Not so long ago, Charles Dickens was the 19th-century British novelist. The others—Austen, the Brontë sisters, Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, Hardy—were his contemporaries and predecessors and successors and rivals. They were judged against him and considered in his light. In the view of Edmund Wilson, Dickens was “the greatest writer of his time.”
Then something happened. The population of critics ceased being so exclusively composed of sensitive, liberal men who’d survived difficult childhoods. Feminist critics emerged, along with Marxists. Warm-hearted depictions of the family were judged to be dated and passé, and sentimental humor was written off as the province of television. Female critics, it turned out, were vexed by the absence of sympathetic adult women in Dickens’s novels, while female readers balked at his lack of romance and glamor, qualities more often encountered in Austen, Thackeray, and Trollope.
What this ongoing shift in taste and sensibility has not done is increase the degree of attention given to a Victorian author who, at his best, wrote with as much understanding and insight about women as Jane Austen, and as much knowledge of politics and commerce as Anthony Trollope: George Gissing (1857-1903).
Indeed, even those who praise Gissing present him as an important writer for his time, a significant contemporary to his friendly rivals Thomas Hardy and George Meredith, or a useful source of information about everyday life in late Victorian London.
Gissing is much more. This is not to say that the bulk of his vast output remains worth reading. All but a few of Gissing’s 23 novels are marred by his misanthropy, bile that caused him to present people so unflatteringly as to prompt us to wonder why we should care about them. An instance of the trouble may be found in this passage from his intermittently excellent 1894 novel In the Year of Jubilee, describing the breakfast greeting of three sisters:
Her [Ada, the eldest’s] features resembled Fanny’s [the youngest’s], but . . . betokened, if the thing were possible, an inferior intellect. . . . They spoke a peculiar tongue, the product of sham education and mock refinement grafted upon a stock of robust vulgarity. . . . All could “play the piano”; all declared—and believed—that they “knew French”; Beatrice had “done” Political Economy; Fanny had “been through” Inorganic Chemistry and Botany. The truth was, of course, that their minds, characters, propensities had remained absolutely proof against such educational influence as had been brought to bear upon them. That they used a finer accent than their servants, signified only that they had grown up amid falsities, and were enabled, by the help of money, to dwell above-stairs, instead of with their spiritual kindred below.
Gissing had a hard life, and most of his books show his consequent bitterness and scorn. Raised in northern England without a father, he had scored twelfth in the country on a national exam and received a scholarship to the then-recently opened Owens College, what would later become Manchester University. This Gissing managed to lose when caught stealing from another student. The thefts had been meant to support a prostitute with whom he had become involved; just 18, he was sent to do hard labor. Once released, he soon compounded the error by marrying the slattern, who, needless to say, proved less than adequate as a wife. They were estranged and after her death, Gissing married a woman he had picked up on a London street. His second wife eventually had to be institutionalized.
In light of this, it may not be surprising that Gissing’s derisiveness extended, at times, to himself. Regrettably, it irreparably harms his 1892 novel Born in Exile. The main character, a closet atheist who pursues a career as a minister for both economic and romantic reasons, is plainly a projection of the author—but such an unromantic projection that it nearly kills a highly imagined and often suspenseful novel.
A further problem with some of Gissing’s work is that he was forced by money worries to compose his “triple-decker” novels at high speed. Thus, since he was determined to adhere to strict realism and not rely on the use of melodrama, he was left with little time to conceive dramatic opening scenes or introductions, and too often he winds up telling us rather than showing us. It is this that puts most readers off from his fascinating and compassionate depiction of the difficulties of unmarried women of his day, The Odd Women.
These weaknesses do not, however, affect his best book, New Grub Street, which is among the finest novels not only of the Victorian age but in all literature. Skillfully plotted, it does not rely on cheap villains, and its tragedy arises organically. The subject is the world of struggling journalists and writers, and for once Gissing writes with a sympathy as large as his objectivity and frankness. Every detail of the parlors and garrets of the book’s characters is realized, and they have the tragic complexity—the alternating mix of hope, longing, and despair—of the figures of Turgenev and Chekhov. The hero Edwin Reardon, an impoverished author of literary fiction, is not entirely autobiographical; but we cannot but sense that his struggles must parallel the author’s. Although its style is always graceful and sometimes beautiful, its elegance notwithstanding, it is a novel written in blood. The only criticism to be made is that the dialogue is consciously literary—a choice Gissing obviously made in the aim of producing a faster, easier-to-read story.
Gissing’s penultimate novel, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, is the one that he believed would be most likely to be remembered; and it was, in fact, a significant success upon its publication in 1903, the same year of his premature death from emphysema. Though The Private Papers affects to deal with a fictional character, what it is really offering is Gissing’s own opinions and nature-loving observations. Composed of four parts, it provides lyrical responses to each season of the year, writing as lovely as can be found in English prose. This, for example, is his description of a warm February:
The early coming of Spring in this happy Devon gladdens my heart. I think with chill discomfort of those parts of England where the primrose shivers beneath a sky of threat rather than of solace. Honest winter, snow-clad and with the frosted beard, I can welcome not uncordially; but that long deferment of the calendar’s promise, that weeping gloom of March and April, that bitter blast outraging the honour of May—how often has it robbed me of heart and hope. . . . I have been thinking of those early years of mine in London, when the seasons passed over me unobserved, when I seldom turned a glance towards the heavens, and felt no hardship in the imprisonment of boundless streets. It is strange now to remember that for some six or seven years I never looked upon a meadow, never travelled even so far as to the tree-bordered suburbs.
Academics have tended to ignore Gissing because he was politically conservative, and in books like his 1886 novel Demos: A Story of English Socialism, he openly mocks and satirizes leftists.
The scandal is not that George Gissing is totally forgotten; he is not, and his books remain in print. The scandal is that a writer who could produce at least one novel filled with moments as acute as the finest scenes of Eliot, and as affecting as the greatest passages in Dickens, is only occasionally mentioned and rarely read. At a time when a general reassessment of the Victorian novel is upon us, might he be a man to whom we ought to look?
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright living in New York.