Upton Sinclair, ed. (18781968). The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.
A Man of Genius (From The New Grub Street)
By George Gissing
(Novelist of English middle-class life, 18571903. Few have ever equalled him in the portrayal of the sordid, every-day realities of poverty. The story of his own tragic life is told in a novel called The Private Life of Henry Maitland, by Morley Roberts. This is from a novel portraying the lives of the innumerable hack-writers who starve in the garrets of modern London.)
HIS name was Harold Biffen, and, to judge from his appearance, he did not belong to the race of common mortals. His excessive meagerness would all but have qualified him to enter an exhibition in the capacity of living skeleton, and the garments which hung upon this framework would perhaps have sold for three and sixpence at an old-clothes dealers. But the man was superior to these accidents of flesh and raiment. He had a fine face: large, gentle eyes, nose slightly aquiline, small and delicate mouth. Thick black hair fell to his coat-collar; he wore a heavy moustache and a full beard. In his gait there was a singular dignity; only a man of cultivated mind and grateful character could move and stand as he did.
His first act on entering the room was to take from his pocket a pipe, a pouch, a little tobacco-stopper, and a box of matches, all of which he arranged carefully on a corner of the central table. Then he drew forward a chair and seated himself.
The reason, as soon as Reardon sought for it, was obvious. Biffen had no ordinary coat beneath the other. To have referred to this fact would have been indelicate; the novelist of course understood it, and smiled, but with no mirth.
He involved himself in terms of pedantry, and with such delight that his eyes gleamed. Having delivered a technical lecture, he began to read in illustration, producing quite a different effect from that of the rhythm as given by his friend. And the reading was by no means that of a pedant, rather of a poet.
Biffen was always in dire poverty, and lived in the oddest places; he had seen harder trials than even Reardon himself. The teaching by which he partly lived was of a kind quite unknown to the respectable tutorial world. In these days of examinations, numbers of men in a poor positionclerks chieflyconceive a hope that by passing this, that, or the other formal test they may open for themselves a new career. Not a few such persons nourish preposterous ambitions; there are warehouse clerks privately preparing (without any means or prospect of them) for a call to the Bar, drapers assistants who go in for the preliminary examination of the College of Surgeons, and untaught men innumerable, who desire to procure enough show of education to be eligible for a curacy. Candidates of this stamp frequently advertise in the newspapers for cheap tuition, or answer advertisements which are intended to appeal to them; they pay from sixpence to half a crown an hourrarely as much as the latter sum. Occasionally it happened that Harold Biffen had three or four such pupils in hand, and extraordinary stories he could draw from his large experience in this sphere.
A fatal day. There was an end of all his peace, all his capacity for labor, his patient endurance of penury. Once, when he was about three and twenty, he had been in love with a girl of gentle nature and fair intelligence; on account of his poverty, he could not even hope that his love might be returned, and he went away to bear the misery as best he might. Since then the life he had led precluded the forming of such attachments; it would never have been possible for him to support a wife of however humble origin. At intervals he felt the full weight of his loneliness, but there were happily long periods during which his Greek studies and his efforts in realistic fiction made him indifferent to the curse laid upon him. But after that hour of intimate speech with Amy, he never again knew rest of mind or heart.
He was not the kind of man that deceives himself as to his own aspect in the eyes of others. Be as kind as she might, Amy could not set him strutting Malvolio-wise; she viewed him as a poor devil who often had to pound his coata man of parts who could never get on in the worlda friend to be thought of kindly because her dead husband had valued him. Nothing more than that; he understood perfectly the limits of her feeling. But this could not put restraint upon the emotion with which he received any trifling utterance of kindness from her. He did not think of what was, but of what, under changed circumstances, might be. To encourage such fantasy was the idlest self-torment, but he had gone too far in this form of indulgence. He became the slave of his inflamed imagination.
Companionless, inert, he suffered the tortures which are so ludicrous and contemptible to the happily married. Life was barren to him, and would soon grow hateful; only in sleep could he cast off the unchanging thoughts and desires which made all else meaningless. And rightly meaningless; he revolted against the unnatural constraints forbidding him to complete his manhood. By what fatality was he alone of men withheld from the winning of a womans love?
He could not bear to walk the streets where the faces of beautiful women would encounter him. When he must needs leave the house, he went about in the poor, narrow ways, where only spectacles of coarseness, and want, and toil would be presented to him. Yet even here he was too often reminded that the poverty-stricken of the class to which poverty is natural were not condemned to endure in solitude. Only he who belonged to no class, who was rejected alike by his fellows in privation and by his equals in intellect, must die without having known the touch of a loving womans hand.
One evening in early autumn, as he stood before the book-stall at the end of Goodge Street, a familiar voice accosted him. It was Whelpdales. A month or two ago he had stubbornly refused an invitation to dine with Whelpdale and other acquaintances, and since then the prosperous young man had not crossed his path.
Ive something to tell you, said the assailer, taking hold of his arm. Im in a tremendous state of mind, and want someone to share my delight. You know Dora Milvain; I have asked her to marry me, and, by the Powers! she has given me an encouraging answer! Not an actual yes, but encouraging! Shes away in the Channel Islands, and I wrote
A week or two would see him at the end of his money. He had no lessons now, and could not write; from his novel nothing was to be expected. He might apply again to his brother, but such dependence was unjust and unworthy. And why should he struggle to preserve a life which had no prospect but of misery?
It was in the hours following his encounter with Whelpdale that he first knew the actual desire of death, the simple longing for extinction. One must go far in suffering before the innate will-to-live is thus truly overcome; weariness of bodily anguish may induce this perversion of the instincts; less often, that despair of suppressed emotion which had fallen upon Harold. Through the night he kept his thoughts fixed on death in its aspect of repose, of eternal oblivion. And herein he found solace.
The next night it was the same. Moving among many common needs and occupations, he knew not a moments cessation of heartache, but when he lay down in the darkness a hopeful summons whispered to him. Night, which had been the worst season of his pain, had now grown friendly; it came as an anticipation of the sleep that is everlasting.
A few more days, and he was possessed by a calm of spirit such as he had never known. His resolve was taken, not in a moment of supreme conflict, but as the result of a subtle process by which his imagination had become in love with death. Turning from contemplation of lifes one rapture, he looked with the same intensity of desire to a state that had neither fear nor hope.
One afternoon he went to the Museum Reading Room, and was busy for a few minutes in consultation of a volume which he took from the shelves of medical literature. On his way homeward he entered two or three chemists shops. Something of which he had need could be procured only in very small quantities; but repetition of his demand in different places supplied him sufficiently. When he reached his room, he emptied the contents of sundry little bottles into one larger, and put this in his pocket. Then he wrote rather a long letter, addressed to his brother in Liverpool.
Really, said Jasper, one cant grieve. There seemed no possibility of his ever earning enough to live decently upon. But why the deuce did he go all the way out there? Consideration for the people in whose house he lived, I dare say; Biffen had a good deal of native delicacy.