[The author has shared this information about his book from his site, which readers might wish to consult for excerpts and moreinformation about Gissing. Interested persons may purchase the book on the web at Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, and AuthorHouse.com, the publisher. Este documento está disponible en traducción española ]

A Chapter-by-chapter Summary

This book about George Gissing, half biography and half critical study, is comprised of six chapters that take the reader chronologically through George Gissing's life and work. The first chapter, titled "Women and the Study of Women," places emphasis on the importance of women in Gissing's life and how they came into his fiction. In the summer of 1886, after meeting in 1884 a superb upper-class woman who introduced him to her circle of friends, he observed in a letter to his sister Margaret: "It would be awkward if they came to recognize their portraits in my books." From the time he published his first novel in 1880 he knew that the materials of his fiction would come directly from his own experience. Any woman he met might eventually become a main character in one his novels, even the character of the title. His sisters knew this too, and more than once they complained of characters who resembled them a bit too much.

Chapter Two, titled "Marianne Helen Harrison and London," begins the chronological journey. His name for this wretched little prostitute was Nell. He met her in 1876 and married her in 1879. She plied her trade near the college he attended in Manchester. He fell in love with her, wanted to be her savior, stole money from fellow students to support her, was arrested and sent to prison. A promising future in the academic world fell by the way side. He tried to start over again in America, failed to do it, went home and married her. By 1883 she had found her way to the streets again, and in 1888 at the age of 29 she died. She was a major influence upon his first two books and upon The Nether World, written in four months after her death to purge his system of all that reminded him of her. The woman's influence upon his life and work was profound.

Chapter Three, titled "Female Friends and Sisters," discusses the women Gissing came to know after he turned his attention to the middle class and ceased to write proletarian novels. In the summer of 1884, a dreary time in his life and career, a woman of the leisure class with a remarkable personality, Mrs. David Gaussen, came into his life. She became the model for the main character of his third novel, Isabel Clarendon, and her memory shaped the personalities of upper-class women in later novels. Most of Gissing's "worldly women" derive from Mrs. Gaussen. In the autumn of 1889 he met Edith Sichel, another wealthy woman. She perhaps fell in love with him, but feeling inferior and unworthy he quickly ran from her. She helped shape his image of the "advanced woman" then appearing on the scene. His sisters, Margaret and Ellen, influenced his view of evangelical women who never married and relied on religious doctrine for their salvation. Rachel White, a liberally educated new woman whom Gissing met near the end of his career, was the model for at least one very modern teacher. Dr. Janet Moxey of Born in Exile (1892) prefigures a fuller treatment of the female physician based on Dr. Jane Walker. However, by the time he met her in 1901 Gissing was in poor health.

Chapter Four, titled "Edith Underwood and Domestic Life," details the corrosive influence of Gissing's second wife upon his work and upon his image of woman. She brought more misery into the life of this feckless but talented man than any other woman save his first wife, Nell. Nonetheless, she influenced his major novels in the 1890's pervasively, more so than any other single person in Gissing's life. Even though they separated in 1897, Gissing was not free of Edith until she was committed to an insane asylum in February of 1902. She died in her middle forties of "organic brain disease" in 1917, outliving her husband, who died in 1903, by nearly fifteen years. One of the two sons she gave him was killed in World War I. The surviving son lacked distinction but tried to perpetuate his father's name.

Chapter Five is titled "The Woman Question and Gissing." It presents an overview of the feminist movement in his time and his reaction to it. The feminists were grist for his mill, and he made good use of them. He became actively interested in the movement in the autumn of 1888 and kept in touch with its twists and turns until the end of his life. His novels of the 1890's — The Emancipated, Denzil Quarrier, and The Odd Women — were dramatically influenced by the women's movement. In these novels and some that came later he focused on three types of women prevalent at the time — the womanly woman (such as Isabel Clarendon), the woman in revolt (such as Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot), and the new woman (such as Dr. Janet Moxey and Constance Bride). In bold satirical strokes he sketched for the amusement of his readers numerous would-be new women such as Hilda Meres, Cecily Doran, the Denyer sisters, Jessica Morgan, Ada Warren, and Marcella Moxey. Even though he expressed resignation near the end of his career, generally he agreed with the aims of the feminist movement. Always he presented women (even London landladies with faults he despised) as inherently equal to men.

Chapter Six, "Gabrielle Fleury and the Quest," is a moving and mystical love story. It also presents, as set forth in The Crown of Life, Gissing's theory of love. The theory is highly eclectic but original in terms of his own experience. It is a complicated theory immersed in Platonism, Dantean idealism, fatalism, and scientific determinism. Its dramatic presentation in The Crown of Life became the central issue of that novel and its main theme — enduring, ineffable, beautiful idealistic love in a world of ugly violence (its minor theme). Gissing met this passionate frenchwoman in the summer of 1898, fell madly in love with her (and she with him), and married her (though still legally married to Edith) in May of 1899 in Rouen. At best the ceremony, with only her mother in attendance, was a symbolic assertion of their love. The Crown of Life was his gift to her. He thought it would surely be seen as his best novel, but critics to this day have misjudged the importance of Gabrielle in the novel's creation. Her affectionate and abiding influence brought depth and dimension to a love story that otherwise might have been sterile and vapid.

Those are the six chapters that comprise my book. I should mention that each chapter has extensive end notes (85 in all). Also my book contains a list of Gissing's novels in the order of their publication, a detailed chronology of Gissing's life (Appendix A), and a list of feminine characters (Appendix B) that appear in all the novels except the historical Veranilda. The book concludes with three sentences here quoted — "The women Gissing created are as alive today as when his books were published. They will live and breathe long after he himself has faded from memory. Like a benevolent and caring god, he gave them soul."

How My Book Differs From Others

Books and articles on Gissing have pointed out the importance of women in his fiction, but no full-length study has been made of the subject. Several biographies of Gissing are now in print, but no biography adequately demonstrates the close connection between the real women in his life and the fictional women in his imagination. My book shows how the women in Gissing's life influenced his novels, often becoming models for important female characters. It also shows the influence of two ill-fated marriages on his creative capacity and psyche and how they made for a somber view of women. That is why I chose to call the book Portraits in Charcoal. All his women are portrayed vividly and lovingly, even the worst of the lot, for they exerted a fascination he found hard to resist. Some are despised, to be sure, but others are plainly and unequivocally adored. On the whole, when the gallery is complete, his rich and subtle portraits are rendered in tones of gray — in charcoal — and with unerring realism. This realistic apprehension of women in the last two decades of the nineteenth century is one of the best features of his work, and one of the most valuable for the reader of today.

My Audience

It's a serious book geared to those who already know something about Gissing as a novelist and man of ideas. But as I say on the dust jacket, "this book about George Gissing is for the general reader." It's an academic book of sorts, a "study" of sorts, but free I hope of academic method and academic jargon. That is why I believe the book will appeal to all sorts of people, male and female, and not just the academic community.

Libraries in this country and abroad may want the book to add to their Gissing collections. Students of Gissing, professional and amateur, will l find something of worth in its pages. Women attuned to the present women's movement may wish to read this book for the insights it offers. Women who want to learn about the lives of other women, even those of another time and place, may find the book interesting and informative.

I have tried to keep my style simple, clear, honest, and direct. I approach my subject with respect but also with an open eye and an open mind. Gissing was a handsome man, as the sketch on the cover illustrates, but on close examination you will find a few warts that cannot be ignored. H. G. Wells, a vacillating friend, had seen these warts. Yet in print he judged Gissing "one of the most clean minded and decent of men."


Victorian Overview George Gissing

Last modified 30 November 2010