The Collected Letters of George Gissing. Ed. Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young, and Pierre Coustillas. Volume one (1863-1880); Volume two (1881-1885). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1990-1991. [Este documento está disponible en traducción española]

Part I

"Soup-stained copies borrowed from public lending libraries." Forty years ago, that was what George Orwell had to manage with when he was preparing his appreciative essay on the late-Victorian English novelist George Gissing (1857-1903). Some of his subject's best work, Orwell complained, was completely unprocurable. The position is very different today. All twenty-three of Gissing's novels are readily available with many of them in paperback, thanks to the surge in the reprinting of nineteenth-century texts which occurred in the 1970s. From this surge he benefited more than any other author except Thomas Hardy. Gissing's stocks have been rising steadily for a decade or more, and his canonical position as a novelist of the upper second rank seems to be assured now, as it certainly was not when Orwell wrote.

Literary lives have their own intrinsic interest; and why not, when the documents offer us a persona as attractive as Gissing's? He suffered from melancholy and self-pity, but in forms appealing rather than distasteful. His appetite for self-destruction, his reckless indifference to his own best interests, even his appalling lack of common sense, somehow provoke in us a warm response. Many readers have felt this; particularly women readers, from Virginia Woolf, who said that he is a writer with whom "we establish a personal rather than an artistic relationship," up to Gillian Tindall, who has said that he is the dead author with whom she would most like to spend an evening. Aware from the start that he would die young, Gissing laboured over his books — books that obstinately just would not sell — in the belief that the future would vindicate him. His demand for sympathetic understanding is a peremptory clutch at the reader's coat-sleeve. "The conditions of my life are preposterous," we find him writing to the Harrisons, his patrons, in July 1884. "There is only one consolation, that, if I live through it, I shall have materials for darker & stronger work than any our time has seen. If I can hold out till I have written some three or four more books, I shall at all events have the satisfaction of knowing that I have left something too individual in tone to be neglected."

There are two more reasons why the surviving biographical documents should interest us. One is the light they shed on Gissing's creative work, for disguised autobiography is close to the surface everywhere. V.S. Pritchett was surely right in saying that "one must look first and last at his personal life, for he was, excessively, a personal writer." The more we know of Gissing's life, one of the more bizarre lives in the annals of literature, the more we can appreciate the way in which experience was transformed into art in New Grub Street (1890), in Born in Exile (1892), and particularly in his teasing set of semi-fictive memoirs, The private papers of Henry Ryecroft (1902-3). Any source of information is welcome which helps us put a more exact valuation on that throw-away "excessively" of Pritchett's.

The second reason is the special value of these remains for the literary and social historian. From the very start of his career Gissing analysed his own plight, the plight of the novelist as a cultural and economic phenomenon of his day; the novelist, that is to say, not as a creative genius but as a tradesman striving to put a profitable product into the marketplace. It is the central theme of his masterpiece, New Grub Street. Every aspect of the creation, production and marketing of literature interested him; and to some extent his interest interests us, it should be admitted, because it is spiced intriguingly with some spite and envy.

Other Victorian writers left accounts of their careers as writers, of course. Trollope and Arnold Bennett revealed a good deal about their craft: too much, indeed, for the advantage of their reputations. But Gissing was on a different plane to them. He was never very famous, never very prosperous, never very healthy. He was hardly ever happy. When he was single, he was desperately lonely and alienated; when married, mostly miserable and even more alienated. But he was fantastically hardworking, with a sleepwalker's conviction in the rightness of his chosen path, and he allowed nothing to sidetrack him. His life therefore exposes a stratum of literary life that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. This is why he appears as a key witness in two important recent socio-literary histories of the period, Nigel Cross's The Common Writer (1985) and Peter Keating's The Haunted Study (1989).

If those historians had had access to this splendid edition of Gissing's letters, they could have used him to even more effect. He started his career at the precise time which saw a prodigious expansion in the number of novels published. Thanks to improving literacy and the rise of the circulating libraries, novels became the first cultural commodity in history produced and marketed on a mass scale. Nigel Cross's statistics are telling. When Gissing's first novel Workers in the Dawn appeared in 1880, it competed for attention with 379 others published in Britain that year. Ten years later, nine hundred new novels were appearing each year; five years later still, thirteen hundred. From the start Gissing took a typically gloomy and rather rancorous view of this monstrous fecundity. "The publishers' new lists terrify one," he told his brother in 1885. "Such mountains of literature. Yet how little of it is of substantive value." These letters, among other things, provide a gloss on this observation, supplementing his large diary in giving an unsurpassed view of the economic, social and personal circumstances of a struggling man of letters in London as the nineteenth century waned.

Gissing's short, frequently miserable and always arduous life has been clear in outline since 1912, when Morley Roberts, writing not very long after his friend's death, made public some of the eyebrow-raising details. Roberts wrote from personal recollection, and though he got some details wrong, later biographers have been able to fill out the story from the documents which have survived. These are quite voluminous for, despite the pressure on him to produce and his heroic daily stints at his desk, Gissing clearly believed that the unrecorded life is not worth living. The confessional mode came naturally to him and he was an assiduous memorialist in diary, notebooks and letters. Some of these documents have been accessible to students for years, having been sold off long ago to American institutions by impecunious members of his family; and two of the main items, the commonplace book and the diary, were published in 1962 and 1978 respectively.

The fate of Gissing's letters has been more complicated and messy. Few modern authors have suffered the slicing of their correspondence into so many segments, some of which have been published, some not. One segment, a selection of the letters addressed to members of his family, was published in 1927, though in a disgracefully incomplete and mutilated state. A set to his German friend Edward Bertz and another to H.G. Wells appeared in 1961; those to his third wife Gabrielle Fleury appeared in 1964. There have been a few other minor collections as well, edited by the indefatigable Pierre Coustillas, the foremost Gissing scholar. But many other letters exist, scattered around the world in institutions and in private hands, some of which, apparently, were not used in either of the two major biographies by Jacob Korg (1963) and John Halperin (1982). With the appearance of these first two splendid volumes, order is at last emerging from the shambles.

These are the letters of a young man. Despite that, they contain as the editors put it "no titillating obscenities, no prurient acts, no pungent Anglo-Saxon verbs." For one thing, Gissing ceased early to think of himself as young. His voice took on the tones and the attitudes of a middle-aged man while he was still in his early twenties. Also he was an intensely private man, adept at covering his tracks; and though one guesses that he wrote frankly enough on occasion he probably retrieved and destroyed a good deal later. (He destroyed his early diary, for instance, so that there are no entries for the period covered by these letters; which makes them the more valuable.) His only confidential correspondents in these early years of struggle and gloom were his two maiden sisters and his brother in Yorkshire, all of whom were timid and conventional people and, in the case of his sisters, quite unsympathetic to his artistic ambitions and his way of life. Though Gissing was a tireless and regular correspondent, there are noticeable gaps which no doubt mark later sessions feeding the parlour fire.

Only with his younger brother, Algernon, was Gissing really intimate, and Algernon haunts his puritanical senior like some Bad Angel in a morality play. Improvident, vacillating and lazy, Algernon did what Gissing said he would be mad to do: he abandoned a career as a solicitor for the trade of minor novelist. Even worse, while Gissing held it an article of faith that the struggling writer ought to marry only a shopgirl or an heiress and clung to this code with disastrous results, Algernon married a wife of his own class and raised a large family. "With him," wrote his elder brother sternly to their sisters, "the first idea is domestic comfort."

No one ever said that about George Gissing. We see the precocious child, the son of a Wakefield pharmacist, developing into an exam-passing prodigy who won so many book prizes that he had to hire a cab to carry them home. But nature will out. In May 1876, when he was 18 and a student at Owens College, Manchester, Gissing was caught stealing money from his fellows to give to a young working-class girl, Nell Harrison.

Of the wrecking of his academic prospects, of his month in gaol, of his exile of eight months in America, we discover little new here. There are only five letters dated between the middle of 1874 and 1878 and neither in these nor in any of the hundreds following is there a single direct allusion to his crime or its punishment. The only important surviving documents of the affair are four remarkable letters from his friend John Black, found in Gissing's pocket when he was caught, and preserved in the archives of Manchester University after his expulsion. They open a tiny window on the sexual conduct of some adolescents of the period. Black also had slept with Nell Harrison. It is not clear whether she was a professional prostitute or the kind of amateur that the Victorians called "dollymops" or simply a teenager who enjoyed having sex with young men she liked. What is clear is that Gissing was in love with her. We know nothing else of his mental and emotional state; but on a sensitive, proud, socially insecure youth the shock of being caught picking the pockets of his fellows — of committing what Tindall perceptively called an unavowable because a working-class crime — the effects could only have been devastating. For ever after, the "guilty secret" dogged Gissing's life. It induced in him the conviction that he was socially a pariah, and it may be found disguised as a motif in many of his novels.

When a fuller record starts again in 1878, Gissing is back in London making a precarious living as a clerk and teacher, calling himself a socialist, a radical and a positivist (all labels which he quickly abjured) and struggling with his first sprawling protest novel, Workers in the Dawn, published at the young author's expense in 1880. It falls dead from the press, but it brings Gissing some minor patronage. We find he is living with, and presently married to, the same Nell for whom he stole.

The letters are discreet about what kind of life Gissing led with Nell. Evidently much has been destroyed. There are hints of a period of domestic harmony. We hear of walks through the park at Richmond, Bank Holiday excursions and schemes for making marrow jam. Pretty soon, however, things turned sour. Nell's health collapsed; she took to drink and prostituted herself to get the money. Gissing made several attempts to free himself of her, and after some terrific scenes and tearful reconciliations, finally paid her to live apart from him. "I suppose a perfectly peaceful and intellectually-active life is one of those blessings I shall always only be looking forward to till there is no time left for it," he wrote wistfully.

The "blessings" were in truth more equivocal. Gissing's calamity both undid him and made him. His folly twisted him out of his ordained course towards a professorship. Instead of leather bound volumes and a cosy study, fate lodged him in a grimy slum basement off the Tottenham Court Road, where he subsisted for a time on lentil soup. Instead of academic distinctions, he endured ten years as a private tutor to the offspring of rich families, serving as the male equivalent of the governess, with all the attendant class humiliations. Instead of marital respectability, he entered on two alliances with working-class termagants. And, hardest of all to endure, instead of congenial intellectual companionship, fate condemned him to an absolute solitude, always mental, and for months at a time physical too, sufficient to drive a lighthouse keeper to suicide. "The fact is that this kind of life is too hard, I can't endure it," he writes to his sister in 1885, after he had parted from Nell. "For hours I walk round & round the room & sicken with need for some variety in life." He was struggling with revisions to his fourth novel in total isolation: "for three weeks I have not opened my lips, except in entering a shop."

Yet the hard truth is that Gissing the writer thrived on this treatment. Somehow he converted the most unpropitious circumstances (the drudgery of tutoring, aggressive landladies and bad food) and the dullest of emotions (boredom, envy, sexual deprivation, desperate loneliness or its replacement, domestic discord) into gold. The examination machine became a creative artist and he was saved from oblivion as a long-forgotten editor of the classics.

Not that he ever laid aside the habits of a student. John Halperin gave his biography of Gissing the sub-title A life in books and it is a singularly appropriate one. Gissing's sheer intellectual application and his pen-productivity are awe-inspiring. He spent virtually the whole of his short mature life writing twenty-six novels — and most of them are long, elaborately plotted three-deckers — yet somehow found time to master five languages, keep an elaborate diary and conduct a large correspondence. And no novelist ever had a higher brow than Gissing's. The reading he got through reads like a prospectus of Matthew Arnold's "the best that has been thought and said," and he had a European scope. True, he had his blind spots. He never, I think, mentions Baudelaire; he spoke equivocally of Zola, and Maupassant he thought disgusting. His ideal of a French writer was the Dickensian Daudet. But he had a keen appreciation of the Russians and of Ibsen years before most of his compatriots. He absorbed Schopenhauer in German. He had a scholar's knowledge of Greek metrics. Then again, we find him, in his odd scraps of leisure, teaching himself Italian by working his way through Dante with a dictionary, apparently just for the fun of it. Did this man, we wonder, literally do nothing with his conscious hours except teach, read and push a pen?

There is plenty in the letters, too, about the economics of authordom. Gissing was an expert on the Grub Street writer's tribulations. It was Samuel Johnson who famously defined those in The Vanity of Human Wishes as "toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail." Though Gissing's career matches most of this diagnosis with startling fidelity, it is now clear that the central term "want" or poverty has been exaggerated in his case. His favourite inquiry in his later years, when he heard mention of some arriviste was: "Has he starved?" He seemed to regard it as an entry permit to the literary life, the implication being that he himself had drunk of that cup in full measure. Yet the letters show that there was a tinge of the Josiah Bounderby about Gissing. He didn't go so far as to boast of being born in a ditch; but he did romanticise considerably his early poverty in his pseudo-memoir The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and, perhaps, in conversation with his friend and biographer Morley Roberts. Certainly insecurity darkened his early years, alleviated only by relentless hard work; but these letters show that once he embarked as a novelist Gissing never knew destitution nor anything close to it. At a very early date, when he was living with Nell in a couple of rooms in Islington, a casual comment implies that he was already paying a woman to do the "rough work" of the household. A year or two later he was living in conditions of "cramped misery," according to his Californian biographer Halperin. That is how matters may look more than a century later from the plush pastures of San Diego; but the letters show that, while Gissing may well have been miserable, he was not cramped. He had three rooms, including a separate study, which he himself described as comfortable, and quite a lot of his own furniture.

By this time he was already making his four or five pounds a week, although doctors' bills and, later, the pound a week he paid Nell kept him fairly poor. We are reminded that in those days the trade of writer, though certainly a marginal and risky occupation, could still yield some sort of a living to a determined person with at least a little talent. In particular, we see that the freelance contributor was rewarded in a fashion that a young writer today might well envy. In 1884, before he had any reputation at all, Gissing earned six guineas for a flimsy short story. That was double what a minor clerk could expect for a long and tedious week's work. Of a feeble lyric which he had published in a magazine in 1883, Gissing boasted: "the thing brought me a guinea. Time spent in composition — seven minutes." From his charwoman he expected eight hours of scrubbing for that guinea.

Part II

These letters show Gissing struggling with his first five novels. (Struggling indeed: "I sat the other night for three mortal hours over twelve lines, & they were poor lines too.") Of these five, the first is prentice work, another was lost in manuscript and two more are insipid productions far below the standards of his maturity. The best of the group by far is the second, The Unclassed (1884), a powerful and obsessive, if flawed, text where Gissing first explores the social territory and some of the themes that he was to make his own.

To those who haven't read much of him, but think that they have him placed, Gissing is the English Zola who, in the dying years of Victoria's reign, documented London slum life with a reformer's zeal. But this misrepresents both his attitude and the content of his books. Only five of his novels are set in the slums, and in all of those he observes the bedrock poor unsentimentally, almost ruthlessly. The account of the Bank Holiday pleasures of the poor, the "Io Saturnalia!" chapter of The Nether World, and the Litany Lane scenes in The Unclassed are both indispensable pieces of reportage, but they are equally remarkable for their unsparing scorn. There was nothing of the poet of the slums about Gissing, and little of the social regenerator. He never romanticised penury, except perhaps his own. "For some years," he writes to his first mentor and patron, the positivist Frederic Harrison, "I have unavoidably come in contact with very poor, uneducated & ignoble people." The adverb is characteristic. At this period he felt stuck with the poor, and his investigations seem to have been fuelled by a peculiar mixture of wincing revulsion, personal guilt and patrician indignation.

By the time he came to The Unclassed in 1883, Gissing was living alone in rooms in Chelsea. He had abandoned (or said he had) all his remedial zeal. He was no longer a socialist, a positivist or a radical. He was now an Artist. As he told Algernon in July 1883, when he was working on the book, "my attitude henceforth is that of the artist pure & simple. The world is for me a collection of phenomena, which are to be studied & reproduced artistically . . . the afflictions of others are to me materials for observation."

The resulting novels aren't quite as uncompromising as that. They are not lacking in pathos and compassion, but these elements are found only when they are operating within a rather narrow band in the English class system. The lower edge of this band is what used to be called the "deserving poor"; the diligent working class. His typical hero here is the thoughtful, intelligent workman who somehow finds ten-hour days of labour not incompatible with cultural pursuits undertaken not for vulgar advancement but simply for the good of his soul: the type appears in The Unclassed as Sidney Kirkwood. Its upper edge is the middle-class world of comfortable professional people, bolstered against the rigours of life by big houses and plentiful servants. If he went any higher than that, Gissing was out of his depth; much lower, and he was out of sympathy. In between is an ambiguous boundary where the shabby-genteel, floating free or on their way down, melt into the ambitious working class on their way up.

This is the territory of The Unclassed. The title perhaps implies that the novel deals with characters who have been declassed, or who have dropped out socially by declassing themselves. That is not so. The two main male characters are shabby intellectuals, both facets of Gissing himself: Julian Casti, chemist's assistant, naive dreamer and would-be poet; and Osbert Waymark, classics schoolmaster turned rent collector and failed novelist. Two of the women characters are facets of Nell. One is the shop-girl Harriet Smales, an unbalanced, malicious shrew who is finally the death of Casti. The other is Ida Starr, an intelligent, free young woman who finds independence first in prostitution and then by working in a laundry. Such characters are not deracinated at all; what they represent is a new sub-class which could not have existed outside the great cities of the later nineteenth century and the opportunity they offered for rootless anonymity. Towards the end of his career, Gissing himself provided a precise definition of the occupants of this amorphous realm: "the most important part of my work is that which deals with a class . . . distinctive of our time n well educated, fairly bred, but without money." By the last phrase Gissing does not mean penury; he means characters who lack the income to meet the requirements of their imagination. People like himself, in fact. The highly distinctive flavour of his novels arises from the complete disjunction between his own values — essentially those of a liberal, middle class scholar-gentleman — and the scruffy petty-bourgeois life-in-exile that he perforce actually lived.

The sexual politics of Waymark's and Ida Starr's relationship in The Unclassed is the most interesting element in these early fictions. It is part of a series of attempts Gissing made to understand his own nature, which was a not uncommon type in the psychopathology of the time. Thanks to the personal circumstances revealed in these letters, Gissing suffered from the madonna-magdalen syndrome even more virulently than most Victorian novelists. Most of his nubile women are either weak-willed creatures, coyly exploitative or violent shrews; or else virtuous ice-maidens, usually inaccessible, at any rate, to the ineffectual "Gissing man". In his later novels these roles are structured by class, but here in The Unclassed the author's own compulsion is plainer: here, for the first and only time, the lower-class sex object is the lady, beautiful, delicate and refined. By a dream solution she ends as a Lady Bountiful dispensing treats to slum children, which makes her worthy of marriage with Waymark. Ida Starr is the reformed whore that Nell Harrison "should" have become under Gissing's tutelage: a moral goddess who just happens to make a living from servicing men sexually.

Of course the conjunction is ridiculous. It is strange stuff from a novelist who was a master of realistic observation. As other novels and memoirs show, a central male fantasy of this period was that the pavements of the Haymarket were, socially speaking, extraterritorial: somewhere that men and women were "equal" as buyers and sellers in the sexual market-place. Waymark and Ida pick each other up on these pavements, and at once he and she are swapping badinage like a latter-day Beatrice and Benedick; in fact Waymark actually quotes from Twelfth Night as Ida charmingly unveils for him. Of course, this is preposterous. When we consider what the life of a pavement prostitute must have been like — what we know it was like, on the evidence of confessional documents like the extraordinary anonymous erotic memoir My Secret Life -- Ida Starr as a worker in the sex industry of Victorian London is profoundly unconvincing.

As the letters show, Gissing was bewildered by the denunciation of The Unclassed, especially one critic's acid observation that "a long-continued platonic attachment between a normal young man -- even of aesthetic tastes — and a London prostitute is an incident hardly within the range of probability, to say the least." The comment is a just one, but in another way it misses the point. Censorship of the day did not oblige Gissing to keep the relationship chaste, only to keep it off-stage. And in fact there is a powerful sexual attraction. At their second meeting Waymark feels his "pulses throb" at "the light, perfect form, the graceful carriage" as they enter Ida's room. The erotic edge to the scene is partly anaesthetised by the tone of romantic comedy, but by no means entirely. Consider what follows:

"Light another cigar, will you?"

"You don't dislike the smoke?"

"If I did, I should say so."

Having removed her outer garments one by one, she rose and took them into the inner room. On reappearing, she went to the sitting-room door and turned the key in the lock . . . "

But the reader's expectations are at once teasingly negated:

Could you let me have some more books to read?" she asked.

"I have brought one, thinking you might be ready for it."

. . . They were together for an hour or so.

Censorship may have rendered intercourse literally unspeakable, but who can doubt that this is an encoded sexual exchange?

In fact, censorship, which is a systemic poison for most literary techniques, can be a growth hormone for others. Gissing actually benefits from being unable to show Ida at work; for if he had, the various elements of the composite portrait would have flown apart. His real interest is not describing sexual intercourse but a fuller discourse between the sexes. Between Waymark and Ida we have, instead of sex, casual, unbuttoned talk: talk between equals, like the chat between the Vincy brother and sister in Middlemarch. It is very unlike the orotund, respectful, measured discourse between men and women of middle and higher rank which, like a hereditary disease, had descended through several generations of novelists from Walter Scott. (Gissing himself would produce some tedious dialogue in that strain later on.) Here and elsewhere in Gissing, the act of reading out loud or singing to each other is metonymic of healthy sexual relations generally. New Grub Street, that expose of the decay and failure of all public rhetorics in criticism, scholarship, journalism, fiction itself, ends with the intimate interior scene of a wife singing to a husband for his private pleasure. Only in personal relations, and particularly in converse between the sexes, is an antidote to this cheapening of language to be found. It is in her use of gender-specific, male, language that Ida Starr's independence of the social matrix is made manifest: she is allowed to say "fiddlestick!" to a man when she disagrees with him. Now that is the kind of enormity that really interested Gissing!

Part III

With the publication of The Unclassed in June 1884 Gissing's literary apprenticeship was over. At the close of these letters he is working on Demos, which was to bring him, if not prosperity, then at least some reputation and a competence. Fourteen more novels followed over the next decade.

It is a pleasing thought that there must be several more volumes of these letters to come, including ones showing him at the height of his powers as the author of (to mention only the peaks) New Grub Street, The Odd Women, Born in Exile and The Whirlpool. The editors are aiming at completeness, and they will surely attain it. The quality of their commentary is superb. No minor personage, no forgotten book, no trivial story in some provincial gazette is too insignificant to be identified. Anyone who has ever cursed their way across the acres of blurry print of a late Victorian daily newspaper, seeking to confirm some tiny fact, will know what this means: if these editors can't clarify a point, one feels, the facts really must have vanished irretrievably into the maw of time. In only one case is the supportive hand withdrawn. Gissing's linguistic powers were formidable and the editors expect no less: readers are left to totter through the French, Latin and Greek as best they can. Apart from that, the editors are remarkably attentive to the reader's welfare. When Algernon Gissing complains that his brother has forgotten to furnish him with some data about the height and breadth of the dome of St Paul's, the editors helpfully supply both figures in a footnote, presumably just in case the reader was wondering. And when Gissing mentions enjoying a Snowdon pudding, the editors give you a recipe for it and their source as well. By the time this splendid edition is complete, our knowledge of the culture of Victorian England in its very last phase, and of one of its most penetrating and appealing analysts, will have been immeasurably increased.

[A shorter version of this review originally appeared in Quadrant, ]


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Last modified 26 November 2004