09 January 2014

Review: Demos: A Story of English Socialism by George Gissing

Trade paperback, 480 pages
Published 2011 (originally 1886)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2013
Demos: A Story of English Socialism
by George Gissing

This book is about a rabble-rousing, working-class socialist who suddenly comes into money and thus gets the opportunity to put his dream socialist utopia into effect. However, money and power corrupt and he begins a slow moral decline. Like a lot of Victorian novels, it starts slowly, but it all turns out to have been necessary-- having established his players, Gissing can then upset them to great effect. As the socialist's marriage disintegrates, it's a very perceptive depiction of the complications of marital discord. Though the husband is very definitely at fault, Gissing shows how each partner's action inform the others, and you remain strangely sympathetic with the main character. It's a potent look at how snobbery can undo all of us. Or rather it would be, if Gissing's classism didn't occasionally rear its head, telling you that the problem isn't money, but when uncultured folks get hold of money. Ugh. As if rich people aren't capable of being vain and cruel.

The riot at the ending is a brutal tour de force (the title gives you some sense of where it is all going, as demos is Greek for "people," but is meant to evoke "demon") and the climax is perfect. This is followed by an utterly implausible and awful marriage match being presented as natural and fitting because of course a good intra-class marriage will fix everything, but I guess not even great writers can escape convention as much as we might like them to.

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