[Deborah McDonald [email@example.com] has kindly shared these materials from her Collet website with the Victorian Web. Her biography of Collet was published by Woburn Press in November 2003.]
"On my way home at night an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home. Condemned for ever to associate with inferiors — and so crassly unintelligent. Never a word exchanged on anything but the paltry everyday life of the household. Never a word to me, from anyone, of understanding, sympathy or of encouragement.' — George Gissing's diary, 24 Jan 1893
George Gissing's life had been difficult almost from the beginning. He had grown up as the son of a pharmaceutical chemist in Wakefield, Yorkshire. For the first thirteen years his life had been one of pleasure and happiness, but at that age his father died leaving his mother to try to bring up their five children.
George managed to gain a place, with financial help from a friend, at Owens College Manchester. This meant leaving his home and living in lodgings at the very young age of 16. Despite being brilliant academically, he was unable to cope socially with such a break from home. In order to relieve his loneliness he befriended a prostitute, Nell, for whom he had ideas of reform. Unfortunately, despite her beauty and tender years, she had already become a hopeless alcoholic. Gissing, determined to keep her from the streets, was forced to steal from his fellow students in order to pay for Nell's gin. He was caught in the act and sent for one month's hard labour.
On completion of this humiliation, Gissing, unable to complete his schooling, was sent to America to distance himself from Nell's influence and began teaching and writing short articles for local papers. Unable to forget Nell, Gissing returned to England after a year. He searched Nell out and much to everyone's horror, married her. In order to maintain the newlyweds, Gissing moved to London in order to escape to anonymity, did a little tutoring and began writing the social realist novels for which he became famous.
It soon became obvious that life with Nell was impossible and the couple separated. Gissing continued to support her financially until her early death from alcohol in 1888.
After a trip to Italy later in that year, Gissing settled down to his writing career. However, leading a somewhat impecunious existence, and suffering socially from the after effects of his scandalous time at Owens College, Gissing found himself increasingly lonely. It was in a depressed state of mind, craving the company of another woman, that Gissing made his second disastrous liaison. He married an ignorant working class girl who turned out to have a serious mental health problem, and it was a result of this marriage that left him writing the entry in his diary above.
He was a man in need of a friend. Clara Collet fulfilled that need. It was on 18 July 1893 that, as a result of persistent correspondence, George Gissing finally agreed to meet with her. He arrived at her house in Richmond, London, late in the afternoon and the two went for a row on the river. Thus began a ten-year friendship that only ended on Gissing's death.
Collet soon made herself indispensable to the struggling author. She even promised to take care of his two children should he, like his father, die young. She provided the intellectual support that he needed, gave him no end of practical advice and never failed to offer physical assistance should it become necessary, such as the time that his house blew up in a gas explosion, Collet wrote the next day offering accommodation for the family should it be necessary.
It seems likely that the friendship with Gissing meant more to Collet emotionally than it did to Gissing. For when Gissing was forced to leave his second wife due to her constant abuse of her husband, Collet appears to have hoped for something more out of her relationship with Gissing. She wrote much more candidly to him during his second trip abroad and may have harboured hopes that on his return they could become exclusively special friends. It is unlikely that Collet would have moved in with Gissing as this would have most likely proved very damaging to her career, and as marriage was not an option for Gissing would never have contemplated divorce a close friendship would be the only option open to them. However, Gissing had other ideas. He met, fell in love with and went to France to live with a French woman named Gabrielle Fleury. Collet was devastated and reacted by destroying part of her diary and letters, possibly to cover up anything improper that may have been written therein.
However, Collet, in her usual rational way, soon came to accept and love Gabrielle, remaining in correspondence until at least 1935. Gissing and Gabrielle did not lead a very happy life together. Madame Fleury fed Gissing a very frugal diet about which he complained to many of his friends back in England, including Collet and H G Wells. He was lonely, missed England and soon his health began to suffer. In December 1903, George Gissing died in South West France.
Clara Collet was devastated but practical. She kept her promise to ensure that Gissing's children were taken care of and remained in touch with them until they were grown up. She looked after his meagre estate, protecting Gabrielle from any scandal which may have come about as a result of her illegal liaison with Gissing and spent a long battle with H. G. Wells with whom she had a protracted disagreement over the preface he had written for Gissing's posthumously published book, Veranilda.
The importance of Collet to Gissing in those last ten years of his short life cannot be underestimated. Surely she must have saved his sanity on many an occasion with her level headed, sensible advice and with her support and love. Without her, maybe many of Gissing's wonderful works may not have been written for he may not have survived the terrors of his second marriage.
Gissing, George. London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England — The Diary of George Gissing. London: The Harvester Press, 1978.
Last modified 2003