Gissing may damage your health

Jane Miller

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.

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