In February 1888 George Gissing learned that his wife Nell, an alcoholic and former prostitute whom he had not seen for more than three years, was dead. In company with his friend Morley Roberts he went to the wretched house in Lambeth where she lived, saw the body, registered the death, and arranged that the landlady and her husband should attend the funeral. He then returned to the room, and in his diary that night set himself to describe it:
It was the first floor back; so small that the bed left little room to move. She took it unfurnished, for 2/9 a week; the furniture she brought was: the bed, one chair, a chest of drawers, and a broken deal table. On some shelves were a few plates, cups, etc…. There was a photograph of myself, taken 12 years ago—to which, the landlady tells me, she attached special value, strangely enough. Then there were several cards with Biblical texts, and three cards such as are signed by those who “take the pledge”—all bearing date during the last six months.
He went on to record in meticulous agonized detail the single poor dress, the total lack of linen, the pawn tickets, the disorderly papers in a drawer including “all my letters, away back to the American time,” medicine bottles and hospital prescriptions:
She lay on the bed covered with a sheet. I looked long, long at her face, but could not recognize it…. She had changed horribly. Her teeth all remained, white and perfect as formerly.
This remarkable piece of writing is all the more moving because it is deliberately stripped of obvious emotion. It expresses perfectly what an American journalist meant when a few years later she called Gissing “The Great English Novelist of the Cruelty of Life.”
At this time George Robert Gissing was thirty years old, had published five novels, and was struggling to make a living from literature. The shape of his life had been ordered by a single unhappy incident in his youth. He was the son of a Yorkshire chemist, and as a schoolboy showed extraordinary talents, one year winning so many prizes that he had to take them home in a cab. He won exhibitions in German, Greek, and Latin which gave him free tuition at Owens College, Manchester, where he was recognized as an outstanding student. At Owens, however, he met and fell in love with a young prostitute named Marianne Helen Harrison. He gave her money and presents, bought her a sewing machine so that she could make a living, and then stole money and books from fellow students to provide for her. He was caught, stripped of his awards, arrested, and imprisoned for a month. Friends helped him, and he was given money with which to emigrate to America. He lived in the United States for a year, teaching, and selling a few short stories. Then he returned to England, found and married Nell Harrison, and settled down to domestic life. The marriage was a disaster. Nell suffered mysterious fits calling for expensive medical treatment, was often drunk, and to pay for drink possibly returned to prostitution. In 1883 they parted, and Gissing made her an allowance which she spent immediately on drink.
Such experiences would have marked the work of any writer. Their immediate effect on Gissing was to make him cut himself off deliberately from the academic society and the classical culture to which he had been drawn in youth. He was disgusted by the vulgarity and ignorance of the poor, yet sympathized deeply with them. “I cannot look at the hands of a toiling man or woman without feeling deeply wretched. To compare them with my own shames me,” he wrote in his Commonplace Book. He took the poor as his subject, and another Commonplace Book entry notes briskly: “My childhood is of no practical use to me; it was passed in mere comfort.”
As a young man Gissing was drawn to Positivism, deeply impressed by Schopenhauer and Comte, and he began by using the novel both to express philosophical opposition to the forms of religion and to urge social reform. Workers in the Dawn (1880) was, he said, “a very strong (possibly too plain spoken) attack upon certain features of our present religious and social life which to me appear highly condemnable.” Both this book and The Unclassed (1884) are naïve works, not least perhaps in their titles, which lean heavily upon the facts of his marriage and of the neglect that created such social wrecks as Nell. One reviewer called The Unclassed a novel for men, and noted the daring of an author prepared to “choose for heroine a girl who makes her living contentedly enough by the saddest of callings.” Ida Starr, the heroine in question, is falsely accused of theft and sent to prison, almost the only echo in Gissing’s work of his Owens College experience.
These crude early books lack the curious blend of involvement and detachment that marks Gissing’s characteristic work. As he matured he became able to describe the lives and environments of the poor with an accuracy all the more powerful because he permitted himself no glimmer of humor: yet there is also a sense of a writer viewing these human beings as specimens. “The untaught vulgar are very defective in their senses: they hear, feel, see, taste, smell, very imperfectly.” It is among such inferior beings that his life is spent. “It is first-class people who know me, whereas I myself am always compelled to associate with the second-class,” he said in a diary note of 1890.
The second-class, and those several classes below it, are the subjects of the novels Gissing wrote, at the rate of roughly one a year, from Thyrza (1887) until shortly before his death in 1903. The finest of them are The Nether World (1889), New Grub Street (1891), Born in Exile (1892), The Odd Women (1893), In the Year of Jubilee (1894), and The Whirlpool (1897), and the unforced naturalism with which he wrote of English working-class life was unique in Victorian literature. Gissing was determined to rub respectable noses in the squalor, the smells, the grinding brutality and ignorance of working-class life, as he experienced it while living with Nell. In the society of The Nether World idealism, represented by the craftsman hero Sidney Kirkland, struggles inadequately for survival against the savage power expressed by such a character as the sixteen-year-old Clementina Peckover. Clementina eats sausages with a knife, soaks up the black grease in which they have been cooked with a thick slice of bread, and meditates on the sport she is going to have in bullying the young girl servant. She is, Gissing observes, a perfect reflection of her society. “Civilization could bring no charge against this young woman; it and she had no common criterion.” The novel is primarily an attack on the society that permitted Clementinas to exist, and even briefly flourish. The Nether World was the first book written after Nell’s death, but although it is stamped with personal feeling, it has also the detached quality that prompted him to write after the terrible visit to her room: “Poor, poor thing…. Cut a little hair from the poor head,—I scarcely know why, alas!”
His talent spread out to other themes. Class and sex, the great traditional subjects of English novelists, appear in his work only at a remove, but more than any other Victorian writer he is concerned with money. “The most important part of my work…deals with a class of young men distinctive of our time—well educated, fairly bred, but without money,” he wrote to a friend. It is basically lack of money that twists and destroys his characters, checks their most generous aspirations, upsets marriages, and impoverishes the talents of the sensitive. Edwin Reardon in New Grub Street is simply unable to adapt his talent as a writer to the vulgarity of the age. “Art must be practiced as a trade,” his wife tells him. “This is the age of trade.” Reardon, unwilling and unable to conform to this dictum, fails where some of the hacks around him succeed.
The life of New Grub Street resembles that of The Nether World in offering survival chiefly to the corrupt and fifth-rate. Mr. Yule and his friends burrowing away in the British Museum Reading Room are scholars by nature, truly concerned with their articles on Lord Herbert of Cherbury and their essays on the Historical Drama, but the times have turned them into squabbling pedants full of petty jealousies. Yule’s greatest ambition is to exert some power in the literary scene by succeeding Clement Fadge as editor of The Study. Reardon’s friend Harold Biffen, who aims in his novel Mr. Bailey, Grocer at “an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent” and would scorn to write a dramatic scene because such scenes occur so rarely in life, is absurd but he is also a dedicated novelist. Gissing was too honest to show any of them, or even Reardon himself, as a writer of high talent. He is simply saying that they are bound to fail where Jasper Milvain (“Jasper of the facile pen”) succeeds. The scales are tipped a little too much by an ending in which Jasper marries Reardon’s widow, but a fairer book must have lacked the power with which Gissing denounced the back-scratching and back-biting of the literary world he knew.
As his work developed he became in particular the novelist of the lower middle class in which much of his time was spent, of the shabby genteel, and of the New Woman who was struggling to escape from emotional and financial bondage into independence. For the most part he depicted their manners, homes, and habits of speech with the fascinated distaste that is his hallmark. Beatrice French of In the Year of Jubilee, for instance, is so successful in running her Fashionable Dress Supply Association that she is able to set up home in a new block of flats, and offer a guest a meal that begins with fried scallops, goes on to rump steak, and ends with “a very sound Stilton cheese.” Such zestful eating by ladies was not something that Gissing could view sympathetically.
The Odd Women, however, offers a variety of women characters who are more kindly seen. Perhaps Gissing had in mind the situation of his own unmarried sisters in writing this novel, but he was drawn to Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn because they wished to use their emancipation for more than purely personal ends. Mary sets up an agency to help other women to get secretarial jobs, Rhoda joins her but is a more vigorous and outspoken feminist. Their activities are skillfully contrasted with the feebleness of two typical Victorian spinsters who live in a world of refined but wretched poverty. The book has some weaknesses of plot, but there is nothing else like it in Victorian fiction.
The vulgarity of the age also became a theme in the later books. Gissing detested industrial Britain with the passion of a classicist deprived of Arcadia. On Jubilee Day he noted: ” ‘Tis much to have beheld the most gigantic organized exhibition of fatuity, vulgarity & blatant blackguardism whereof our time has record,” and in book after book he put down his destestation of the world about him. The Whirlpool expresses most memorably his bitterness and hopelessness about society. Its hero Harvey Rolfe is a middle-aged bachelor who congratulates himself on staying free of the whirlpool of modern speculative and industrial life, with its “artificial necessities.” His peace is destroyed when he marries Alma, who involves herself and him in the whirlpool while pursuing success as a concert violinist.
The book offers a complex, subtly rendered competition in guilt, as both Rolfe and Alma pursue the dream of individual freedom, which they have agreed should be the basis of marriage. Rolfe finds peace again, in his young son’s company, only after Alma’s suicide, but it is made clear that this peace will not be lasting. In the last chapter Rolfe reads to a friend passages from Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads and says: “Here’s the strong man made articulate…. Millions of men, natural men, revolting against the softness and sweetness of civilization…. We may reasonably hope, old man, to see our boys blown into small bits by the explosive that hasn’t got its name yet.” It is not surprising that George Orwell found Gissing a congenial writer.
The diary runs from 1887 to 1902, and for much of that period was kept almost daily. The entries range from single lines to long passages about matters that raised Gissing’s interest or indignation. The editing by Pierre Coustillas, a leading Gissing scholar, provides a useful apparatus of notes and an identification of the principal figures mentioned. It adds details to what was known of his disastrous second marriage, but is valuable primarily in showing the financial returns for a hard-working and well-thought-of novelist in the period. It shows, in fact, the mechanics of New Grub Street. (The best purely biographical study of Gissing remains Jacob Korg’s, published in 1963. Professor Korg had access to the diary, which is part of the remarkable Berg Collection in the New York Public Library.)
Gissing estimated that he needed something like £120 a year to maintain himself. Of his first six books—and these were three-volume novels—only two brought him £100, and one earned nothing at all. In 1889 he was paid £150 for The Nether World (he used part of the money for a long trip to France and Italy), and he got no more for New Grub Street. He rarely found writing easy, and was ruthless in jettisoning work that seemed unsatisfactory. The diary records dozens of false starts, like this one in 1890: “Made a beginning of a new novel, a jumble of the various ones I have been engaged on all the summer. Wrote three pages, but in evening saw that they are no good.” A little earlier he had noted that he was all but penniless.
The trip abroad had been possible only because he no longer had to support Nell, but in the following year he took up a new and even heavier burden by marriage to Edith Underwood, who was according to H.G. Wells a servant girl, and who was certainly the daughter of a working-class man. With an Orwellian relish Gissing notes in the diary that he has told a friend of the marriage, “and that henceforth I am shut off from educated people.” He married Edith in part because of his desperate loneliness—at this time poverty restricted him to relationships with no more than two or three old friends—and in part because he thought that she was ready to be taught by him the joys of great art and literature.
There was also what he called in a short story “the incessant hunger for a woman’s sympathy and affection.” Gissing’s closest friend Morley Roberts said that Gissing was not a passionate man, and that sex was not a material element in the marriage, but it is hard to believe this. Edith bore him two sons, and they lived together, more or less, for six years. She proved to be a termagant, making scenes that grew more violent and irrational as time went on. She was also quite incapable of handling servants or running a household. Five years after their parting she entered an asylum.
The tribulations Gissing suffered contain a distinct element of comedy. Disaster seems his natural element. “Of course have broken mainspring of watch—just when every penny is important to me.” But of course! And of course on the longed-for trip to France and Italy he burdens himself with an uncongenial, totally Philistine German named Plitt. “Gloom. Within, misery and uproar,” he notes after the birth of his second child. “Trying to read, in intervals of rage.” He is trying to read Zola’s La Débâcle. The hall lamp flares up, almost causing a fire, and he decides to install gas in the house. The job is botched, there is an explosion, he comes home at night to find the front windows blown out, a chair burned, a ceiling down, a soaked carpet. Edith, with the two children and the servants, is in the kitchen waiting for him to deal with the problem.
Who but Gissing would have hoped to bring Edith up to his own cultural level, or would have been disturbed because she had never heard of Pilgrim’s Progress, or because she always used “amusing” when she meant “interesting”? “If, as I suspect, this is common among the London vulgar, how significant!” It is easy enough, and true enough, to call the man who wrote in such a way a high-minded prig, but such a judgment would be superficial. Such an attitude was the inevitable consequence of what Henry James praised as his deep, almost imperturbable seriousness. When he notes that on the way home one night he felt “an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home,” he was not exaggerating.
In the end Gissing made a reasonable living from writing (in 1895 more than £500), ventured among other literary men and enjoyed the experience, sat to Will Rothenstein for drawings, and found the feminine intellectual companion he longed for in the person of Gabrielle Fleury, who approached him as a translator, and with whom he went through a form of marriage in France even though he was not divorced from Edith. “I loved you many and many a year before we met,” he said in one of the stream of letters he sent in the months after their first meeting. She was the woman he had always thought unattainable, not beautiful but attractive, of a class above his own. She was intelligent, cultured, and above all refined, able to appreciate with him “the full-lobed ear of the Greek ideal,” and to agree that Anatole France was needlessly sensual.
It was in France, living with Gabrielle, that he wrote most of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, which was published in 1903, and went through three editions before he died. These mostly contented reflections on life and literature by an author who has come into money unexpectedly, and so retired from the world of New Grub Street, were commercially, and as it seemed to Edwardian critics artistically, Gissing’s most successful work. Not many people would rate Ryecroft so highly today. It often shows the sentimentality that was the other side of his pessimism. Gissing was not a very interesting or subtle thinker, but simply a good novelist.
How good a novelist? About the depth and scope of his talent there remains little agreement. A band of passionate Gissingites produces a Newsletter, and most of the novels are in print in expensive editions, but few critics have put him among the finest Victorian novelists. Virginia Woolf thought that the author’s life was too apparent, thinly covered by those of fictitious people. “Reardon could not write on Sunday; no more could Gissing. We forget whether it was Reardon who loved cats or Gissing who loved barrel organs.” James, while praising him as “the authority” on the lowest middle-class, deprecated the lack of form in the novels when “it is form above all that is talent.” More recently Walter Allen has pointed out that Gissing never emancipated himself fully from thralldom to the three-volume novel.
All these comments are true, yet Gissing survives if he does not quite transcend them. His best novels are unique in their concern for the life of their subjects and the life around them, and the mass of detail in which those lives are embedded is often marvelous in its weight and power. New Grub Street may seem to offer a plethora of literary hacks, yet it is positively through their number and variety that we come to see the inevitability of Reardon’s fate. The detail in other books, like The Nether World, In the Year of Jubilee, and The Odd Women—which Orwell thought one of the best novels in English—is vital to our understanding of the characters’ lives. Writing as what Orwell called a sensitive man isolated among barbarians Gissing put down these barbarian lives with the absolute minimum of moralizing or sensationalism. His assumption of detached superiority is not always agreeable, but the reports he sent back from the miserable regions of poverty and shabby gentility, where outward circumstances, and perhaps a personal need for degradation, compelled him to live, remain an astonishing achievement.
To the Editors:
May I through your columns appeal to members of the country where the novelist George Gissing (1857-1903) experienced his first success, to assist us in rescuing his birthplace and fostering Gissing studies by subscribing to the work of the Gissing Trust?
The Trust’s principal objectives are to secure the restoration and long-term maintenance of the Georgian family home in Wakefield, Yorkshire, where Gissing was born and to establish a Centre for Gissing studies there. To achieve these ends the Trust needs a very considerable sum of money and an Appeal has been launched for £50,000 much of which we must hope to raise in the United States. A descriptive leaflet is available from the address given below.
My fellow trustees and I would be most grateful for all that your readers can do. Donations, addressed to the Gissing Trust Appeal Fund, should be sent to me at 1 Standbridge Lane, Sandal, Wakefield WF2 7DZ.
May 3, 1979