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.’

If Gissing felt that he could not show his face – and certainly not Nell’s – at home in Wakefield, his break with the social and religious proprieties of his upbringing did not result in the significant alienation from the family that biographical accounts, including Delany’s, suggest. His primary correspondents until well into his thirties were his siblings, and the letters from which biographers take the facts of his life attest to his continuing immersion in the Gissing clan. Gissing was not the only member of his family who had grown up to think himself mentally superior to others of his kind; his younger brothers, William and Algernon, shared his sense of special merit gone unrewarded by the world. The brothers kept up a triangular correspondence in which they exhorted each other to become more practical, cheered each other on, communed in low spirits and shared information. Gissing, whose father had died when he was 13, acted as the mentor and exercised this function with special fervour in the case of Algernon. He provided tutoring and shared lodgings with Algernon when he came to London. After Algie passed his exams but failed to set up a viable law practice, Gissing encouraged his desire to write novels (bad as he knew they were), sent advice about technique and found something to praise in each effort. The family thought of their finances as if they were still an interdependent unit; Algernon received numerous ‘loans’ that would not be repaid, and many of Gissing’s own financial transactions were mediated through Wakefield. Even Nell briefly became a family enterprise when William took her to his country cottage in an attempt to cure her various illnesses with fresh air; it is through his letters that we get a tiny glimpse of Nell as someone who could remind Gissing which drawer his socks were in, and fashion a violin bag for Will. When William died at 20, he had already exerted himself strenuously but hopelessly in two careers – banking and music.

The younger sisters, Margaret and Ellen, became more prominent in Gissing’s life as they grew older. They, too, were adjured to read, cultivate themselves and make themselves into the literary companions that he craved. Gissing separated from Nell – in effect paying her to stay away – after putting up with about five years of increasingly bad health and behaviour, including embarrassing fits in public places. His hopes of making her respectable through contact with his own domestic requirements had come to nothing. Between their separation and Nell’s death in 1888, Gissing turned his attention to his sister Ellen, as if she might become the partner he wanted. He invited her to stay, got her to sympathise with his wretched life, and imagined a future in which they might understand each other. After Nell died, it was Ellen who came to London to console her brother. This project failed, like all of Gissing’s attempts to create a woman in his own image: Ellen was unable to give up her resistance to the radical tenor of his books. Yet when the time came, the unmarried sisters in Wakefield were there to take charge of Gissing’s first son, Walter, whose mother (Gissing’s second wife) could not stand him.

Gissing’s marriage to Nell seems (almost) understandable, given his youth, his idealism, his loyalty, his kindness and his tendency to give way to the stronger desires of others until he had accumulated enough evidence to revolt or flee. As Delany surmises, Gissing’s tendency to read life through literature may also have contributed to his early belief that Nell was fundamentally a good woman who could be redeemed (Delany suggests the influence of Rossetti’s poem ‘Jenny’, though other Victorian prostitute figures like Nancy in Oliver Twist also come to mind). It is his second marriage, to an uneducated London stonemason’s daughter, Edith Underwood, made when he was experienced enough to know better, that drives a reader to wonder about Gissing’s soundness of mind.

In 1890, when he allegedly picked Edith up on the Marylebone Road and took her to the Oxford Music Hall, Gissing was almost 33. He had published his best novels of lower-class life in Lambeth (Thyrza) and Clerkenwell (The Nether World), and was beginning New Grub Street, the book that would solidify his reputation. He now had connections and opportunities for friendship with educated men and women, and had won the respect of Thomas Hardy and George Meredith. For six years – his longest stay in one place – he had occupied a respectable flat on the edge of Regent’s Park. As if compelled for a second time to kick away his chances of success and suitable companionship, Gissing married a woman who made it impossible for him to enjoy domestic peace or ordinary social intercourse with his peers. His two sons, hostages to their father’s anxiety and their mother’s mental decline, haunted Gissing with the need to provide for their futures even after he had abandoned them to the care of others and left England to live out his final years of illness with Gabrielle Fleury in France, where he died of lung disease soon after his 46th birthday.

Delany’s meditations on the interplay of class consciousness and sexual puritanism in Gissing’s psyche cannot fully explain the state of mind that led him to marry Edith Underwood. They do, however, create a vivid study of a rigid personality riven by conflicting impulses. Thankfully, Delany offers no overall diagnosis; instead, he repeatedly returns to puzzle over the meanings of particular decisions and situations. Discussing the possibility that Gissing had an affair with his upper-class benefactress Elizabeth Gaussen, Delany writes:

Why were Gissing’s sexual interests always aimed either below or above the social level where he himself lived? He might have suffered much less from loneliness and sexual deprivation if he had chosen women whose status was closer to his own. But such women seemed to have little appeal for him. They had neither the coarse sexuality of a work-girl nor the glamour of a society lady. Another hindrance was his difficulty in seeing any woman as his equal; or, more precisely, if he had an equal relation – with Clara Collet, for example – it seemed to exclude a romantic attachment.

This kind of analysis is characteristic of Delany’s approach. Again:

That dilemma of the thwarted soul was at the heart of Gissing’s early fiction, and it was insoluble so long as he rejected the two possible ways of escape from it. One was to leave conscience behind and seize whatever he could get in the world; he was too much in thrall to the morality of his youth to break out in that way. The other solution was to see his suffering as typical of a whole class, and look to socialism for salvation; he had examined that choice in Demos and found it wanting. He was left with a personal consciousness that was incapable of enjoyment, and a collective consciousness that he could not trust.

Though Gissing yearned for good company, he resisted most of his chances to enjoy it. Delany blames his anti-social personality and a compulsive work ethic that made pleasure difficult, though he seems to enjoy writing about the moments when Gissing managed to have a good time – exploring Italy, for example, or meeting a compatible literary friend like H.G. Wells. The mood changes evident in Gissing’s normally reasonable letters suggest that he may have suffered from periodic bouts of severe depression that destroyed his faith in himself and his social worthiness, but Delany sticks primarily to explanations based on disturbances in his class and gender consciousness.

Delany’s rather Gissingesque character analyses risk being hard on his subject, just as Gissing risked the criticism that his characters were never given any fortunate breaks. His biography displays a generously thoughtful commitment to understanding how Gissing’s psyche worked, but too often he faults Gissing for failing to see what, ideally, he might have done, particularly in his relations with women. While it is clear that Gissing bore the blame – and knew it – for marrying and making demands on women who couldn’t understand his values, Delany only occasionally finds a convincing balance in his discussions of Gissing’s domestic relations with Nell and Edith. As a result he leaves us wondering why so many upper-class women found Gissing appealing enough to help him in substantial ways.

Delany gives excellent accounts of Gissing’s unending anxieties about money, his inability to negotiate reasonable terms with publishers, his increasing panic when the writing machine ground to a halt, and his gradual achievement of visibility in literary circles. He provides helpful contexts for matters ranging from Owens College to Positivism to the nature of Nell’s illnesses. He floats biographical controversies – did Nell give Gissing syphilis? – without feeling he has to solve them definitively. He follows Gissing’s growing reputation with consistent attention to the reviews of his books, and is particularly interesting on his relationships with Meredith, Hardy and Wells. Gissing’s failure to appreciate Hardy, the writer whose class and temperament were closest to his own, throws a keen light on his off-kilter sense of superiority – or was it a form of self-protection?

A literary biographer’s hardest task is to find a tactful relationship between the writer’s life and the imagined worlds which emerge from that life. For the most part Delany does this well; he knows the novels and stories, but refrains from marching his reader through their plots, and from making direct correspondences between Gissing and characters in his books. He moves easily and suggestively between dilemmas in Gissing’s life and certain relevant aspects of the novels, keeping his attention primarily on the story of the man and the reception of his work. In a brief flare of literary history, he writes that ‘Gissing was doing much of the demolition work for the 20th-century English novel’ by refusing to fit his characters into the reward-and-punishment system of the ‘conventional Victorian plot’. However, it is not part of his project to reappraise the work, or to consider why this good but not great novelist might continue to command attention.

Although most of Gissing’s 23 novels are in print, acquaintance with his work outside universities is rare. Few people read him for pleasure, or take him up as a project, the way one might with Trollope. If a novel by Gissing appears on a reading list, it’s usually for its topical focus: The Nether World (1889) is a study of urban poverty in Clerkenwell; New Grub Street (1891) pictures the scramble for existence in the literary marketplace; The Odd Women (1893) treats late-century feminist emancipation movements. In the Year of Jubilee (1894) records Gissing’s horror at the encroachment of urban mass culture and advertising, while The Whirlpool (1897) moves up the class ladder to study the culture of money and spite among characters affected by the collapse of a fraudulent financier. These novels tend to be read sociologically, because they display the contradictions of Fin-de-Siècle social thought: Darwinism, feminism, socialism, urban capitalism and the rise of mass popular culture.

In Gissing’s imagined world, all human ideals, plans, wishes and schemes founder on the rock of character. Insofar as he is a novelist of social ideas, these ideas are introduced so that they can be questioned and undermined when characters attempt to put them into action. If that is a depressing vision, it is an amazingly fertile one. Each new novel brings a slightly different class context and a different social issue, dramatising a wide range of characters who play out variations on the central theme. The Nether World gives us a hierarchy of carefully distinguished forms of poverty, from Sidney Kirkwood’s respectable work at a jeweller’s to the labourer Hewett’s family on the brink of financial disaster, to Mrs Candy’s alcoholic daze in a tenement room. What might look, from another point of view, like a neighbourhood populated by a single social class becomes instead a whole social register of divergent pathologies shaped by different relationships to poverty. Higher up the social scale, The Odd Women concerns the struggle of poor but educated middle-class women who need independent means of support, and moves from young women being trained for new kinds of clerical work – shorthand, typing – to a heroine who has to confront the challenge of an ‘emancipated’ unmarried liaison. By the time any idea of social relief or reform is mooted, its insufficiency is apparent.

Whatever his apparent topic, Gissing always returns to an obsession he shared with other novelists of his period: the failure of relationships between men and women. He excels at depicting marital distrust: dialogues between unhappily married couples like Monica and Edmund Widdowson (The Odd Women) or Edwin and Amy Reardon (New Grub Street) or Alma and Harvey Rolfe (The Whirlpool) give an impression of intellectual equality, forthright speech, and withheld feelings of rage, rebellion or disgust. Couples ‘process’ their marriages in remarkably modern ways, attempting to find a kind of verbal peace in situations where there is no emotional reserve of faith. Gissing follows these fraying relationships with extreme attentiveness; we are made aware that the process can’t reach a stable endpoint even after couples have separated.

Gissing’s fictive marriages fail because they ought not to have been made in the first place. Characters don’t fall in love; instead, they become disturbed in the presence of a man or woman whom they will probably marry because they have decided that such a marriage – or any marriage – would be a bad idea. Quite often men propose against their better judgment, to women who have become vulnerable after some kind of fall: Sidney Kirkwood marries the aspiring actress Clara Hewett after her face has been disfigured in an acid attack by a jealous colleague; at the other end of the social ladder, Harvey Rolfe marries the would-be violinist Alma Frothingham after the failure and suicide of her financier father. Women agree to marry primarily for social or financial security; if they marry in love and hope, like Amy Reardon, it’s only to find themselves unable to tolerate a life of financial uncertainty. Once married, men and women indulge in differently destructive practices. Men mistakenly attempt to educate and shape their wives into the attentive domestic creatures they yearn for; at the same time they fail in their responsibility as husbands when they withdraw, allowing their wives the liberty of independent existence. Women assert their own needs and personalities in increasingly neurotic ways, or are inflamed by misplaced jealousy of other women in their husbands’ lives.

Underlying the crisis of marriage is a deeper crisis of ambition and restlessness that troubles both male and female characters. Most of Gissing’s male protagonists don’t really know what to do with themselves. If they have incomes, they are confused about their vocations; if they are energetic and ambitious workers they have doubts, and will in any case be ground to dust because they marry the wrong person. Even a marriage based on love will be treated like this passing summary of a very minor middle-class character in Thyrza:

By nature a student, he had wedded a woman who became something not far removed from a fashionable beauty. It was a passionate attachment on both sides at first, and to the end he loved his wife with the love which can deny nothing. The consequence was that the years of his prime were wasted, and the intellectual promise of his youth found no fulfilment.

There are exceptions, of course, like the hard-working mathematician who finally marries the woman who has grown old waiting for him in The Odd Women. Gissing, however, makes a point of representing this pair in a noticeably Dickensian style, as if to suggest a distinctly mid-Victorian ideal. More heartening is the realistic, plain-spoken, working-class Totty Nancarrow of Thyrza, who cares for another worker’s children and then kindly insists on marrying him. But his major characters – the ones whose vacillating inner lives are accessible through free indirect discourse – attest to Gissing’s special understanding of emotional restlessness and unstable moral reasoning. The best his men can achieve is friendship with the romantically inaccessible women who share and sympathise with their failed ideals.

The ambition of women is more troubled territory. True to his essentially Victorian cast of mind, Gissing can only rarely imagine an ambitious woman who is not essentially hysterical. It’s fine to run an agency that trains young women to be independent by mastering the typewriter: Gissing never gave up on his belief that women are at their best when they help other people. But it is not acceptable – either for a working-class girl or a middle-class married woman – to aspire to an artistic career. Whether it’s Clara in The Nether World or Alma in The Whirlpool, Gissing presents a woman’s ambition to go on the stage merely as a bid for admiring attention based on a chaotic need for social revenge. At the same time his position is complicated by his horrified sympathy with these women’s flailing thoughts and passions, as he struggles to render their states of mind. However conservative his vision of women may be, we carry away from Gissing a powerful sense of psychosocial unease that only a novelist with a good deal of talent and powers of concentration could produce.

Gissing was the most significant London novelist after Dickens, and his urban vision is often seen in the light of that comparison. Dickens was saturated in London and brought it to life in animated flights of language; in his novels he sews widely separated parts of the city together by tracing the routes walked by his characters. Gissing felt that his writing depended on the stimulus of London, and he was a fastidious student of particular neighbourhoods. ‘And then again the question is how to get into a lifetime the work suggested by this myriad-voiced London,’ he wrote to Hardy in 1887. ‘Every year I hate it more and more, longing for the pure sky, yet every year I see in it more opportunity for picturing.’ Gissing’s ‘picturing’ meant research in the streets. After repeated walking tours of Clerkenwell, or Lambeth, or Camberwell, he could tell us in detail the routes his characters take, on foot or public transport; he could imagine a cast of characters that might inhabit certain houses and buildings, and the relationships they would develop through physical proximity. His street pictures, dark in tone but alive in accuracy, attest to a notion of realism that he inherited from George Eliot. In a small manifesto of 1895, Gissing described this notion in defiance of the many critics who accused him of an overly pessimistic naturalism:

Realism, then, signifies nothing more than artistic sincerity in the portrayal of contemporary life; it merely contrasts with the habit of mind which assumes that a novel is written ‘to please people’, that disagreeable facts must always be kept out of sight, that human nature must be systematically flattered, that the book must have a ‘plot’, that the story should end on a cheerful note and all the rest of it.

The sincerity of the writer, he believed, is an ‘extraordinary power of presenting life as he, and no other man, beheld it’. Gissing’s life story leaves us with a lingering sadness, but no other man could have written his books.