Gissing and the Cruelty of Life

George Gissing
George Gissing; drawing by David Levine

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…

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