George Orwell, who was born in 1903, the year of George Gissing’s death, noted that most of Gissing’s works were already, by the 1940s, out of print and virtually unobtainable. He admired Gissings’ writing greatly. Orwell had read only a few of the novels, but “merely on the strength of New Grub Street, Demos, and The Odd Women I am ready to maintain that England has produced very few better novelists.”
Yet George Gissing (1857–1903) is unknown to many, perhaps most, of the reading public. Many people have read at least one Thomas Hardy novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), for the simple reason that it was on some high-school English reading lists in the 1970s. (I strongly doubt that it is still on the school list, but that's another story.) Yet students are very unlikely to have read any novel of Hardy's younger contemporary Gissing, which is a pity, because in many ways Gissing was the better novelist. Hardy’s great gift was his incomparable description of inanimate things: but his human characters, unlike his trees, fields, and stone walls, are often dull and unconvincing. Gissing was a skilful perceiver of nature as well, and moreover created characters who live forever in one's mind. As a novelist, Gissing was not far behind Zola and Turgenev.
As a novelist, Gissing was not far behind Zola and Turgenev.
Some university English departments retain an interest in Gissing. Occasionally I meet someone who studied The Odd Women (1893) as part of a feminist course in nineteenth-century literature. A Gissing Society has existed for many years, and there are several Gissing websites and on-line texts. Many Gissing scholars seem to be from the non-English-speaking world. (It is perhaps entirely predictable that as English courses in the West give way to film and “cultural studies,” a dedicated Japanese scholar has been posting Gissing texts on-line.) Throughout the twentieth century, Gissing had a few devoted adherents: the English critic Gillian Tindall and the French scholar Pierre Coustillas both did much to keep his memory current.
Gissing did, in his own lifetime, achieve fame and some comfortable earnings. His work was regularly featured in literary magazines of the 1880s and 1890s. Some critics named him in the 1890s as one, with George Meredith and Hardy, of England's three leading novelists. In 1892, Gissing recorded (with some irony) in his diary an item from the gossip column of The Bookman: "Mr. Hardy is known especially to admire the writings of George Gissing." His friend the critic Morley Roberts (now himself quite forgotten, but influential in the 1890s) championed Gissing's works, as did H. G. Wells and Meredith.
So why has Gissing been forgotten? He was male, so that although he wrote a great deal about the role of women, he hasn't survived in the politically correct academy even the way that the Brontës or George Eliot have survived. (Though who now reads George Eliot? Certainly not, it would appear, the people who recently made the television series based on Daniel Deronda).
And while Gissing's books certainly deal with the problems caused by poverty, he was suspicious of recipes for reform. Gissing felt that it was profoundly wrong that the lower classes had such hard and squalid lives, and he had a deep sympathy for those who found society against them, but he was equally convinced (as he wrote in his diary in 1888) that "the idealistic social reformer is of far less use than the humble discharger of human duty."
Gissing wrote a lot about the difficulties of being an artist in an increasingly commercial age. New Grub Street (1891) is an unforgettable account of a novelist struggling to write when inspiration fails (Orwell found this "the most impressive" of Gissing's novels, "also an upsetting and demoralizing book"). But because he found no simple solutions, he has not been adopted by the intelligentsia in the way that a less profound writer such as Oscar Wilde has been. (No doubt the appeal of Wilde is on other grounds as well.)
So far from winning friends, in fact, Gissing's writing has a way of annoying even his fans. What irritated Orwell in the 1940s, and the vaguely left-wing Tindall in the 1970s, was that Gissing was drawn to the exclusive, the old-fashioned, the scholarly, and the privileged.
So far from winning friends, in fact, Gissing's writing has a way of annoying even his fans.
The reasons for this lie in Gissing's youth; he was temperamentally a student of literature who was thrown into a particularly chaotic life. His lower-middle-class upbringing in Wakefield, a manufacturing town in northern England, was always a source of chagrin to him: his attitude is best shown, at painful length, in the novel Born in Exile (1892). (It is a loss to criticism that Orwell was unable to obtain a copy of this, in some ways Gissing's greatest, novel.) Its hero is Godwin Peak, a young man whose father, a radical chemist, named his son after William Godwin, the author of his favorite work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Like Gissing himself, Godwin is relatively poor, but, because of his academic success, finds himself able to associate with aristocratic boys and their families. Until, that is, his uncle plans to open a tea-room opposite the school, proudly titled "Peak's Dining and Refreshment Rooms." Godwin instantly resolves to leave school rather than endure the disgrace.
After several years, though, Godwin finds himself in a position to re-enter polite society, through taking holy orders. Although he does not believe in religion, he sees a church career as his only way of associating with educated and agreeable people, particularly of meeting a woman he might marry. Here Godwin, in a London crowd, sees a carriage bearing two ladies:
Here [Godwin] stood, one of the multitude, of the herd; shoulder to shoulder with boors and pickpockets; and within reach of his hand reposed those two ladies, in Olympian calm, seeming unaware even of the existence of the throng. . . .
They were his equals, those ladies; merely his equals. With such as they he should by right of nature associate.
In his rebellion, he could not hate them. He hated the malodorous rabble who stared insolently at them and who envied their immeasurable remoteness. Of mere wealth he thought not; might he only be recognized by the gentle of birth and breeding for what he really was, and be rescued from the promiscuity of the vulgar!
Gissing cannot, however, resist satirizing the superficiality of the established church, particularly its Protean ability to take on new and bizarre forms in response to intellectual fashions. Godwin's schoolfellow Bruno Chilvers exemplifies the new style of clergyman, announcing,
"The results of science are the divine message to our age; to neglect them, to fear them, is to remain under the old law while the new is demanding our adherence, to repeat the Jewish error of bygone time. Less of St. Paul, and more of Darwin! Less of Luther, and more of Herbert Spencer!"
Pace Orwell, Gissing did not lack a sense of humor, but it was a very bitter one.
It is only a matter of time before the Warricombes, the aristocratic family into which Godwin has insinuated himself under cover of the cloth, discover his deceit. Godwin's hunger for living in beautiful surroundings, with well-stocked libraries, reveals a great deal about Gissing.
Another aspect of this deep desire for the old and the exclusive was Gissing's lifelong love of classical literature. In New Grub Street, Edwin Reardon, the struggling novelist, and his friend Harold Biffen (who struggles even more, just to find daily bread), revive their spirits by swapping lines of Sophocles.
"Now, I want to know how you scan this chorus in the 'Oedipus Rex.'"
Reardon took the volume, considered, and began to read aloud with metric emphasis.
"Choriambics, eh?" cried the other. "Possible, of course; but treat them as Ionics a minore with an anacrusis, and see if they don't go better."
For half an hour the two men talked Greek metres as if they lived in a world where the only hunger known could be satisfied by grand or sweet cadences.
Gissing's nostalgia was for the ancient world.
Even as they both know it to be impossible, they plan—as they have always planned—their trip to Greece and Italy together. The most exclusive and the most unattainable world is that of the past, and Gissing's nostalgia was for the ancient world, for the wine and olives and grass fragrant in the sun, as far as possible from the cold, squalor, smoke, and filth of urban England. Tindall noted that Gissing had what she called "exaggerated respect" for the classics, but to make light of what was, in fact, Gissing's passion, is to miss one of the most important sides of his personality.
Gissing did make the trip to the Mediterranean, which he described in By the Ionian Sea (1901), understandably one of the happiest of his books. "Every man has his intellectual desire," he writes in his first chapter;
mine is to escape life as I know it and dream myself into that old world which was the imaginative delight of my boyhood. The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others; they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful. The world of the Greeks and Romans is my land of romance; a quotation in either language thrills me strangely; and there are passages of Greek and Latin verse which I cannot read without a dimming of the eyes, which I cannot repeat aloud because my voice fails me.
For a progressive such as Orwell, such overt preference for the past was culpable. Orwell wrote, patronizingly (all quotes are from his 1948 article):
Gissing would have liked a little more money for himself and some others, but he was not much interested in what we should now call social justice.
[Gissing] is only acquainted with a few strata of society, and . . . does not seem to have much grasp of political or economic forces.
Like most English writers subsequent to the mid-nineteenth century, Gissing could not imagine any desirable destiny other than being a writer or a gentleman of leisure.
[Gissing] did not see that [the working classes] were capable of becoming civilized if given slightly better opportunities.
None of these comments is fair. A vital theme of many of Gissing's novels is "opportunity" for the working class. The fact that "opportunities" do not always have desirable results perhaps shows that Gissing was more honest about them than Orwell.
Furthermore, Demos (1886) (one of the few Gissing novels which Orwell had read), is a book—subtitled "A Story of English Socialism"—entirely about politics, human nature, and the corruption exerted by power. Many writers, most comprehensively Mark Connelly in Orwell and Gissing (1997), have noted parallels between the novels of the two Georges. It is clear that Gissing's work had a strong influence on Orwell's novels, and that the writers, despite differing political views, shared conservative and pessimistic feelings about life, women, and the destruction of the countryside. If Gissing was a reactionary, so, about many things, was Orwell.
While it is clear that Gissing was emotionally a bourgeois, as Tindall might have put it, it could never be argued that he was unacquainted with the low life of which he wrote. Anyone who knows anything about him knows that Gissing's own reason for leaving school was far more sensational than Godwin Peak's. In 1876, then a brilliant nineteen-year-old student at Owen's College in Manchester, expected to proceed to university, Gissing had begun a relationship with a seamstress called Helen (Nell) Harrison, often described as a prostitute, but more probably Gissing's Mimi (Murger's Scènes de la Vie de Bohéme (1848) remained one of his favorite books). To obtain money to help support her, Gissing stole from other students. He was caught, stripped of his prizes and student status, and sentenced to jail. He served his sentence, then traveled to America, where he taught for a while and tried to live by writing. He came close to starvation. He returned to England in 1877, sought out Nell, and married her in 1879.
The marriage was disastrous. A succession of separations and reunions ended in a final parting, in the mid-1880s. Nell may have been drinking heavily for some years, and died in 1888, apparently from the effects of alcohol and syphilis. On seeing her corpse, Gissing was moved to write:
In nothing am I to blame; I did my utmost; again and again I had her back to me. Fate was too strong. But as I stood beside that bed, I felt that my life henceforth had a firmer purpose. Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind. I feel that she will help me more in her death than she balked me during her life. Poor, poor thing!
The "she will help me more" phrase is curious, but for Gissing, life was material for his art: there was a streak of coldbloodedness in his personality. And while he wrote of "the accursed social order," as we have seen, he remained basically conservative.
For Gissing, life was material for his art: there was a streak of coldbloodedness in his personality.
After Nell's death, Gissing's friends were appalled when he became engaged to Edith Underwood, another woman manifestly unsuited to life with an intellectual. He himself recognized this, noting bleakly in his diary in April 1891: "Wrote to Mrs Harrison, telling her of my marriage, and that henceforth I am shut off from educated people." Two years later, Gissing wrote:
On way home, at night, an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home. Condemned for ever to associate with inferiors—and so crassly unintelligent. Never a word exchanged on anything but the paltry everyday life of the household. Never a word to me, from anyone, of understanding sympathy—or of encouragement. Few men, I am sure, have led so bitter a life.
Edith was depressive, antisocial, and, as it later turned out, mentally unstable. Two sons were born, to whom Gissing was devoted (the tender account of little Hughie's toddlerhood in The Whirlpool  bespeaks Gissing's patience and keen observation as a father). His diary reveals that he took a good deal of care of the older boy, Walter, as a baby and toddler, before—convinced that his unhappy marriage meant that their home was no home to the boy—entrusting him to his unmarried sisters in Wakefield. As Edith became increasingly unstable, periods of separation ensued, and eventually she was committed to an insane asylum.
These experiences naturally shaped the many painful portrayals of marriage in Gissing's novels. They also mean that he knew what he was writing about, in his account of the marriage of an intellectual, Alfred Yule, to an uneducated woman, whose existence means that he is cut off from friends and equals (New Grub Street). Marian Yule, their only child, is painfully aware of her mother's lack of education, but loves her loyally, defending her from her father's tyrannical resentment. Yet Gissing had created this masterly picture before his own marriage to Edith made it all come true (although his earlier marriage had sufficiently intimated the scene). His marriages also provided the background to his treatments of alcoholism (The Odd Women, 1893), domestic violence (The Nether World, 1889), and despair (passim).
Gissing eventually, towards the end of his short life (he died at forty-six, of chronic lung disease), met a woman who made him happy: a French fan of his novels, Gabrielle Fleury. She nursed him through his last illness, in France.
What makes Gissing such a compelling writer? One thing is that the plots and subplots of his novels are so thoroughly integrated that the reader has an equally keen interest in both. For instance, reading New Grub Street, one cares just as much what happens to Marian and the unscrupulous journalist Jasper Milvain as about Reardon and his writer's block. But I think the main reason that his novels are so good is that the characters (or most of them: there are so many that a few must be relatively less successful) are well conceived and thoroughly developed. Gissing created people that you really care about.
One of his most attractive heroes is Sidney Kirkwood, of The Nether World. Sidney is a working man, self-educated, drawn to radical views, yet practical, kind, and self-denying. In the end, Sidney finds himself supporting, by his labor, not only his wife—a former actress whose face a jealous rival has scarred with acid—but her whole hopeless family as well. The final paragraph of the book is a statement of principle, that there are lives, even in the depths of society, which are not wasted:
In each life little for congratulation. He [Sidney] with the ambitions of his youth frustrated; neither an artist, nor a leader of men in the battle for justice. She [Jane Snowdon, good but hopelessly impoverished by others' folly], no saviour of society by the force of a superb example; no daughter of the people, holding wealth in trust for the people's needs. Unmarked, unencouraged save by their love of uprightness and mercy, they stood by the side of those more hapless, brought some comfort to hearts less courageous than their own. Where they abode it was not all dark. Sorrow certainly awaited them, perchance defeat in even the humble aims that they had set themselves; but at least their lives would remain a protest against those brute forces of society which fill with wreck the abysses of the nether world.
To write convincingly as someone of the opposite sex is a telling test of a novelist, and here Gissing performs outstandingly well. The main characters of The Odd Women—which Gissing wrote over a seven-week period of marital chaos with Edith—are all female: Rhoda Nunn, the feminist, her friend Mary Barfoot, and memorably the sisters Alice, Virginia, and Monica Madden. Alice and Virginia teach, though unsuited for this occupation, and Virginia becomes a closet alcoholic, while the younger Monica, slaving in a dead-end job, marries an older man. He turns out to be psychopathically jealous. "The Woman Question" was not, for Gissing, the subject of superficial jesting. The book asks hard questions about future roles for women, and the future of marriage.
The book asks hard questions about future roles for women, and the future of marriage.
This is a theme explored under a microscope in The Whirlpool, which Orwell called a minor work, no doubt because its preoccupations are middle-class rather than working-class. Here Harvey Rolfe, an intellectual fortunate enough to have independent means (unusual in a Gissing hero), marries a middle-class girl, Alma Frothingham. The question about whether Alma can or should continue with her chosen career in music—and whether she really possesses the talent to do so—is the central thread of the book, though, as always, there are subplots and numerous interesting minor characters. The marriage is not a success, spiraling downwards (the whirlpool of the title represents fashionable society) to the eventual suicide of Alma. But the themes would not be out of place in our Saturday newspaper feature articles. Gissing was, in terms of the family, remarkably prescient:
"One lady wrote to me [says Harvey's friend Mary Abbott] that she would pay almost anything if I would take her little boy and keep him all the year round; she has only a small house, and the child utterly upsets her life. Of course, I understand her; I should have sympathized with her once."
"It's intelligible enough," replied Harvey with a laugh. "Presently there will be huge establishments for the young children of middle-class people. Naturally, children are a nuisance; especially so if you live in a whirlpool. . . .
"You know [Harvey continues], it isn't a matter of course for people to see that they are under an enormous obligation to the children they bring into the world; except in a parent here or there, that comes only with very favourable circumstances. When there's no leisure, no meditation, no peace or quietness—when, instead of conversing, people just nod or shout to each other as they spin round and round the gulf--men and women practically return to the state of savages in all that concerns their offspring. The brats have come into existence, and must make the best of it. Servants, governesses, schoolmasters--anybody but the parents--may give thought to children. Well, it's a matter for the individual. I shouldn't feel comfortable myself."
"It's a matter for the world, too," said Mary.
Again, the discussions about child-rearing between Harvey and his friend Basil Morton (whose wife would be called a stay-at-home mother these days), show that Gissing thought deeply about these matters. As you might expect, Gissing's position on child-rearing and working mothers was, overall, conservative, but (unlike our Saturday reviews) he knew that Alma's and Harvey's problems are not to be simply solved, or in fact ever solved at all. Harvey envies the Mortons, whose life, he thinks, is so much simpler and more old-fashioned than his own.
In the end, it becomes fairly clear why Gissing's books have always appealed to a few rather than to many. He was a lonely, conservative atheist, a sensitive and loving observer of nature, devoted to the classics, and gifted as few writers have been in portraying lower-class and middle-class life, thought, and character. Readers who respond to him are likely to be outsiders, "born in exile" too.
For such readers, Gissing remains a companion for life. Orwell, shortly to die from lung disease himself, wrote triumphantly to Richard Rees in 1949, regarding his project to have a publisher reissue Gissing's novels: "Someone in the USA has managed to get me a copy of Gissing's New Grub Street at last. Don't lose The Odd Women, will you."
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 6, on page 27
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