PART THE FIRST BORN IN EXILE - THE summer day in 1874 which closed the annual session of Whitelaw College was marked by a special the wonted distribution of academic ceremony, preceding rewards. At eleven in the morning just as a heavy shower fell from the smoke -canopy above the roaring streets the municipal authorities, educational dignitaries, and prominent burgesses of Kingsmill assembled on an open space before the college to unveil a statue of Sir Job Whitelaw. The honoured baronet had been six months dead. Living, he ...
PART THE FIRST BORN IN EXILE - THE summer day in 1874 which closed the annual session of Whitelaw College was marked by a special the wonted distribution of academic ceremony, preceding rewards. At eleven in the morning just as a heavy shower fell from the smoke -canopy above the roaring streets the municipal authorities, educational dignitaries, and prominent burgesses of Kingsmill assembled on an open space before the college to unveil a statue of Sir Job Whitelaw. The honoured baronet had been six months dead. Living, he opposed the desire of his fellow-citizens to exhibit even on canvas his gnarled features and bald crown but when his modesty ceased to have a voice in the matter, no time was lost in raising a memorial of the great manufacturer, the selfmade millionaire, the borough member in three Parliaments, the enlightened and benevolent founder of an institute which had conferred humane distinction on the money-making Midland town. Beneath such a sky, orations were necessarily curtailed but Sir Job had always been impatient of much talk. An interval of two or three hours dispersed the rain-clouds and bestowed such grace of sunshine as Kingsmill might at this season temperately desire then, whilst the marble figure was getting dried, with soot-stains which already foretold its nigritude of a year hence, again streamed towards the college a varied multitude, official, parental, pupillary. The students had nothing distinctive in their garb, but here and there flitted the cap and gown of Professor or lecturer, signal for doffing of beavers along the line of its progress. Among the more deliberate of the throng was a slender, upright, ruddy-cheeked gentleman of middle age, accompanied by his wife and a daughter of sixteen. On alighting from a carriage, they first of all directed their steps towards the statue, conversing together with pleasant animation. The father Martin Warricombe, Esq. of Thornhaw, a small estate some five miles from Kingsmill, had a countenance suggestive of engaging qualities genial humour, mildness, a turn for meditation, perhaps for study. His attire was informal, as if he disliked abandoning the freedom of the country even when summoned to urban ceremonies. He wore a grey felt hat, and a light jacket which displayed the straightness of his shoulders. Mrs. Warricombe and her daughter were more fashionably equipped, with taste which proclaimed their social standing. Save her fresh yet delicate complexion the lady had no particular personal charm. Of the young girl it could only be said that she exhibited a graceful immaturity, with perchance a little more earnestness than is common at her age her voice, even when she spoke gaily, was seldom audible save by the person addressed. Coming to a pause before Sir Job, Mr. Warricombe put on a pair of eyeglasses which had dangled against his waistcoat, and began to scrutinise carefully the sculptured lineaments. He was addressing certain critical remarks to his companions when an interruption appeared in the form of a young man whose first words announced his relation to the group. I say, youre very late Therell be no getting a decent seat, if you dont mind. Leave Sir Job till afterwards. The statue somehow disappoints me, observed his father, placidly. Oh, it isnt bad, I think, returned the youth, in a voice not unlike his fathers, save for a note of excessive self-confidence. He lookedabout eighteen his comely countenance, with its air of robust health and habitual exhilaration, told of a boyhood passed amid free and joyous circumstances. It was the face of a young English plutocrat, with more of intellect than such visages are wont to betray the native vigour of his temperament had probably assimilated something of the modern spirit...
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Just before publication in 1892, George Gissing changed the title of his novel to the evocative "Born in Exile" from the name of its primary character, the difficult, complex anti-hero, Godwin Peak. Although written after Gissing had made a name for himself with "New Grub Street" and other books, "Born in Exile" was a hard sell to the publishers. The book was rejected several times and nearly passed over. The book has remained little read over the years. Yet it is an extraordinary book, perhaps Gissing's best. For all its datedness, length and awkwardness, this book will reward careful reading.
The book is a detailed study of its title character and a novel of ideas. The book is among the first and the best novels to explore the relationship between Darwinism and geology and traditional religious beliefs. The book has much to say about sexuality, about the life of the mind, the erosion of values, social classes, and social change. Gissing seemed greatly influenced by Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and by Turgenev's "Fathers and Children" in writing "Born in Exile".
In some respects, Peak is modeled of Gissing himself and Gissing described the novel to a friend as "a book I had to write". Born, as was Gissing himself, to a struggling lower-middle class pharmacist, Peak is intelligent, broodingly introspective, skeptical, and rootless. He is ashamed of his origins. He both envies and scorns the upper classes and believes his intellectual gifts entitle him to a higher place. Thus Peak sees himself, in a phrase repeated several times in the book as "Born in Exile."
As a young man, Peak secures a scholarship to Whitelaw College where he distinguishes himself both in the sciences and in literature but cannot decide what he wants to do. In an odd but critical turn in the book, he leaves Whitelaw before his final year because his uncle proposes to open a cheap restaurant in the community and Peak believes this association with his uncle would shame him. He moves to London where he graduates from the London School of Mines, becomes a chemist, and falls in with a group of radical freethinkers and journalists. He has what seems to be the makings of a successful life. Peak is a skeptic and anonymously publishes an article "The New Sophistry" in a leading magazine which criticizes severely efforts to reconcile Darwinian science and geologic time with religion. The various types of arguments on all sides seem not much different from those in current debate.
Dissatisfied with his social position, Peak leaves London to try to ingratiate himself into the upper classes. Peak says to a friend in a key passage of the book that he does not believe women need to be intelligent or enlightened: women need to be sexual. And so Peak goes to look for a wife and self-destructs in the process. Peak meets a family with a landed estate, the Warricombs, whom he had known from his days at Whitelaw. The father of the family, Martin Warricomb, is a student of geology. Peak pretends to have shifted his career goals to become a minister in the Church of England. Peak ingratiates himself with Martin Warricomb, who is surprisingly liberal minded, by trying to show Warricomb the sincerity of Peak's beliefs and the compatibility of religious traditionalism with scientific modernism. Peak is interested in Warricomb's daughter, Sidwell, lovely and reserved and religiously traditional and unadventurous. At first, Sidwell is something of a stand-in for class, rather than a person Peak loves for herself. As the story develops, Peak seems to develop something of a genuine love for Sidwell. And oddly, Sidwell comes to love Peak.
Peak lives with tension in his pursuit because he knows he is practicing deceit and living a lie. He is ashamed of doing so. Ultimately the truth comes out when Sidwell's brother Buckland, an old Whitelaw friend, discovers that Peak was the author of the anonymous article "The New Sophistry" which condemned efforts to reconcile religion and science. Buckland is himself a skeptic whose views are rough and not deeply considered but still are similar to Peak's and to modernity. Buckland has found his way to Peak's former small group of friends in London who are amazed that Peak is trying to pass himself off as a prospective clergyman. Buckland confronts Peak with what he has learned and tells Sidwell and Martin. Peak is disgraced and must leave Exeter. Even though she knows the truth, Sidwell still loves Peak. Her own religious and moral views have broadened under their acquaintance to something approaching free thought. Sidwell has achieved a substantial intellectual independence from her family and background. Before Peak leaves, the door is left open that they will marry if Peak establishes himself.
Peak is miserable and lonely but he receives a bequest from an intellectual woman, Marcella Moxey, who unreciprocatedly had long loved him. With his financial future secured, Peak writes Sidwell a love letter, the first time he has opened himself up, proposing marriage. After much anguish, Sidwell rejects Peak and terminates the relationship. For all her intellectual change, Sidwell finds she cannot leave her family and its estate. Rootless and alone, Peak sets out for travel on the continent where he apparently lives the short life of a rake, contacts a disease, and dies homeless and alone.
"Born in Exile" is a study of a modern type, an intelligent, rootless, and confusedly amoral individual, in the dress of late Victorianism. The novel explores the loss of traditional religious faith and the lack of any apparent standards to replace it. Gissing, himself a nonbeliever, did not see humanism, social activism, or other nostrums as providing an adequate substitute for religion. Hence his novels, particularly this one, have a pessimistic philosophical cast.
The book is long, with extensive passages of wordy dialogue and of introspective commentary, both of which are typical to Gissing. Other than the masterful portrayal of Peak, and to some extent the characterization and growth of Sidwell Warricomb, none of the other of the many characters and scenes are well-developed. It takes perseverance to read this book. For interested readers, perseverance will be richly rewarded. Although never likely to become popular, "Born in Exile" is a troubling and deeply perceptive philosophical exploration of modernity. Unfortunately, this book appears out of print. It richly deserves a new edition. I read this book in a Harvester Press edition from the mid-1980s with an introduction by the Gissing scholar Gillian Tindall.
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