A voice from the past - Dennis Hamley

I sometimes  think there are far more books on my shelves than are good for me.   There are some I've forgotten I had, some I'm aware I have but either can't remember what they're about or know that now I'll probably never read them.  Sometimes I cull the shelves by transferring hopeless cases to the Oxfam bookshop, sometimes I look on amazed as I recall the sudden enthusiasms which made me buy them.  And the other day I looked at a set of books that were spotty with age and remembered a real enthusiasm which I suddenly felt I might rekindle.

I read English at university and in my third year was suddenly aware of the novels of George Gissing.  And there some of the twenty-three are, still on my shelves: Thyrza, Born in Exile, The Whirlpool, Demos, New Grub Street, , In the Year of Jubilee, Will Warburton, A Life's Morning, Veranilda.  A travel book, By the Ionian Sea. A short story collection, The House of Cobwebs. A series of thinly disguised autobiographical essays, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft.   A collection of critical articles on him. His own letters to his family.

My far from complete Gissing collection.
New Grub Street seems to have got itself lost.

I mentioned Gissing to friends.  They looked blank and said, 'Who?'  This was wonderful.  Perhaps nobody in Cambridge except me knew about him.  First, I read Demos.  I sort of liked it and so started collecting his books - no easy task: many secondhand bookshops had to be ransacked.   I resolved that if, by any impossible chance, they let me stay on to do a PhD, I'd do it on Gissing.  (They didn't, so I didn't).  I asked someone whose opinion I trusted why he thought GG wasn't read any more and lent him Born in Exile.  He returned it three days later saying, 'Because he's unreadable.'  A bit hard, but I have to say that I know what he meant.

Gissing has two good modern biographies, by Paul Delaney and by Pierre Coustillas, who calls him 'a scrupulous, original artist who cared more for the quality and sincerity of his work  than for the demands of the public.'  And that's true.  These are sober, worthy books depicting an underclass fairly dispassionately and often very powerfully.  He was called 'the English Zola', though nobody to my knowledge has ever called Zola 'The French Gissing.'  He started out as a Socialist.  His first novel, with the suggestive title Workers in the Dawn, sold twenty-nine copies.  But, as he rapidly became one of their number, he  developed a sort of distaste for the poor.  He had an aim to bring them up to a more refined state, more, in fact, like himself.  Pygmalion-like, he especially wanted to mould women, whom he idolised all his life despite bitter experience, to his ideal specifications.   It works for a minor character in Born in Exile.  He tried it in real life, twice.  Both were disasters.  But the yearning never left him.  Does this make him an unconscious misogynyst?  He would certainly deny it.

His actual life is extraordinary.  More entertaining, if that's the right word, than his novels.   He was born in Wakefield in 1857.  Precociously brilliant, he won a scholarship to Owens College, Manchester, forerunner of Manchester University, and looked set for an academic career.  But one night he went out, met an orphaned prostitute named Nell and tried to help her with money,  Unfortunately he had none, so he stole it from other students, was caught and did a month's hard labour in prison.   When he was released, his mother paid for him to go to America, whether through a desire to help or just to get him out of her way it's hard to tell.  Here, he wandered penniless until he saw a saw a newspaper advertisement calling for short stories.  So he spent his last dollar on a packet of peanuts, pen and paper and wrote one.  It was accepted, he did more and his career in publishing had started.  He earned enough from the stories to come back to Britain and promptly married Nell.  Big mistake, though for him probably emotionally inevitable.  Not only did she not want to be brought up to his intellectual standards  but she had started drinking heavily.  They separated and he came to London to start his true writing career, but never earned a royalty because his poverty demanded that he had to accept outright payments.  He needed the money and his publishers quickly homed in on his problem.

George GissingAll fascinating.  But occurred to me in my 3rd year that I might be wasting my time because I couldn't find a single question about Gissing in any old tripos papers.  One day I said to my supervisor, 'I hope I haven't done all this for nothing.' 'I'll see what I can do,' he answered, but I'm sure I only imagined that he touched the side of his nose with his forefinger.   But there it was, in the 19th-century paper:  'Gissing was merely peevish about poverty.'  Discuss.  So I did, at some length.

In a simplistic sort of way, it's true.  But he brought misfortune on himself almost wilfully.  When she was thirty, Nell died, drunk and alone.  Meanwhile Gissing, lonely though not a loner, went down the Marylebone Road, met a girl called Edith, married her within two weeks, started to try to 'improve' her and then found she was severely disturbed, prone to vicious rages, made his life an unbearable hell and, even after she was committed to an asylum, refused to grant him a divorce.  In The Year of Jubilee  he depicts just such a marriage.  The extraordinary thing is that the women in his books, Thyrza, Rhoda Nunn, Amy Reardon, the Madden sisters, are such sympathetic, attractive but unsentimentally drawn characters.   How much, when I first read New Grub Street, I would have loved to have known Amy, even though she deserts the saintly Edwin, her novelist husband and GG look-alike.  Gissing hated the masses but loved the individual.  That might be true of many but he took it to ridiculous extremes and it cost him dearly.   Born in Exile was not only a novel title but how Gissing saw himself.  In Born in Exile, Godwin Peak, like Gissing, leaves his college in unusual circumstances and then falls in love with Sidwell Warricombe, sister of an upper-class college friend and daughter of a senior clergyman living in Exeter.  Godwin tries to hide his social origins by purporting to be entering the Church, despite a fiercely agnostic essay he has had published, but is found out and rejected - a rejection Gissing imagined himself suffering every time he tried to move upwards from a section of the population to which he felt alien.

It meant that his depiction of the life of the poor is unsparing but his grip on reality beyond it is defective.  In Demos, wish-fulfilment triumphs, nature reclaims the mills and factories and the old innocent ways are restored.  Though his observation remains unsentimental, an attitude of distaste still comes through.  There's a sentence in Demos - 'He pronounced "clerk" as it is spelt.  It made him seem yet more ignoble,'  which is a social judgement if ever there was one.

But his observation, especially of the contemporary publishing scene, is unmatchable.   Every writer should read New Grub Street, meet  its rich gallery of characters and understand how we got to where we are today.  Jasper Milvain (with such a name how can he not be a villain?) regards himself as 'the literary man of 1882'' as opposed to Edwin Reardon, who 'won't make concessions' and 'sells a manuscript as though he lives in Sam Johnson's Grub Street.  But our Grub Street of today is quite a different place: it is supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy.'   Then there's Harold Biffen, with his unsaleable realist novel Mr Bailey, Grocer (interestingly, in Will Warburton, the hero loses everything and has to start again as a grocer).  And especially there is Whelpdale's cynical  formula for reading matter for the new 'quarter-educated' (a phrase Gissing uses more than once) emerging from the Board schools after the 1870 Education Act, who 'can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention... who want ...bits of stories, bits of jokes, bits of foolery ...no article is to measure more than two inches in length and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.'   Whelpdale buys an ailing magazine called Chat, renames it Chit-chat and the long trek to Hello and OK has started.

       Product Details
The Penguin Classics New Grub Street.
                                   I must buy it to replace my missing World's Classic edition.

So there Gissing is.  Not a great or even a particularly readable novelist.  But you must keep at it.  He makes you work hard but sometimes the rewards are great.  Not an altogether attractive personality, but a crucial figure in Victorian society and literature.  He did have a short-lived late personal  flowering in France and the Mediterranean, but by then he had TB.  He fell in love with a Frenchwoman, Gabrielle Fleury, but couldn't marry her because Edith refused a divorce.  The relationship was ruined by the attitude of Gabrielle's mother, who disapproved of such irregular behaviour.  And so he died in 1903, in final misery, with HG Wells vainly feeding him steaks to bulk him out a bit.  The victim of his own personality, he left twenty-three books which could have been so much better.  Even so, today he has a small but loyal readership, more loyal, I fear, l than I have been.

In 1964 I left my first teaching post and crossed the Pennines to Wakefield.  I was attracted not just by the school I moved to but also because Wakefield didn't only mean Miracle Plays: it was Gissing's home town.  My two great literary interests of the time in the same place.  Unlike me he hated the place, got out the moment he could and  wrote A Life's Morning about it.  In this novel, he calls Wakefield 'Dunfield'.  When I wrote Pageants of Despair, my first novel, set in medieval Wakefield, I borrowed the name as a tiny act of homage.   The Head once gave me the afternoon off to give an after-lunch talk to the Wakefield Rotary Club about GG.  I didn't have to go back to school afterwards: the Head had a pretty good idea of the eating and drinking habits of some Rotarians of the time and sadly I don't remember much of what I said, though I did once find my notes again and they seemed quite sensible.   But meanwhile Wakefield has woken up to him.  There's now a Gissing Study Centre in the city and his old house has been saved and preserved..  I've not been back for years, but next time I go I'll be round there.

His last word on his novels: '...the most important part of my work is that which deals with a class of young men distinctive of our time - well-educated, fairly-bred but without money.'

Oh, how much, in 1959, I identified with that!   No wonder I was so interested in him -  and, now I've reacquainted myself, I find I still am.


CallyPhillips said…
Fascinating. Gissing has lately come into my peripheral vision but haven't actually READ any yet. Will change that immediately. It's good to remember that plenty of writers don't become bestsellers or make it onto exam syllabi, but they still had something to offer and plenty to say. I suspect more of us are in that camp than will ever be in the true 'bestseller' camp and that's fine. Allingham, Gissing and there are many more I'm working on (with) right now, so I hope we'll soon see a reflowering of many 'forgotten' writers. Thanks for the nudge Gissing's way Dennis, he's right up there on my 'to read' list with Bennett... I think he's just won the battle for who first!
Dennis Hamley said…
Thanks Cally. I think I'll have to read some more Bennett (Arnold, not Lydia), though from what I know already that does involve a slight sinking of the heart. Horrified by the fact that I couldn't find my old N G Street I went off to Blackwells on Monday and found that they were doing the OUP eds of NGS, The Odd Women and The Nether World as a 3 for 2. I didn't have copies of TOW and TNW so I bought all three. I read The Nether World years ago and it is quite powerful, though fairly depressing, stuff. But it does end in a comparatively inspiring way. Notice how every time I praise Gissing I add a cautious qualifying adjective. I just can't seem to help it.
Chris Longmuir said…
Absolutely fascinating post, and I must say the sales of his first book amounting to 29 copies, makes me feel reasonably successful!
Jan Needle said…
Mmm. More work. I downloaded New Grub Street about a year ago and (as you do) never got round to it. Now I'll have to, damn you. And I STILL haven't found the time I need for your work...
Lydia Bennet said…
fascinating post Dennis. Your loyalty to the writer makes it seem a personal relationship with him, which is what we do have with writers we love or feel call to us in some way. I actually like Arnold Bennett,great characters, and most of all, there's an underlying feeling of his love for, and empathy with, his characters despite their fautlts and limitations which shines through. He's pretty good at writing female characters too and often comes across as 'modern' in his approach. So I hope your heart won't sink too much! if you've not read The Card, a short one, it's funny and quirky.
Ann Evans said…
Fascinating post Dennis. I must admit I hadn't heard of Gissing, but your post has inspired me to find out more. Must say, I love the character Whelpdale's cynical formula for reading matter for the 'quarter educated' - "No article is to measure more than 2" in length and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs." Nothing changes!
glitter noir said…
I've been wanting to look into Grub Street for years...and now I'm determined to give it a try. Thanks for this terrific post.
julia jones said…
"He left behind 23 books which cold have been so much better" What a judgement - and how true. A unique voice and hugely valuable - though I have to say give me Bennett every time. Is there a decent biog of Gissing? If there is I've missed it. Just carry on as you're going!
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Julia, there are two new ones, neither of which I have yet read. George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delaney, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2008 and The Heroic Life of George Gissing by Pierre Coustillas (pub. Pickering and Chatto), which would be pretty heroic to read, let alone buy, because it's in three parts and Amazon has a special offer on all three for a mere £180. Part 3 only came out in December 2012. I'll read them at the Bodleian when I can be bothered to get a readers' ticket but I might buy the Delaney. So no chance of a biog from me. when he rejected my Coleridge novel, David Fickling said 'Why don't you write a biography of him?" "Where do you think I got all that stuff in the novel from?" I had to answer. I'd hate to do some secondary source rush job.

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