Squalor

Frank Kermode

  • Gissing: A Life in Books by John Halperin
    Oxford, 426 pp, £18.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 812677 8
  • George Gissing: Critical Essays edited by Jean-Pierre Michaux
    Vision/Barnes and Noble, 214 pp, £11.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 85478 404 7

The books listed below have been my leisure reading for many weeks, and I have a glimmering as to what it is that prompts the converted to claim so much for Gissing. But my own view, which is very commonplace, remains the same: New Grub Street is a novel of extraordinary power, and without it the oeuvre would be no more than the interesting record of a pained but minor artist.

John Halperin, of course, takes a different view, claiming that a dozen of the novels are ‘first-rate’. In order to reach that total he has to include The Paying Guest – indeed, he thinks it a ‘masterpiece’. As it is a short book, about thirty thousand words, which Gissing wrote in a couple of weeks in 1895, it might tempt readers to use it as a test case when considering such claims. Here it is, in a nice but expensive facsimile reprint, an easy and skilful little study of what happened to a suburban household when it took in a lodger, a girl from a vulgar family much richer than her hosts. Ian Fletcher’s introduction does wonders for it; he has a fine sense of Victorian class nuances, for the consciences of the not-so-rich, for the servant problem, so agonising when only the poor didn’t have them; but he also finds the scene in which the paying guest and her suitor set fire to the drawing-room ‘hilarious’, and here, I think, is the note of excess common to many of Gissing’s supporters. It’s a relief, certainly, to find Gissing in so relaxed a mood, still writing about the class and woman questions, as he almost always did, whatever the ostensible theme, but for once finding them a matter for amusement. But if The Paying Guest is a masterpiece the world must be crammed with them.

Still, as Halperin remarks, admirers of Gissing tend to be decent folk, as generous in their praise as in their sympathetic interest in his appalling life, which was dominated, like his books, by problems of sex, money and class, gloomily interrelated. The degree of interrelation is indeed a perpetual theme of the commentators, and M. Michaux’s collection contains some good essays touching on it, and notably on its presence in New Grub Street, where all Gissing’s woes and terrors come successfully together, so that we have a book notable for its critical power as well as for its account of several ways in which it was possible for a writer of this period to be maudit without being a poet.

George Orwell, who had been able to read very few of the books, nevertheless contrived to write one of the best pieces on Gissing, and his explanation of the novelist’s wretchedness was that he felt acutely the horrors of life in Late Victorian England, horrors that were ‘largely unnecessary’. Orwell’s understanding of Gissing’s response to these conditions was at least as full, and a good deal more tersely expressed, than that of his later admirers:

The grime, the stupidity, the ugliness, the sex-starvation, the furtive debauchery, the vulgarity, the bad manners, the censoriousness – these things were unnecessary, since the puritanism of which they were a relic no longer upheld the structure of society. People who might, without becoming less efficient, have been reasonably happy chose instead to be miserable, inventing senseless taboos with which to terrify themselves. Money was a nuisance not merely because without it you starved; what was more important was that unless you had quite a lot of it – £300 a year, say[*] – society would not allow you to live gracefully or even peacefully. Women were a nuisance because even more than men they were the believers in taboos, still enslaved to respectability even when they had offended against it. Money and women were therefore the two instruments through which society avenged itself on the courageous and the intelligent.

Orwell then relates a rather typical Gissing episode from A Life’s Morning (not a favourite with Halperin) in which a man loses his hat, has to steal money to buy another, since it is impossible to be seen without one, and so runs into a whole series of disasters. A taboo merely; hatlessness later became quite respectable, possibly because of the dashing manners of the Prince of Wales; though among the aspiring poor, as I know from my own childhood, men who earned three pounds a week still, in the Thirties, spent an absurd proportion of their income on hats, and a lot of time brushing them. Of course Orwell means by this example to illustrate prohibitions much more dangerously inhibiting, and equally absurd.

What Orwell doesn’t quite see is the extent to which Gissing’s own behaviour was affected by the taboos. To be a gentleman one needed to observe them, and Gissing had a hectic contempt for people who merely aspired to the class which could afford to do so with a measure of grace. ‘Minor clerks’ who dropped their aitches and lived on £2 a week were not entitled to be absurd even in the manner of the middle classes, and Gissing, better-educated and on the whole better-off than they, antagonised this large potential audience – the ‘quarter-educated’, as he called them, readers of Titbits – by his refusal to take them seriously or even to exploit them, as Bennett did: consequently, he ran the risk of falling between the two stools described by Reardon in New Grub Street, producing ‘what is too empty to please the better kind of readers, yet not vulgar enough to please the worst’. His Reardon-like refusal to contribute to ‘the multiplication of ephemerides’ is a further sign of his gentlemanly contempt for the new reading public.

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[*] Gissing’s own estimate was £1,000, or about £40,000 today.

New Grub Street is published by Penguin (556 pp., £1.95, 1980, 0 14 043 0326).
In the Year of Jubilee and Eve’s Ransom are published by Dover/Constable (404 pp., £4.50, July 1982, 0486 04251 X and 129 pp., £2.25, April 1982, 0486 24016 9).
The Odd Women is published by Virago (336 pp., £3.50, 1980, 086068 140 8).

The following novels by Gissing are available from Harvester: The Paying Guest, 200 pp., £7.50, June 1982, 0 85527 892 7.Born in Exile, 470 pp., £9.95 and £5.95, 1978, 0 85527 872 2.The Whirlpool, 461 pp., £9.95, 1977, 0 85527 789 0.Sleeping Fires, 230 pp., £7.50, 1977, 085527 032 2.Demos: A Story of English Socialism, 524 pp., £9.95 and £4.95, 1975, 0 9017 5933 3.The Crown of Life, 320 pp., £9.95, 1979, 0 85527 692 4. The Town Traveller, 336 pp., £9.95, February 1982, 0 86627 902 8. Our Friend the Charlatan, 480 pp., £9.95, 1976, 0 85527 199 X. Will Warburton, 384 pp., £9.95, February 1982, 0 85527 882 X. Isabel Clarendon, 720 pp., £25, August 1982, 0 7108 0460 0. Denzil Quarrier, 270 pp., £9.95, 1979, 0 85527 712 2.The Emancipated, 484 pp., £9.95, 1977, 0 85527 739 4. Thyrza, 490 pp., £9.95, 1974, 0 901759 94 7. The Nether World, 392 pp., £10.95 and £2.95, February, 0 901759 10 4. The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, 298 pp., £10.95 and £4.95, February, 0 7108 03230. The Unclassed, Veranilda and Workers in the Dawn will be published this year; A Life’s Morning is due out in 1984.