillings a week back then. Was this freedom or was it the cage that Victorian society has placed around single-independent women? Notice in the sketch how she longs to be independent of others, indicative that she didn’t have the best of times as a governess. Would 20 shillings a week do for a week? Would it? Notice her miserly tendencies where she even never donated a lot to the church coffers or where she stayed in horrible lodgings. She is simple, homely, but not a spend-thrift. She saves for her retirement devotedly, fifteen pounds a year. She is wise enough to know her capabilities and shortcomings; she has no pride in her or any misconception about herself. She is aware that she won’t be able to meet the demands of a new generation of young students and so is ready to retire. She feels doubly rewarded by the cheque gifted to her by the Fletchers for her service. They look upon her with pity. They see her as a lowly creature, but she has self-esteem and confidence in her faculties. There is so much to admire about Miss Hurst, the governess, and yet we wonder: was her life a life? Saving up every pound for a life to live again, saving every shilling. Maybe it is freedom. At least she is independent and can look after herself which in my mind makes Miss Hurst, the woman who has repressed all her desires throughout her life, as a winner. This is certainly a ‘triumph’ for a single woman but, it need not be this way. We have retained a lot of our fickle-minded and very sexist proprieties concerning women, especially single independent women. I have always been proud of being a single independent woman devoted to teaching, writing, and reading. I have a lot of views where this story is concerned but the most important of them happens to be that: ‘everyone, it’s high time you stop telling women what they are supposed to do and not do.’ We are capable of looking after ourselves and we don’t need you, period!
Here are some takeaways from today’s very thought-provoking and highly feminist sketch:
- The level of repressed feelings and desires which brings out the empathy of the wiser of us and the sympathy of the fools among us.
- The sad fact in the Victorian period that a hundred pounds saved by a single man would have yielded more to him than for a single woman. This troubled Miss Hurst a lot in this story, and you should also be troubled by it. So, then on whose side was George Gissing on when he made the statement about the hundred pounds?
- She considers herself not to be a ‘beauty’ but a ‘homely’ person. It’s more than obvious that this is far from the truth because even in today’s society, a woman who is not married is always considered not to be a beauty or is deemed very ‘homely’. It’s like you are trying to describe a piece of furniture than a human being!
- Miss Hurst considers the reason for her having saved so much money in the past thirty years is because of ‘old fashioned piety’, indicative of a very austere lifestyle choice.
- You can see throughout the story of a life spent only to save for a rainy day, quite the life George Gissing had lived in his days.
- The title is suggestive that she is a winner, but by calling Miss Hurst an ‘old maid’ when she was only fifty-eight years old is highly evocative of many things. It indicates a sort of slap-stick ‘sick’ humor to us as well as down-right meanness. Very indicative that even when women ‘win’ they are still mocked by society.
- Her major fear in life was basically about destitution – being left alone at the mercy of others.
I love the works of George Gissing. He, according to me, is one of the most underrated writers of the Victorian era. I’ve read a lot of his works and will review them for you in due time. This short story or rather character sketch was a thought-provoking read indeed. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, and author interviews, then you can visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in buying my books, then visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
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