Give us a break

Rosemarie Bodenheimer

  • George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delany
    Phoenix, 444 pp, £14.99, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 7538 2573 0

‘For Gissing,’ Paul Delany notes, ‘writing was a grim and lonely task, made grimmer by one of the most disastrous family lives of any English writer. At times this misery threatened to become contagious.’ This confession comes at the end of Delany’s engaging new biography of George Gissing, and suggests the special difficulty of spending long periods in the company of the English novelist most known for the relentless pessimism of his novels and the self-destructive tendencies of his life. The dean of Gissing studies, Pierre Coustillas, has for decades provided Gissing materials and support to other scholars, but Delany is the first in more than 25 years to produce a full-scale biography, and the first to engage in an all-out struggle to come to terms with Gissing the man, leaving the novels to play useful supporting roles. If the misery threatens to become contagious, it is not for lack of biographical knowledge, inventiveness or sympathy on Delany’s part. The wish that Gissing’s life might have developed in a more satisfying way overcomes any student of Gissing as surely as it did the friends who tried to help him through his difficulties.

The first might-have-been would imagine Gissing’s easy progress into a successful life as a teacher of classical literature. Born in 1857, the first son of an intellectually curious pharmaceutical chemist in Wakefield, he was born to be a model scholarship boy. Brilliant at his studies, talented in learning ancient and modern languages, in love with an Arnoldian ideal of self-cultivation, and supported by a family that aspired beyond the provincial lower middle class, he won a scholarship to Owens College, Manchester. There he prepared his way to Oxbridge by passing every exam and winning every prize. His teacherly inclinations showed up early in his supportive cheerleading of fellow students as they approached their own exams, and continued in formal and informal ways throughout his life. During his early years in London he worked as a tutor to the sons of upper-middle-class families, earning high praise for the inventiveness and patience of his methods. He never gave up his efforts to encourage his younger siblings to share his love of the classical and modern works that he found – in his favourite youthful adjective – ‘glorious’. Some of the happiest times of his adulthood were spent on trips to Italy and Greece. What could have suited him more than the quasi-parental embrace of a university, where his hunger for the conversation of educated men, as well as his impracticality in matters of marriage and money, would be easily taken care of?

Something in Gissing made this path impossible. Whatever that something was, it resulted in the best known fact about his life: at 18 he was caught stealing money from his Owens College friends, in an attempt to support Marianne Helen (Nell) Harrison, a 17-year-old alcoholic prostitute with whom he had fallen in love. A month in prison was followed by a year in the United States, a stab at journalism, a return to England, a move to London, a reunion with Nell, and a decision to write novels. He would follow Dickens in taking London as his field; he would follow George Eliot in learning to write novels of interior struggle; he would come to know the life of the metropolitan lower classes by living in one poor lodging house after another, lasting in each as long as Nell’s good behaviour and the weekly shilling count allowed. And he would work, relentlessly driving himself through novel after novel, abandoning many, publishing on terrible terms, and somehow enduring it all with the ambition and stoicism of an unknown man in his twenties who had a great deal to prove. As he wrote to his brother Algernon in 1880, ‘you will see that I will force my way into the army of novelists, be my position there that of a private or of a general.’

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