The Letters of George Gissing

It is not so very hard to write with fair satisfaction about an author known to one only by his work. Criticism may be difficult but at least the issues are not confused by the ten thousand mingled and often contradictory memories of intimate friendship. Writers who are keenly conscious of the value of consistency may preserve it in what they do, for their art is not merely selection from life as they view it, but from their many possible interpretations of it. To talk alone with George Meredith, for instance, was not to talk with the author of "The Egoist," but with some one who could use plain English. When others were present he could seek visibly for phrases. When he wrote he acted and ceased to be himself. So too, Henry James could be as simple in conversation as he was complex in his books. And the better we know any author the better do we know that for all his striving to express himself fully he never does it and never can. It was so with George Gissing, and for that reason I find it almost, if not entirely, impossible to write of him without contradiction. Any who look for a clear exposition of his character must seek it from those who are sure of it. Of these there are many. They, know what they know and end in thinking what they know is all, or all that has any importance. This is the usual way of casual criticism and even of too many biographies. They give us a map and say it is the country. Yes, and so is a guide book London or New York I Is any man less complex in his way than a city? We may get more out of a bundle of sketches in pencil, or ink, or colour, than out of a library. This, or any other screed I have written about George Gissing, is but a casual sketch. With care and labour I could eliminate the contradictions or smoothe them over, but I prefer to leave them as they came. The repetitions in them are many. Is that not because I can see him and hear him talking? Is it not better to show him in that way than to take a dead photograph? I leave the answer not merely to the critics but also to those who like to see the writer in whom they are interested show signs of life, happy or unhappy as may be.

It is true that on the whole Gissing's life was not a happy one, but when looking lately through a great mass of notices of his work it almost seemed that I must be wrong in thinking he ever smiled, even faintly, and that any memory I have of real merriment in him is the figment of my own imagination. These critics, able or unable, sympathetic or hostile, were wholly without personal knowledge of the man and, being subdued to the prevalent tone of his work, may naturally have thought that really joyous laughter and even Rabelaisian humour were as alien from him as Rabelais was from Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Knox, or Savonarola. For them Gissing was a kind of literary Hogarth whose whole comedy of life was a sordid tragedy. Did he not depict life as on the whole utterly hateful, utterly miserable, utterly hopeless? If so, how could he himself be anything but continually unhappy? But what writer, however skilled, has ever revealed the whole of his nature ? No one shall ever persuade me that Dante himself did not sometimes smile, even on the stairs of Can Grande. The severe Cromwell relieved his revolutionary soul with practical jokes; the mathematical and prophetic Newton played with a dog; the melancholy Burton laughed at the cursing bargees. Cromwell did not exist merely, to cut off the head of a King, Newton to be wise about astronomy and foolish about the Biblical Prophets, Burton to analyze the madness of which he finally perished. So Gissing's whole nature was given in "Born in Exile," or in "New Grub Street." These very books showed how greatly his whole hedonistic nature revolted against the conditions of which he wrote. But was it just the dark and bitter author of such social indictments who wrote to me one Christmas Eve from Naples: "Sunlight and warmth and uproar—Napoli! Thank Heaven I am here again. Naples is in a wonderful state of Christmas activity. The Toledo is lined with stalls and the uproar more terrific than ever." This was the real man coming out: the man who loved life and who, when life was abundantly and joyously expressed, could not merely endure but sympathize with the cheerful vulgarity of a happy crowd. He wanted little if that little was real living. The simplest enjoyments were as much relished by him as others might relish a choice banquet. He could even do what I always failed to do, for he could chuckle joyfully over some worthless wine which, in some of the little Italian restaurants of Soho, brought back to his vivid imagination the vineyards of his Italy, that Italy which was for him the happy sunlit child of the severe classic Rome he adored. In these things he was as simple as a child and as easily made happy.

I have said elsewhere that my collection of Gissing's letters is far from complete. Those written to me from 1881 to 1894 disappeared in some inscrutable manner. While I was in Canada and the United States and for a long time afterwards, when my camping grounds in London varied from Chelsea to Dane's Inn, they were entrusted to my mother, who had a remarkable capacity for putting things away in such security that she could never find them again. To me this was a great loss and I believe it a great loss to the English literary, world. They covered the period in which he was for a time so far under the influence of Frederic Harrison as to call himself a Positivist and to date his letters according to the Positivist hagiology in the Comtist Calendar. I have no copy of this remarkable document but I remember one of his letters was dated Bichat, who, perhaps to the surprise of his ghost, became a kind of saint in it. This queer lapse of Gissing's into such an apology for religion as Positivism was not enduring. Even the vaguest affirmative "belief" was not suited to his disposition, and his strained departure from indifference was morbid in origin. The vanished letters which prove this odd lapse on the part of Gissing may perhaps be recovered.

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