Monday, December 14, 2015

A Writer's Life in London

by George Gissing

“But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market. I--well, you may say that at present, I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell, he'll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits.”   ― George Gissing, New Grub Street

New Grub Street presents in a realistic narrative, the contemporary working conditions of a new class, the professional author. George Gissing, born the son of a chemist in 1857, was as an author breaking important new ground, as well as responding to significant cultural change in the literary generation after Dickens and Thackeray. His naturalistic style provides an urban alternative to the rural novels of Thomas Hardy.

The eponymous hero of David Copperfield is also a writer, but Dickens focuses primarily, and in some detail, on Copperfield's childhood, not his career as a novelist. He does not delve into the gritty world and threadbare texture of Victorian literary life. This may be partly due to the social and cultural upheavals inspired by changes in the culture of British education in the latter decades of the Victorian era. George Gissing's career as a man of letters was the product of this. For the rest of the century, the lives of writers and readers would undergo a profound transformation which would permanently reshape the British literary landscape. Henceforth, high and low literary culture would increasingly diverge. This is one of the main themes in John Carey's important critical study The Intellectuals and the Masses. It is also the animating idea of New Grub Street.

Gissing was hardly alone in finding the role and conduct of the modern writer an urgent topic in late Victorian literary London. A year before New Grub Street, Henry James also published a novel, The Tragic Muse, about "the conflict between art and 'the world'", though James focused on painting and the stage more than literature. Even in our era with the internet revolution promoting another paradigm shift, Gissing's subject remains as topical as ever, and addresses timeless themes in the everyday life of the full-time, professional writer.

In New Grub Street, the narrative is set in the literary world with which Gissing himself was intimately familiar; the title refers to the London street that, in the eighteenth century world of Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne, was synonymous with hack writing. By the 1890s, Grub Street no longer existed, though hack writing, of course, never goes away, with timeless imperatives. As one character puts it: "Our Grub Street of today is supplied with telegraphic communications, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy." (p 9)

The novel's protagonists are a contrasted pair of writers: thoughtful Edwin Reardon, a shy "literary" novelist with few commercial prospects; and Jasper Milvain, a hard-driving young journalist who treats his writing as the means to an end in a ruthless literary marketplace. "I speak," he says, "only of good, marketable stuff for the world's vulgar." Reardon will face continual difficulties while Milvain will flourish in literary London ("I write for the upper-middle-class of intellect, the people who like to feel that what they are reading has some special cleverness").

New Grub Street is Victorian in its realist depiction of a society in transition, but modern in the way it harks forward to the imminent new century with its portrait of the artist as an existential character making his solitary way in the world. For example Reardon ponders on memories of moments with his wife Amy on their honeymoon, remembering their voices:
"The voices seemed to be lingering still, in a sad, faint echo, so short a time it was since those words were uttered.
His own fault. A man has no business to fail; least of all can he expect others to have time to look back upon him or pity him if he sink under the stress of conflict. Those behind will trample over his body; they can't help it; they themselves are borne onwards by resistless pressure." (p 212)

The resistless pressure of life is ultimately too much for Gissing's sad protagonist.  He is like the hero of Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy's final novel;  Jude Fawley is a working-class boy who dreams of becoming an Oxford scholar.  Hardy's Jude is Reardon's West Country equivalent. While Gissing's natural world is depressing his literary depiction of it is brilliant - a truly great novel.

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Lory said...

I had the same experience when I read Gissing's The Odd Women: his world is depressing but the portrayal of it is brilliant. I'd like to read this one as well -- sounds like a fascinating setting too.

James said...


Thanks for the reference to The Odd Women. I will consider that for my future reading along with In the Year of the Jubilee which I have in paperback from the Hogarth Press.

Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary on this book.

You raise an interesting comparison with David Cooperfield. The lack of much emphasis on the literary career of the protagonist in that work seemed a strange omission.

I really like the last passage that you quote. Though I do not know its entire context, it seems so philosophically sad.

James said...


Dickens created an interesting portrait of a young writer in David Copperfield, but left out the career that he may have had. Gissing's novel in its naturalistic approach is sad much of the time.