In the Victorian era, moralistic novels littered the literary landscape, most of them abysmal in quality—their themes took precedence over character, plot, style, pacing; frequently readers had to wade through passages that read more like sermons than stories. Every so often, however, talented writers adopted this mode of writing, weaving arguments about social issues so skillfully into their narratives that readers were converted through an investment in fictional characters. George Gissing was preeminent among these novelists. He makes no bones in his books about his intentions: his characters preach unabashedly, and no reader can miss his opinions on the rights of women, the commercialization of literature, the vapidity of social-climbing. Yet his characters live and breathe, and his style is unfailingly incisive. As a result, he became one of the most respected literary activists of his day, and his novels remain surprisingly relevant even now.
Gissing was born in 1857 in Yorkshire. From the first he showed a strong aptitude for scholarship. His father, a pharmaceutical chemist, supported George’s early interests, and at a young age George became a lauded student, winning prizes for poetry and gaining the admiration of teachers and students alike. Then, when George was thirteen, his father died, depriving his son of a vital pillar of emotional and financial support. His mother, however, found a way to send George to boarding school, and he continued to excel, mentored by the school’s headmaster and winning more prizes. Eventually he earned a scholarship to Owens College in Manchester and matriculated there in a haze of academic glory.
The future seemed rosy for George. But Manchester broadened his horizons both in and out of the classroom: in his third year he fell in love with Nell Robinson, a working-class girl with no parents and no money. George suffered agonies over her deprivation: he couldn’t bear to think of her living in poverty while he enjoyed comparative luxury. First he gave her all of his money; then, seeing how pitiful this contribution was, he began to go through his classmates’ jackets in the coatroom, passing their pocket-money on to Nell. The college hired a detective, and in the spring of 1876 George was caught in the act. The school authorities expelled him immediately; a month later the state authorities sentenced him to a month of hard labor. In a few weeks he had turned from star student to jailbird.
The shame was overwhelming. For the rest of his life George maintained a fanatical honesty, but nothing could wipe out his stint in Manchester’s Bellevue Prison. When he emerged from its walls, his mother once again came to his aid, helping him to start a new life in America. But George’s luck seemed to have run out: he found no employment in Boston, and a brief period in Chicago was equally unsuccessful. Finally, still under a cloud, he made his way back to London, where the faithful Nell rejoined him.
Now began an adulthood very different from his early imaginings. Gissing lived with Nell for seven years, marrying her in 1879 and refusing to acknowledge that her alcoholism had become unmanageable. When he finally admitted defeat and obtained a separation, she disappeared into a London slum and died destitute—the source of yet more guilt for Gissing. By that time, however, he had found some success with his writing. Though he kept himself afloat financially by working as a tutor and secretary, he devoted most of his time to fiction. No publisher accepted his first venture, Workers in the Dawn, but he brought it out himself in 1880 and garnered some critical approval. After that he was able to get contracts, but his struggles with publishers continued: they disliked his insistence on the squalor of lower-class life, and sometimes he had to revise his manuscripts substantially before the publishers would agree to print them.
Undaunted, Gissing wrote powerful, angry stories throughout the 1880s about the dismal lives of England’s workers, most notably Demos: A Story of English Socialism (1891) and The Nether World (1891), which described the horrors of London slums (he wrote the latter after learning of Nell’s death). His novels sent unequivocal messages to English readers, but they were not messages that most readers wanted to hear, and his celebrity remained confined to the intelligentsia. Still, his advance for The Nether World enabled Gissing to explore Europe for the first time: he traveled to France and Italy and the next year went on to Greece. Then, perversely, he married a second unsuitable wife, a stonemason’s daughter named Edith Underwood who gave him two children—Walter and Alfred—before descending into violent madness. The marriage was a failure almost from the start, and they separated in 1897. Four years later she was put into an asylum.
Despite his lack of funds and the strain of his domestic life, the period of Gissing’s second marriage yielded many of his best novels, including New Grub Street (1891), a portrait of London’s literary scene; Born in Exile (1892), which explores religious dogma; and The Odd Women (1893), a manifesto for women’s independence. In all of these novels Gissing exhibited not only his maturing talent but the new breadth of his awareness; his trips to Europe had expanded his world, and he wrote now about the need for understanding across boundaries of sex, class, religion, and nationality alike.
When he and his wife finally separated, Gissing fled to Italy for a much-needed rest. A year later, in 1898, he settled in Dorking in the south of England, and there, for the third time, Gissing’s life swerved onto a new course because of the arrival of a strange woman: Gabrielle Fleury, a twenty-nine-year-old Frenchwoman, came to ask his permission to translate his novels into her native language. Gissing never looked back: a year later they moved to Paris, and for the rest of his life Gissing lived with Gabrielle in France, moving from town to town in search of better health but never returning to England for more than a few weeks at a time. His life grew more peaceful and his novels less striking. In 1903, however, he achieved a final literary success with The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, an unconventional mélange of memoir, fiction, and essay that made his popularity soar.
At the end of that year, Gissing’s good luck stopped altogether: a wintry walk led to a cold, and the cold developed into pneumonia. By Christmas he was bedridden, and he died three days later, only forty-six years old and mourned by a vast number of Europe’s famous writers. His novels reveal a man consistent in both his honesty and his views. Invariably he backed the underdog; unceasingly he strove for greater equality in society. Women, writers, workers, and freethinkers all earned his championship—and of these the writers and the women were most fortunate, for they served as the subjects of his two most successful novels, New Grub Street and The Odd Women.
New Grub Street is a tour-de-force from the first. Its power lies in its characters, foremost among them Edward Reardon, who strives futilely to write a great novel while enduring the demands of his wife. Amy Reardon can’t stand the approach of poverty and insists that her husband write a bestseller: his inability to do so baffles and infuriates her. Edward’s foil is Jasper Milvain, a suave, hard-working, but incurably cynical young man determined to succeed in the literary world no matter how many compromises that requires. He knows his own limitations, and he understands also the merits of writers like Edward, whose novels show talent without having any commercial value. But Jasper’s ambition never wavers, and as Edward descends into misery, Jasper rises just as inexorably. The one obstacle to his success is Marian Yule, the daughter of a bitter and unsuccessful author; Marian spends her life immersed in dull research for her father, and Jasper finds her reserve, integrity, and intellectual force nearly irresistible—yet he is determined to marry a rich woman. Thus love vies with ambition, and anyone who knows Gissing’s background can predict which will win. Sentimentality and easy romance never appear in his novels, and optimism come only at the expense of youthful dreams.
Marian herself suffers on two fronts, first from her doomed attachment to Jasper and second from the anger of her father, who becomes apoplectic with fury on discovering that she loves a man he considers responsible for his own failure. Alfred Yule’s rage is horrifying, and readers may have difficulty turning the pages as Marian withstands one vitriolic attack after another. But part of Gissing’s genius is that none of his characters veer into caricature: they are too well-grounded in reality to be one-sided. The reasons for Yule’s desperation make sense even when he is behaving most badly, and Jasper Milvain is hardly an unmitigated villain: he loyally supports his two sisters, and his admiration for Reardon is unfeigned. Equally, Gissing describes Amy Reardon’s fears and vexations so vividly that her decision to leave Edward—though callous on one level—is nevertheless understandable. Edward himself is no saint: his lack of feeling for his infant son is chilling, and Amy’s frustration with his incompetence often seems justified.
What stands out most in New Grub Street is Gissing’s own kindness: he had no illusions about how often greed trumps idealism, but he sympathized with his characters even in their most despicable moments; and that is why, though the figures in New Grub Street clearly represent different elements of the London literary scene—the impoverished novelist, the social-climbing opportunist, the bitter has-been—they nevertheless come to life as individuals, each with a distinct array of strengths and flaws. For all his insistence on grim reality, Gissing wrote with compassion, and its softening influence makes the tragedies of his novels bearable.
The Odd Women, written two years later, offers similarly memorable characters, in particular Rhoda Nunn, a vehement soldier in the fight for women’s rights. Determined to remain single, devoted to helping other single women succeed in a professional world controlled by men, she falls nevertheless for Everard Barfoot, an urbane butterfly whose interest in Rhoda wavers between genuine respect and a desire to dominate. As always, Gissing’s characters are complex, and the evolution of their feelings makes for riveting reading. The relationship between Rhoda and Everard contrasts with the marriage of Edmund Widdowson and Monica Madden, one of Rhoda’s more unwilling acolytes. Monica believes that marriage, regardless of its restrictions, must be better than a life of independent labor. She finds out her mistake after marrying Widdowson, whose staid manner masks an insane jealousy and lust for power. The men in this novel are far from flattering representatives of their sex, but they are never overdrawn, and Gissing’s talent at switching perspectives allows the reader to understand Edmund and Everard in nearly as much depth as Rhoda and Monica. Nevertheless, one knows where Gissing’s sympathies lie: women got a raw deal in Victorian England, and he was determined to fight on their side. The fact that he allows both Monica and Rhoda to grow in maturity and moral fortitude is enormously satisfying: no matter where they end up, no matter how browbeaten by society, their intellectual liberation remains a victory.
The success of Gissing’s novels stems in large part from his prose. Most message-heavy Victorian fiction suffers from mediocre writing, but Gissing’s narratives are always elegant. Especially in New Grub Street, he writes with nuance and verve, using only the words he needs and no more. The opening of The Odd Women is thus startling, for its first chapters exhibit an uncharacteristic woodenness: Gissing’s sentences seem stilted rather than concise, and his characters remain mere outlines on the page. Fortunately, as soon as the perspective jumps to Rhoda Nunn, the book comes alive: Gissing’s passion flashes out, and from that point on the novel flies along on the same strong prose that makes New Grub Street a triumph. Here are the opening paragraphs of the latter work:
As the Milvains sat down to breakfast the clock of Wattleborough parish church struck eight; it was two miles away, but the strokes were borne very distinctly on the west wind this autumn morning. Jasper, listening before he cracked an egg, remarked with cheerfulness:“There’s a man being hanged in London at this moment.”“Surely it isn’t necessary to let us know that,” said his sister Maud, coldly.“And in such a tone, too!” protested his sister Dora.“Who is it?” inquired Mrs Milvain, looking at her son with pained forehead.“I don’t know. It happened to catch my eye in the paper yesterday that someone was to be hanged at Newgate this morning. There’s a certain satisfaction in reflecting that it is not oneself.”“That’s your selfish way of looking at things,” said Maud.“Well,” returned Jasper, “seeing that the fact came into my head, what better use could I make of it? I could curse the brutality of an age that sanctioned such things; or I could grow doleful over the misery of the poor—fellow. But those emotions would be as little profitable to others as to myself. It just happened that I saw the thing in a light of consolation. Things are bad with me, but not so bad as that. I might be going out between Jack Ketch and the Chaplain to be hanged; instead of that, I am eating a really fresh egg, and very excellent buttered toast, with coffee as good as can be reasonably expected in this part of the world.—(Do try boiling the milk, mother.)—The tone in which I spoke was spontaneous; being so, it needs no justification.”He was a young man of five-and-twenty, well built, though a trifle meagre, and of pale complexion. He had hair that was very nearly black, and a clean-shaven face, best described, perhaps, as of bureaucratic type. The clothes he wore were of expensive material, but had seen a good deal of service. His stand-up collar curled over at the corners, and his necktie was lilac-sprigged.Of the two sisters, Dora, aged twenty, was the more like him in visage, but she spoke with a gentleness which seemed to indicate a different character. Maud, who was twenty-two, had bold, handsome features, and very beautiful hair of russet tinge; hers was not a face that readily smiled. Their mother had the look and manners of an invalid, though she sat at table in the ordinary way. All were dressed as ladies, though very simply. The room, which looked upon a small patch of garden, was furnished with old-fashioned comfort, only one or two objects suggesting the decorative spirit of 1882.“A man who comes to be hanged,” pursued Jasper, impartially, “has the satisfaction of knowing that he has brought society to its last resource. He is a man of such fatal importance that nothing will serve against him but the supreme effort of law. In a way, you know, that is success.”“In a way,” repeated Maud, scornfully.“Suppose we talk of something else,” suggested Dora, who seemed to fear a conflict between her sister and Jasper.Almost at the same moment a diversion was afforded by the arrival of the post. There was a letter for Mrs Milvain, a letter and newspaper for her son. Whilst the girls and their mother talked of unimportant news communicated by the one correspondent, Jasper read the missive addressed to himself.“This is from Reardon,” he remarked to the younger girl. “Things are going badly with him. He is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself.”“But why?”“Can’t get anything done; and begins to be sore troubled on his wife’s account.”“Is he ill?”“Overworked, I suppose. But it’s just what I foresaw. He isn’t the kind of man to keep up literary production as a paying business. In favourable circumstances he might write a fairly good book once every two or three years. The failure of his last depressed him, and now he is struggling hopelessly to get another done before the winter season. Those people will come to grief.”
Thus Gissing sets up the central conflict of his novel: the humorous, brutal cynicism of Jasper Milvain, contrasted with the earnest but inadequate idealism of Edward Reardon. That their ends are predictable makes Gissing’s success in keeping the reader invested all the more impressive: his characters, more than his message, drive the novel, and readers will find themselves deeply engaged in the twists and turns of these fictional lives.