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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
George Gissing (1857–1903)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Allan Nevins (1890–1971)
 
THE LIFE of Gissing is a monument of endeavor and the kind of failure that ultimately dissolves into qualified success; a life that is something of a labyrinth, full of secret passages and ill-appreciated motives, of unfortunate turnings, and drab mysteries. Some of its chief external aspects have been fully and frankly laid bare by Gissing’s college friend and literary intimate, Morley Roberts, in ‘The Private Life of Henry Maitland’; some other aspects have been studied by Thomas Seccombe and Frank Swinnerton; and yet behind these inquiries we feel that the man and his character have not been quite revealed. Prompting this feeling are partly the suggestions and unfulfilled promises of these studies, and partly Gissing’s own books; for of few writers can it be said in so full a sense that the books are the man. The style, pure, scholarly, intensely earnest, yet shy and generally lacking in brisk energy and force, is the man. The atmosphere of his books, full of the depression arising from their studies of sordid backgrounds and poverty-stricken social groups; their general monotony of color; their realistic intentness upon the actualities of a life in which hampering circumstance is broken through only by the subjective forces of intellect and emotion, and then only partially—all this furnishes the best key to the career of the man. Again and again, finally, in ‘New Grub Street,’ ‘Born in Exile,’ ‘The Whirlpool,’ ‘The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft,’ and other books, he not only describes incidents of his life, scenes that he had witnessed and experiences that were his own, but introspectively draws his own character.  1
  Though essentially a man of the study and cloister, Gissing was impelled to write fiction rather by internal than by external impulse. He was called in no uncertain voice, and from the beginning he was a self-conscious artist who would not surrender his ideals. Only superficially would it seem more natural to think of him as a professor of the classics at some comfortable college than as a demographer sitting in that part of London which Charles Booth and Arnold Toynbee chose for field, and bending himself to his conscientious study of social conditions among the lower middle classes. If he was driven to his steady pursuit of writing by the slenderness of reward described in ‘New Grub Street,’ and by circumstances which gave him little hold on other means of subsistence, he also wished to write novels looking upon life from a standpoint better than the “miserably conventional” one he deplored in George Eliot. Of his scholarly tastes we have a thousand evidences in the novels and in ‘Henry Ryecroft.’ The description of the boy in ‘Born in Exile’ receiving his classical prizes at school; of the Reardon-Biffen dialogue on Greek poetry in ‘New Grub Street’—“Choriambics, eh? Possible, of course; but treat them as iambics a minore with an anacreusis, and see if they don’t go better”; Morton’s interest in the campaigns of Belisarius in ‘The Whirlpool,’ all are open autobiographical touches. But in his first novel, ‘The Unclassed,’ Gissing is obviously describing his artistic ambitions in Waymark’s words:
          “Let me get a little more experience, and I will write such a novel as no one has yet ventured to write, at all events in England…. The novel of everyday life is getting worn out. We must dig deeper, get into untouched social strata. Dickens felt this, but he had not the courage to face his subjects; his monthly numbers had to lie on the family tea-table. Not virginibus puerisque will be my book, I assure you, but for men and women who like to look beneath the surface.”
Through laborious years he tried with unswerving purpose to achieve the aim thus set forth; he must often have perceived that to have yielded but a little to popular taste would have greatly improved his fortunes, but he never yielded.
  2
  Gissing was born at Wakefield on November 22d, 1857, the eldest son of a pharmacist named Thomas Waller Gissing, a man of individuality and literary taste who died when the boy was thirteen. After an interval at boarding school, Gissing went up to Owens College, Manchester, on a junior exhibition, and commenced his studies there at the age of fifteen in a way that seemed to promise a brilliant future in some scholarly field. In the first session he won Professor Ward’s prize for an English poem, at seventeen he matriculated in the University of London, at eighteen in the examination for honors following the intermediate B.A. he gained the first place in the first class with the University exhibition in both Latin and English, and this year he also took the Shakespeare scholarship. Partly, as H. G. Wells thinks, as a result of the overwork involved in all this, partly, as Gissing said later, because of the folly of those who turned him loose to live alone in city lodgings during adolescence, he had formed a connection with a girl of the streets, given her more money than his means allowed, and, if we may believe Morley Roberts, stolen from the cloakrooms to make up the deficit. At any rate, his connection with Owens College was prematurely severed by the authorities, and to those who had predicted for him an academic career his whole life became thereafter abnormal and broken. The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was then attracting much attention, and from London, eager to leave his shame behind him and to find literary material there, he proceeded to New York with a very small sum of money. No English papers would accept the articles he sent back, and in desperation he journeyed West to find more material, reaching Chicago with just money enough to pay for a week’s lodgings. He applied to the Tribune for employment; and for some months supported himself in the city by writing short stories and other matter for various newspapers. Finally, his inspiration worn out, and homesick for England, he returned East by way of Troy—a Troy paper had pirated one of his stories—in which city he had to subsist several days upon peanuts. There was a brief interlude of canvassing, and then he closed the bitterest experience of his life by sailing for home on borrowed money. He spent some months in Germany, and at Jena, as Austin Harrison tells us, read “Schiller, Goethe, Haeckel, Schopenhauer, innumerable German tomes on ancient philosophy.” He arrived in England with ideas gained from these men striving in his head with those acquired at the same time, if we may refer to himself a passage in ‘Workers in the Dawn,’ from Comte, who “came to me with his lucid unfolding of the mystery of the world,” and from Shelley, who strengthened his idealism and his “heart with enthusiasm as with a coat of mail.” He arrived to take up feverish writing amid poverty and the toil of teaching.  3
  This was about 1880; in 1884, according to Morley Roberts, Gissing had separated from his first wife, a woman more than half depraved, and had arranged to support her to the extent of ten shillings a week—more than he sometimes earned; and by 1887, he had got hold of enough tutoring to enable him to occupy a respectable flat and live in some comfort. Among his pupils were Frederic Harrison’s sons, and he was often a guest at the Harrison home; Austin Harrison avers that from 1882 onward he was not in penury, but had “a livable income derivable from teaching which he could always increase or modify at will.” But other testimony, especially Roberts’s, backed by the autobiographical passages, is to the contrary. It seems certain that at least the first three or four years after his return from Germany were years of comparative misery, though this was partly because he mismanaged his household; that he lived upon bread and dripping—“perfectly pure; they very often mix flour with it, you know”; that as a treat he had pease-pudding—“magnificent pennyworths at a shop in Cleveland Street, of a very rich quality indeed. Excellent faggots they have there, too”; that he would put on an overcoat purchased three years previous with care not to start the seams while “murmuring to himself a Greek iambic line,” we may gather from his novels. He tells us directly that, once tutoring for the London University matriculation a man employed in a local hospital, he rose at six o’clock and tramped an hour because he had not the penny for bus-fare; and that he “was a struggling man, beset by poverty and other circumstances very unpropitious to mental work.” In 1880 he had published the immature and bitter ‘Workers in the Dawn,’ and in 1884 ‘The Unclassed,’ still bitter but more finished. These were followed in 1886 by ‘Isabel Clarendon’ and ‘Demos,’ the latter of which Meredith, then a publisher’s reader, praised, and for which he received fifty pounds, or enough to take him to Italy. In the five successive years following 1886 came ‘Thyrza,’ the vernal ‘A Life’s Morning,’ ‘The Nether World,’ ‘The Emancipated,’ and ‘New Grub Street,’ a list which contains in the first and last novels his two greatest pieces of fiction, and two of the greatest novels of the time. About 1888, very fortunately for him, his wife died.  4
  During these years of slowly growing independence, Gissing made a number of friends of great value to him, though of less than if his circumstances had allowed him to enter freely into the life of the world. Frederic Harrison was one, and found him pupils; Edward Clodd, whom Gissing admired as the manager of a great business who could be a literary figure as well, and who was constant in his regard for the novelist, was another. Clodd saw that he met Meredith on a social footing, and a little later Harrison introduced him to John Morley, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who offered to use as much matter as possible if Gissing would supply it in journalistic form. Still later, about 1895, he met Grant Allen, whom he liked very much as “a simple and very gentle fellow, crammed with multifarious knowledge, enthusiastic in scientific pursuits”; and he also came to know Clement Shorter, for whom he wrote some short stories. Before 1897, at Budleigh Salterton, he had become acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. H. G. Wells, and he and his sister took long walks with them in that year. His health was then beginning to fail, and Wells thought him “a damaged and ailing man, full of ill-advised precautions against the imaginary illnesses that were his interpretation of a general malaise.” But he was now quite comfortably well off, and able to take a long flight the same year to Italy, tramping in the Campagna and enjoying happy meals with the good red wine of Velletri. In 1891 he had married a second time, and gone to live near Exeter; but his second marriage was nearly as great a failure as the first, and five years later he separated from his wife, taking charge of his two sons by her. As a writer, he had become far more sure of his abilities and his pen, and was winning an increasing succès d’estime; partly as a result of this, partly because his earlier materials were exhausted, he had begun to draw people of the well-to-do but unrefined classes, and to drop his more mournful and depressing philosophy. One first-rate novel appeared during this time, ‘In the Year of Jubilee’ (1894), with three others of considerable merit, ‘The Odd Women’ (1893), ‘Eve’s Ransom’ (1895), and ‘The Whirlpool’ (1897). There was also one collection of tales—the term short story will not do for Gissing’s work—and an admirable study of Charles Dickens (1898).  5
  The last phase was all too short. After 1900 Gissing spent an increasing amount of time abroad, particularly in southern France and northern Spain, for he was troubled with growing tuberculosis and rheumatism; and he contracted a union with a Frenchwoman who cared for him tenderly in his last days. To this phase belongs no novel of great importance, for ‘The Crown of Life’ had come out in 1899, and the long historical romance, ‘Veranilda,’ a story of the time of Theodoric the Goth, though conscientious in workmanship, was after all a failure. But there do belong to it his notes of a ramble in southern Italy, ‘By the Ionian Sea,’ the priceless little volume of personal musings, ‘The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft,’ which has few rivals in its softened delicacy and twilight resignation, and the abridgment of Forster’s life of Dickens. Edward Clodd has given us in his reminiscences some fine examples of Gissing’s letters just before his death, which occurred in December, 1903. Beside ‘Veranilda,’ there were brought out posthumously the romance ‘Will Warburton’ and the second collection of tales, called ‘The House of Cobwebs.’  6
  It must be understood that while the physical hardships which Gissing endured have been exaggerated, his life was, after all, one cast in hard places and about which there clung the atmosphere of failure. He lacked tact, ease, the ability to get on with other men, in remarkable degree. In Wells’s phrase, the studious, reserved, egoistic man had no “social nerve.” He possessed ability and high talent, but no great genius, and the productions of genius he was determined to achieve; he stretched himself upon the rack of his ambition. His eagerness to emulate the great writers of his day, and to approach the great writers of the century, drove him through labor that was intense and was accompanied with the sense that he was always falling short of just what he wished to reach. Brought up in the days of the great Victorians, he wished, as Thomas Seccombe remarks, to produce his three-volume studies in society upon the broad canvas of Dickens and Thackeray; he may even have cherished some hope of being an urban Balzac, and certainly did not submit his capacity to the limitations natural to it. He perceived his deficiencies in time, but he never faltered in adherence to his standards, even when he took it as most unjust that smaller men should make a greater success. The iron entered his soul, and hence proceeds the sense of writhing struggle, of jealousy, of hardships ill-borne, which permeates his novels.  7
  The motto on the original title-page of ‘The Nether World’ was a quotation from Renan: “La peinture d’un fumier peut être justifèe pourvu qu’il y pousse une belle fleur; sans cela, le fumier n’est que repoussant” (“The painting of a dunghill may be justified, provided that there blooms on it a beautiful flower; without this, the dunghill is merely repulsive”). At the beginning of his career Gissing stated that “Art, nowadays, must be the mouthpiece of misery, for misery is the keynote of modern life,” and many years later that it must be “an expression, satisfying and abiding, of the zest of life.” The reconciliation of these two dicta must, if reconciliation be at all possible, lie in some equation growing out of the quotation from Renan. His first eight or nine books, falling into a group, constitute an epic treatment of poverty, and more than that, of aspiration flowering out of poverty. In ‘Thyrza,’ the most beautiful of Gissing’s novels, aspiration and idealism are veritably personified in the ethereal Thyrza, the beautiful flower of a somewhat repellent milieu; in ‘A Life’s Morning,’ a book with a springtime bloom on it, the flower consists in the mutual devotion of Wilfrid Athel and Emily Hood; in ‘New Grub Street,’ the most vigorous of his books, the aspiration of Reardon, the novelist who lacks nervous energy and creative power but has an ambition, a tenacity, and a love of his art that could hardly be matched in London, is a powerful theme; in ‘Born in Exile,’ the aspiration is that of Godfrey Peak, who wants to travel, to visit Vienna and Italy, to move among social lights, to live the life of a luxurious and honored scholar, and who has to content himself with a cheap bare room and a pine table with a few Greek and English classics upon it. It would of course be fatuous to look in all of Gissing’s novels of the first period for an overt use of this theme of aspiration contrasted with depressing poverty and ugliness; but there is always the hint of a potential flower from even the dung-heap.  8
  Gissing’s delineation of poverty is marked by two prominent characteristics—his lack of humor, and his insistence upon piercing beneath the surface aspect of the squalid and yet animated life of the poor. He was brought up, as he confesses, under the spell of Dickens, and one of his abiding memories was that of wandering on a hungry day of his early career into Bevis Marks, where had dwelt Mr. Brass and Sally and the Marchioness. For the rich humor, vitality, and flashing good spirits of Dickens he had the warmest admiration, and he confessed that his debt to him was “incalculable.” As a demographer he desired, in part, to “follow afar off his example,” and one of his later books, ‘The Town Traveler,’ is obviously Dickensian. But in general his novels are at the antipodes from Dickens’s, and for the simple reason that he had none of Dickens’s sense of the highly flavored humors and contrasts of life, and none of his ability to present the existence of the lower classes in warm colors rendering chiefly the stimulating, amusing, and engaging qualities of it. The two men saw the same unlovely streets, the same frowsy and forbidding surroundings, the same dirty and morally distorted inhabitants; but Dickens saw them through the vivifying lens of his sympathetic imagination, and Gissing through a lens in which all appeared in a somber monotone. The dance at the Fezziwigs, with the forfeits and the square figures and the pieces of Cold Roast and Cold Boiled that followed, may be instructively compared with the description in ‘The Year of Jubilee’ of the dancing of the festival crowd on the terrace, a depressing picture of the hectic gayeties of ignorance, poverty, and vice. In a scrap of butcher’s paper flapping in the road Dickens saw some emblem of the cheerful domestic pot, or perhaps personified it as something eager to find a refuge from the wind; in it Gissing saw a bloody, dirty scrap of paper. The genial energizing temperament of Dickens was referred by Gissing in part to the fact that “his work is done with delight—done (in a sense) easily, done with the mechanism of mind and body in splendid order.” He envied Dickens this tremendous vitality and superabundant good spirits, but he knew that such power was out of his grasp. At the same time, he found some compensation in the thought that he could perhaps penetrate deeper than Dickens, and would not be put off with the grinning mask of poverty. He came to distrust Dickens’s cheerful optimistic view of life; he was certain that the Micawber of ‘David Copperfield’ did not become a comfortable figure in Australasia, but that he sank from stage to stage of wretchedness and died in the street or workhouse. He wished to show misery as it was, and he strove without compromising to exhibit it in untouched verisimilitude. Whether his or Dickens’s was the correct view of the lower classes cannot be decided here.  9
  In ‘Thyrza,’ in ‘The Nether World,’ in ‘New Grub Street,’ this remorseless, photographic study of the drab ugliness and dullness of life is carried out with intense sincerity and high craftsmanship, as in other books before 1892 it is carried out with a sincerity as great but with a more uncertain hand. The distressing parts of London, as Islington, Clerkenwell, Lambeth, and the region of Tottenham Court Road, are nowhere so well drawn as in his volumes. The superior vitality of ‘New Grub Street’ will probably always give it the favored place among his works, and in no other are his characters so real: Yule, the drudging hack, Yule’s earnest daughter, and his timid, unintelligent wife; the struggling Reardon, laboring in spiritual and imaginative exhaustion to reproduce his initial success with a novel, and suffering from the complaints and disloyalty of his fretful wife; Jasper Milvain, determined to be a smart commercial success in literature and succeeding; Biffen, the inexpressibly pathetic figure of a lonely, scholarly, kindly, and yet unsocial author, living in a garret and cherishing his ambitions—these are unforgettable. ‘Thyrza’ will always hold a place at least close beside ‘New Grub Street’ for the wistful, fascinating beauty of the heroine, and the tragedy of her love affair, and for the stylistic beauty with which the soul of slum life is pointed out. The later novels, dealing with social strata a little higher, of which the best are ‘In the Year of Jubilee,’ ‘The Whirlpool,’ and ‘The Crown of Life,’ somehow have not the same singleness of purpose, close unity of construction, fervor of conviction, and ability in character-drawing as these two, though with few exceptions they are strong books. But besides the novels, the critical study of Dickens (the rarest and most understanding yet written), the bit of travel called ‘By the Ionian Sea,’ in which all Gissing’s love for the classics finds expression, and above all, the semi-autobiographic ‘Henry Ryecroft,’ should not lack admirers. The meditations of Henry Ryecroft are not profound, their intellectual force is not great; but their gently pensive air of retrospection and cultured charm of style lend them great distinction.  10
  Other defects Gissing has than his fundamental lack of humor. He is undoubtedly too “depressing,” and the reader of many of his books feels the fact that he has no really happy endings. He was unable to work outside his narrow field, and his few attempts to draw figures of the upper or upper middle class were comparative failures. His delineation of women was much inferior to that of the influence of women upon men. His style is often too nerveless. There were sound reasons, in all, why he should never have made the success that Hardy, Kipling, and Stevenson made at the same time. Yet he will long have his devoted following of those who feel that in his books, to quote from one,
        “the life of men who toil without hope, yet with the hunger of an unshaped desire; of women in whom the sweetness of their sex is perishing under labor and misery; the laugh, the song of the girl who strives to enjoy her year or two of youthful vigor, knowing the darkness of the years to come; the careless defiance of the youth who feels his blood and revolts against the lot which would tame it; all that is purely human in these darkened multitudes speaks to you as you listen.”
  11
 
 
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