Gissing may damage your health
My great-aunt Clara and George Gissing were friends during the last ten years of his life. He wrote to her about once a week, always as Miss Collet, and quite often bared his soul to her. She was an expert on women’s work and a civil servant. During his lifetime she gave him money to educate his sons, and after he died she not only arranged with Downing Street for a Civil List pension for them. ‘in recognition of the literary services of their father and of his straitened circumstances’, but also managed to get several of his novels reissued. That is why I grew up amongst two-inch-thick, plum-coloured volumes of The Whirlpool and the rest, in what might well be thought of as a two-Veranilda household. I must admit, however, that though Eve’s Ransom and The Crown of Life did well as bed legs and door-stops, they were not much read. And though Clara herself was probably at least half in love with George Gissing, it isn’t clear that she liked his novels very much either. Indeed, as she wrote some years later, she disliked The Odd Women ‘so much that I nearly did not make George Gissing’s acquaintance because of it’: which is not so surprising, perhaps, since more than one Gissing scholar has claimed that his novel drew on his relations with Clara, even though it was written before they met.
Many of Gissing’s letters to Clara survive, though there is a momentous gap, lamented by Gissing scholars, when she tore up a year’s letters from him on learning that he had met Gabrielle Fleury, whom he described to Clara as ‘a French woman of the finest type and infinitely graceful’. What will eventually be the eighth or even ninth volume of an ambitious American project to publish all Gissing’s letters may reveal whether Gissing kept many of Clara’s letters to him. It seems that he did not.
Gissing would have been gratified by this culmination to a continuous, if small-scale industry of studies, biographies, selections of letters and diaries, and bibliographies. He never abandoned the belief that he and his work deserved such attention, but gloom always won out over anticipation. Oddly, I think, these editors insist that publishing his letters ‘allows Gissing at last to speak directly’, and offers some guarantee of truth ‘in the absence of any other account besides what may be uncertainly drawn from the novels’. However, secrecy, which Gissing saw as enjoined on him by events in his life, permeates the letters, just as it surfaces as the organising theme of most of his novels. It also provided a recurring obstacle to his happiness. So the novels are still the best place to go for knowledge about Gissing, though even these early letters are informative, if partly for what they leave out.
They go from 1863 to 1880, from Gissing aged five and a half, writing to his adored father, to Gissing at 23 and author of a first novel, Workers in the Dawn, published at his own expense. By the end of 1880 this had sold 29 copies and received ‘mixed’ reviews. There was praise for its realism (Gissing was not pleased by assumptions that its account of working-class life might be based on his own), but criticism of its atheism, its tone, thought by one reviewer to be ‘bitter and resentful’, and its ‘style, often illiterate ... redeemed only by its intensity of earnestness’. Gissing was in some sense launched, and letters from the four or so years before this show him working with energy and confidence on the novel’s two unpublished precursors.
Vol. 13 No. 7 · 4 April 1991
It may seem ungracious to criticise a book review which is as informative and vividly personal as Jane Miller’s piece on Volume One of George Gissing’s Collected Letters (LRB, 7 March), and in which my work is referred to appreciatively, but several statements in it are so biased as to invite contradiction. For one thing, Mrs Miller, who does not like Gissing’s novels and does her best to discourage potential readers from turning to them, mildly complains that this first of nine scheduled volumes does not tell us enough about his Manchester days. There is a misconception here. Can the editors be blamed if most of Gissing’s early letters have not survived? A collection of letters is not a biography, and no artificial attempt has been made to repeat in footnotes information on his student days which can easily be found elsewhere. William Gissing is known to have destroyed nearly all George’s letters, and George himself, before William’s death, complained about this. The editors’ responsibility is in no way involved. Similarly the notion that Gissing the man can be more profitably approached through his novels than through his correspondence rests on imperfect knowledge of both: it is misleading to say that aspects of his first marriage ‘are reworked again and again in the novels’. Jane Miller would find it difficult to give other examples than Workers in the Dawn and The Unclassed. Nor is the view that the various volumes of Gissing’s correspondence published since 1961 tell us enough about him based on anything but prejudice and a determination to play down the significance of a project which is central to Gissing studies. We shall be publishing over 2400 letters, to say nothing of important and hitherto unknown letters from Henry James, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and other literary figures of the period, and we shall give Jane Miller some fine opportunities to revise her arbitrary judgment. Again her complaint that Gissing’s first marriage is ‘not much discussed here’ reveals hasty reading and lofty disregard of chronology. She will find considerably more information on the subject in the proper place – that is, Volume Two. Gissing, it will be seen here, did not deposit his wife at the Misses Waskett’s in Battersea in 1881.
Even the account of the relationship between Gissing and her great-aunt Clara Collet, although quite sound in the main, calls for qualification. The reason why Clara’s letters to Gissing will not be available is not, as is implied in Jane Miller’s review, that he did not keep them, but that when Gabrielle Fleury returned them to their writer after Gissing’s death, Clara herself apparently did not think they were worth preserving. Besides, if it is true that she contributed, with splendid generosity, to the upkeep of Gissing’s second wife, Edith, in a lunatic asylum after 1903 (I have receipts of her cheques from Whale and Wates in my own archive), and helped Gissing’s relatives to take care of his two boys after his death, no evidence has yet reached me that she gave money to educate his sons in his lifetime. And, unless weeks were much longer in Victorian times than in our own Nineties, Gissing certainly did not write to her ‘about once a week’. With the exception of the few (earliest) letters that she received from him – as late as 1916 she wrote that she had not destroyed these – and of the batch of 1898-99 which she is known to have suppressed, all his letters to her have survived, and there are 165 of them, not to speak of those from Gabrielle Fleury which we shall also be printing.
As for the condescending question ‘Are Gissing’s novels needed now?’, the answer is an emphatic yes. They were all in print for about a decade until recently, and it is to be hoped that many more reprints will appear before the centenary of his death. His work, from his youthful poems and stories to his unfinished historical romance Veranilda, offers impressive evidence of his quite exceptional talent. It can be unreservedly recommended – pace the shade of Raymond Williams – even to students whose emotional health is solicitously considered by ‘tactful and tolerant’ supervisors. In the last thirty years I have known hundreds of Gissing readers, in the West as well as in the East, who throve and are still thriving on him. They would pooh-pooh the ready-made notion that he and his works are depressing. In the autumn of life, I am prepared to swear that Gissing is an author for all seasons.
University of Lille
Jane Miller writes: Professor Coustillas has devoted much of his life to George Gissing’s work, and he admires the novels more than I am able to do. I am obliged to him for the points he makes about the first volume of the letters and about Gissing’s friendship with Clara Collet.
Vol. 13 No. 8 · 25 April 1991
Jane Miller’s noting in her undreary review of George Gissing’s letters (LRB, 7 March) that the death certificate of his wife Nell gave ‘chronic laryngitis’ as the cause, despite her other serious ailments, nudged me to recall that Karl Marx’s death certificate – a copy of which is on display at the museum devoted to him in his birthplace, Trier – also gave ‘laryngitis’ as the cause of death. Can anyone voice an authoritative opinion as to why English coroners in the 1880s were eager to anticipate Grade Allen, who in consoling a friend for the loss of her mother said: ‘Ah, I hope she didn’t die of anything serious?’