In George Gissing’s strange time

George Gissing has never been a popular writer, and never will be. He gets no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, though few novelists have been more literary or better read than Gissing. This wouldn’t have surprised him. Though eager to have intelligent readers, he despised popularity and had a low opinion of the popular writers of his own day, even Robert Louis Stevenson. I would guess that you could assemble a group of a hundred tolerably well-read people and find nobody who had read any of Gissing’s twenty-odd novels. Acquaintanceship with Gissing might be limited to George Orwell’s admiring essay, but, even though Orwell thought him perhaps the best of English novelists, he doesn’t make him alluring. The novels Orwell himself wrote in the 1930s are evidently indebted to Gissing; he might indeed be called Orwell’s master. But then novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are themselves dogged pieces of work, kept in print on account of Orwell’s reputation rather than their own qualities.

Gissing himself was in no doubt as to the reasons for his unpopularity:

“It is my misfortune as a writer of fiction that English readers have so long been taught to look for the moral of such works, and especially in the case of stories which deal with the poor. To say that I am out of sympathy with that view is saying little. My own masters are the novelists of France and Russia; in comparison I have given small study to those of England . . . . It is mere accident that I choose for my artistic material a sphere of life which just now is so attractive to the philanthropic world . . . . What attracts me is the striking juxtaposition of barbarism and civilization in our strange time. I hold that there is the artist’s opportunity now a-days, the greatest of many opportunities.”

“The striking juxtaposition of barbarism and civilization in our strange time”: this makes Gissing modern enough, the juxtaposition being as evident now as it was in the last decades of the nineteenth century; likewise the disclaimer of a moral purpose in his fiction. For Gissing, his material was what life had given him; art was what you made of it.

The life itself was often grim – that is the one thing people who haven’t read any of his novels know about Gissing. Unfortunate as he was, partly on account of the contradictions in his character, partly on account of his obstinate integrity, he has been fortunate in his biographer. Pierre Coustillas has devoted himself to Gissing for more than half a century; the first version of his The Heroic Life of George Gissing, written in French, was part of his State Doctorate in March 1970. He has edited Gissing’s Letters and several of the novels, and compiled, in association with others, what he describes as “the gigantic primary bibliography” of Gissing’s works. “In spite of its bulk”, he writes, “a supplement will some day be needed.” This reflects the huge increase in academic interest in Gissing. Sadly, however, academic interest does not invariably translate into popular interest, and therefore into readership. Perhaps the publication of this thorough and very detailed biography – the third and final volume has just appeared – will at last secure for its subject the wide readership his biographer is certain he deserves.

Coustillas early concluded that Gissing’s “life and professional career had been heroic. A scrupulous, original artist who cared more for the quality and sincerity of his work than for the demands of the public, he was, when publishers could no longer exploit him cynically, at best poorly rewarded for his strenuous work”. Gissing came from a shopkeeping family in Wakefield. His intelligent father, active in local politics as a Liberal, himself well-read and devoted to schemes of civic and social improvement, died when George was still a boy; he would feel the loss all his life, certain that his father would have given him the understanding and encouragement which neither his mother nor siblings could satisfactorily offer. He read widely, especially in the Classics – he would be devoted to Greek and Latin literature and his idea of Antiquity all his life; one of his best books, By the Ionian Sea, would be the late result. At the age of sixteen, he became a student at Owens College in Manchester. It was there that his life fell apart. Living in lodgings, more or less free from adult supervision, he met and fell in love with a young prostitute called Nell. The exact nature of their relationship is not clear, even to Coustillas who surely knows everything that is to be known about Gissing. He writes that “On meeting her Gissing felt the first pangs of sexual longing”. Either to redeem her, support her, or perhaps to enjoy her, Gissing stole money from other students. The crime was detected. The police were called. He was sent to trial, convicted and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment with hard labour. His academic career was in ruins.

Coustillas is in no doubt that Gissing’s motives were admirable. “In his youthful artlessness, he had reduced Nell’s problem to its simplest expression: in his eyes blinded by passion, she was blameless; only society was to blame.” Perhaps this is an accurate statement of the case. (The students whose money he stole may have thought differently.) Gissing was sent to America, where he met with friendship and encouragement. He wrote a few short stories and sold them, but he never settled. He continued to correspond with Nell, and, soon after he returned to England, they began to live together, and eventually married. Years of ever-deepening misery followed. Gissing was eager to educate her and improve her, but she would not be improved. She took to drink and what was judged low company. Eventually, cohabitation became intolerable. Gissing made her an allowance which he continued till she died, possibly of alcoholism, possibly of syphilis.

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