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.

In fact, the 1870s were years that stained his life. George was 13 when his father died, leaving a widow and five children with almost nothing and nowhere to live, since they had at once to leave the flat over the chemist shop Thomas Gissing had owned. A local collection in Wakefield made it possible for George and his two younger brothers to go to a Quaker school in Cheshire, and he never really lived in Wakefield again after that. Gissing regarded his father’s death as the most significant loss of his own life. Thomas Gissing had written poetry, collected books, believed in education. His death from congestion of the lungs (all his brothers died from lung disease and so, later, did two of his sons) stood for George as the moment of his family’s ‘exile’ and ‘unclassing’, when its always ambiguous status lost any claim to being considered middle-class.

At 15 Gissing won a scholarship to Owens College in Manchester, which was at that time still principally an institution for preparing students for entry to Oxford, Cambridge and London. Gissing was a star student until the moment in his third year when he was caught stealing money, and was expelled and then gaoled for a month. He had fallen in love with a young prostitute called Marianne Helen Harrison and known as Nell, and had been stealing money for her to buy drink. This episode is by now well-known, though the letters approach it pretty allusively, to say the least. There is a chilly note from the college, severing connection with the teenage criminal, and two or three letters from a college friend, who apologises in one for having slept with Nell too. He had not realised that George was seriously in love with her. In another, he describes in graphic and fiery detail the symptoms of the venereal disease he has caught from her and which the editors reassuringly gloss as ‘non-specific balanitis, or inflammation of the glans penis, not syphilis’. There is no word from George.

Two months later Gissing was in America, a real exile now and in his element. From Boston principally came one or two of the most sanguine letters he ever wrote, proudly proprietary about the superiority of everything American, from ‘our’ public libraries to ‘our’ democratic ways. He wrote and sold 19 stories and seemed set to stay. Indeed, he might have done well to do so. But he was back by the end of the year and living with Nell in London. They were married two years later.

The marriage, which must have been hellish for both of them, is not discussed here, though Nell has fits, head swellings, blood spittings, lung disease and rheumatism. Nor is that the half of it. Her head is often ‘in a very queer state’, and there are symptoms of the scrofula she had as a child. She was, in fact, hopelessly alcoholic, and she returned to prostitution in order to pay for drink. Finally, in 1881, Gissing deposited her in a home in Battersea and paid £1 a week for her upkeep thereafter. When she died in 1888 it was of alcoholism, malnutrition and syphilis. Her death certificate, however, stuck firmly to ‘chronic laryngitis’.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to winnow much of this story from the letters here or from the editors’ notes, though there are traces of it. Aspects of it are reworked again and again in the novels, on the other hand, and the silences and secrecies it entailed help to fashion the plot and the social and sexual relations in most of them. Gissing’s mother knew some of the story, for instance, though not that he was married. His sisters were kept in the dark, and his brothers given a tidied-up version. Gissing’s later friendship with my Aunt Clara owed a good deal to the fact that he told her the story and she listened sympathetically. In the bizarre ‘romance’ she wrote but did not publish and which is about a kind of love affair between her and Gissing, Nell and her story become the pivotal hindrance, thwarting Gissing’s longing for a refined and ordered life, due to him as a man of letters, and depending on the sort of woman he believed he would never find to grace and arrange it. Poor Nell stood for a multiplicity of disorders: sexual, social, financial and domestic.

A good deal of what can be assembled of these years comes from William Gissing’s touching letters to the older George; more so, possibly, than from George’s capacious letters of advice to the youngest brother, Algernon. William won prizes at school, but no scholarship, so he went to work in a bank near Manchester at 16 for 17 shillings a week. The hours were grim, his lodgings cost more than he earned, and he too often felt lonely and outcast. He is an endearing presence, however, as he plucks up courage to leave the bank and set himself up as a music teacher, as he gently mediates between members of the family, and studies and reads and keeps his counsel about his brother’s first, and apparently awful, attempt at a novel. Nell even goes to stay with him for a fortnight at one point, to recuperate. Then suddenly, at 20, he is dead, and Gissing’s letters to Algernon and his sisters overflow with fortitude for a week or so, and are followed at once by letters about William’s clothes, which are sent to George in London to be sold. This takes a bit of time as they are shabby. Eventually, however, he reports having got ten shillings for them, which he duly sends to the family in Wakefield.

William is no man of destiny, as his brother is, but he is afloat on his interests in music, drawing, reading, walking. He encloses a page from his diary, one week. The main events are letters arriving. His days are routine and exhausting, and he has no money for books or music or pleasures. Yet he is humorous, affectionate, encouraging to his brothers. His poverty and the exiguousness of his prospects oppress him, yet he manages always to entertain himself. He plays the organ locally and hangs back from agreement with some of his metropolitan brother’s more ‘advanced’ ideas. When he is melancholy he sounds like George: he has no friends who are his intellectual equals. His poverty cuts him off from those who might be, and the rest are ‘mere louts devoid of nearly any ennobling sentiments’.

George knew what he meant, and so did Algernon, who was struggling with matriculation and then with the London law examinations during these years. The correspondence between the Gissing brothers provides valuable glimpses of the new arrangements made by London University for examining external degrees in ‘English subjects’ as well as in law. These syllabuses, emanating from Burlington House, must have had an immense influence on how and what many young men (and from 1878 young women too) studied all over England and eventually in many parts of the Empire. Clara Collet, for instance, took an external London BA while working as a teacher in Leicester. George sends Algernon his old notes and books. He tells him often and exactly what a liberal education and a well-trained man consist of. He tells him what to read and even how much trouble to take with bits of his reading. He should become a fluent reader of German and he has suggestions for what may be read in translation from Latin and Greek and what may not. His advice about the London syllabus comes from his Owens days, and the syllabus itself comes to assume equivalence with all that is required by a man of parts. It is possible to see in his recommendations, and his references to texts to be studied for the examination, a version of culture which encompasses some of the patrician expectations of Oxford and Cambridge, while exceeding them in certain ways. The breadth is different: not just Classics and history and mathematics, but German (as well as French) and philosophy of science. Gissing recommends Outlines of English Accidence and Elements of the English Language for the ‘English’ part of the course, and he assumes that his brother will have read all of Shakespeare, Dickens, George Eliot and the Brontës. He also alerts him to what Tennyson is up to. The profuse educational detail of his advice is compounded by the editors, who see it as their task to correct Gissing’s Latin, insert a dozen or so sics and place his Shakespeare quotations. He was reading Comte and meeting German socialists in London in the late Seventies. William and Algernon think of their brother as a very modern man, in favour of science, not God. They are impressed and a little wary. He became rather disillusioned with science in later life and a bit less dogmatic. I wonder what Clara Collet would have made of the youthful Gissing’s lectures to his brother: ‘A girl’s education should be of a very general & liberal character, adapted rather to expand the intelligence as a whole than to impart very thorough knowledge on any subject. General reading is what I should advise a girl to undertake; & that reading should certainly not lie in the direction of the Higher Mathematics or Political Economy.’ Clara and her sisters were good at Maths, and Political Economy was her specialism.

In their introduction the editors admit that one publisher’s reader for an American university press was certain that ‘what the world does not need now is yet another volume of Gissing’s letters.’ He or she was probably about right. A great many of his letters are to be found in one or another of a number of slim volumes, and there are probably no library waiting lists for those, let alone for a complete collection. Yet if the letters are not quite as revealing of Gissing as the editors claim, there are rewards to be had. The two American editors have been joined (and their account of this is a bit grudging) by Pierre Coustillas, who has done more than anyone to keep Gissing studies going and some of the novels in print. He has contributed a history of the Gissing family and a series of useful biographical annotations.

Are Gissing’s novels needed now – by more than a few readers with a special interest in him or his times? Raymond Williams advised Patrick Parrinder against reading the novels in the winter, as ‘a tactful and tolerant supervisor solicitous about my emotional health’, as Parrinder puts it. Scandal and an absolutely efflorescent unhappiness are to be found beneath the evasiveness, the depression and the undoubted elegance and even wit of his novels and his letters, The thousands of letters he wrote, laced though they are with self-pity and dismay, quite often ring with the pleasure he seems to have taken in writing them. That is some relief, even in this dark February.