Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 18 Oct 2017

In Search of George Gissing

When I left home for university in 1972 I had an old army holdall overstuffed with paperbacks I thought would be useful for my degree course in English literature. There were plenty of titles there that I somehow never got around to reading even though I really should have. Amongst them was George Gissing’s New Grub Street in the Penguin edition. Oddly enough, although I never got around to reading anything more than the opening introduction, the book seemed to follow me around for decades after, remaining unread and always seeming mildly accusatory. Then, without intent on my part, in one house move or another, it disappeared and in truth it’s never caused me much pause for thought until now.

But the spectre of Gissing has been resurrected for me by Sarah Waters when I went to see her accepting her award for literary excellence from the Sunday Times. She didn’t get a cheque or a plaque or a medal for her excellence – instead she was given a pristine first edition of one of Gissing’s books because she is an enormous fan of his. In a recent article she wrote for The Guardian, Waters had this to say of New Grub Street:

A devastating study of the late-Victorian literary industry, New Grub Street still has an unnervingly modern ring. It's also a kind of anti-romance: Gissing was uncompromising in his analysis of gender relations and his exposé of the withering impact of economics upon love.

Maybe, I thought, I should try and find out more about Gissing; maybe I should even read some.

Well, I haven’t got around to the latter yet but I have been doing a bit of detective work. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that George Orwell had written a short essay about Gissing and that seemed as good a place to start from as any. Orwell’s essay, written in 1948 but not published until 1960 with the edition of the collected essays and journalism, starts from the premise that even by the  1940s Gissing is already something of an anachronism or, at the very least, a rather forgotten figure. Commenting on the fact that his work is often characterised as being about women and money, Orwell notes:

One might, I think, widen the definition and say that Gissing's novels are a protest against the form of self-torture that goes by the name of respectability. 

Students of Orwell might be alerted by this to the fact that the two authors clearly share something in common – this could almost be the strapline for Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

Gissing’s preoccupation with the frustrations of the shabby lower middle-class world are so temperamentally suited to Orwell’s own world view it’s not any surprise that he should consider that in Gissing 'England has produced very few better novelists'.

Gissing’s ambition in his early adult life seems to have been to avoid commitments and to aim for a bookish life of gentle writing – he was not a man driven by lots of worldly ambition. But it seems that fate had quite a different plan in mind and, following a terrible error of judgement when he stole money from fellow students, he found himself in jail.

In disgrace after being released he went off to America to try and build a new life and drifted into journalism, working for the Chicago Tribune. When he returned to England in 1877 he found himself having to piece together an income from teaching and writing and so the shadow of poverty was never far away.

His novels from this time on reflect the working class communities he lived in during these times and these are some of his most highly regarded pieces of work. He married and divorced quite quickly before he was married again to a French woman, moved to France, had two children and died young – just 46 years old.

Orwell reflects on Gissing’s life in this way:

he spent his life in what appeared to him to be hack work, and when he had at last reached the point where he could stop writing against the clock, he died almost immediately, aged only about forty-five. ..The twenty novels, or thereabouts, that he produced between 1880 and 1900 were, so to speak, sweated out of him during his struggle towards a leisure which he never enjoyed and which he might not have used to good advantage if he had had it: for it is difficult to believe that his temperament really fitted him for a life of scholarly research. Perhaps the natural pull of his gifts would in any case have drawn him towards novel writing sooner or later. If not, we must be thankful for the piece of youthful folly which turned him aside from a comfortable middle-class career and forced him to become the chronicler of vulgarity, squalor and failure.

Intriguing. I think it’s probably time for me to see if I can lay my hands on some of Gissing’s work – I’m clearly missing something important here.


Terry Potter

October 2017