George Gissing

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GISSING, GEORGE (1857–1903), British novelist and man of letters.

George Robert Gissing was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1857. A brilliant classics student, he seemed destined for an academic career but his prospects were ruined when, at the age of eighteen, he was imprisoned for stealing money to support a young prostitute whom he later married.

After a brief exile in America, Gissing returned to London in 1877 and scraped a living as a tutor while completing his first novel, Workers in the Dawn (1880), an ambitious "socialistic" novel that drew little attention. Undeterred, he produced in rapid succession several more novels set in the poorest levels of late-Victorian London life. Gissing's stance toward the slums—a strange mixture of loathing and compassion—was molded by his experiences as an educated, cultured man forced to cohabit entirely with those he viewed as irremediably ignorant and vulgar. His Demos (1886) investigates and condemns the horrors of rampant industrialism, but also descants on the futility of most philanthropic endeavor. For Gissing, democracy meant, in effect, mob rule and, worse, the end of all art, which flourishes in the soil of inequality. Other of his slum fictions, Thyrza (1887) and The Nether World (1889), offer a rather more balanced and sympathetic, but no less grim, picture.

In his short career Gissing wrote twenty-two novels, many short stories, a travel book, and some criticism. Turning aside from the slums as his prospects improved, the novels of his middle period deal with the lower levels of middle-class life and social problems of the day, or at least those where issues of class, money, and sexuality are uppermost. The Emancipated (1890) denounces Puritanism from the perspective of a self-assured, independent, misanthropic artist—a recurring fantasy self-image of the author's. In the Year of Jubilee (1894) is a panoramic novel that attacks conventional marriage and the vulgar pretensions of those he called "the vile lower middle class." As Gissing told Morley Roberts in a letter, "my books deal with people of many social strata … [but] the most characteristic, 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" (italics added). Godwin Peake, hero of Born in Exile (1892), is characteristic of this type: he is an intelligent, poor man who tries to penetrate the life of an upper-class cultured family by simulating religious views that he really despises. After the publication of The Whirlpool (1897), a wide-ranging study of corruption among the artistic moneyed classes, Gissing's creative energy flagged somewhat. The most distinctive product of his last phase was The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1902), the curious part-fictional, part-autobiographical memoir of a retired writer.

At the turn of the century Gissing's precarious health deteriorated quickly, and in 1903 he died of emphysema in France, where he had gone to live with a third partner. His private life had been miserable. He had contracted two wretched marriages: one wife was an alcoholic, the other mentally unstable. His impracticality and unwillingness to compromise with the literary marketplace kept him fairly poor, even though some of his books sold quite well. He refused, for example, to serialize much of his work, or to engage in journalism, and he sold most of his manuscripts for cash down. His sensitivity about having an unavowable guilty secret kept him aloof and limited his friendships. Yet misery seemed to feed rather than to inhibit his genius.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Gissing was firmly placed as one of the best late Victorian authors of the second rank. Some readers are repelled by his gloom, cultural conservatism, and extended passages of psychological analysis; but many more find his saturnine sense of humor, his lively dialogue, and his distinctively confiding, melancholy, occasionally exalted style challenging and insightful. His novels are not technically ambitious. All of them lie within the scope of the naturalistic and documentary tradition, and he has more in common with European masters such as Émile Zola (1840–1902) and Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) than with most of his English contemporaries. He is remembered best for his masterpiece New Grub Street (1891), which deals with struggling authors and their creative, financial, and marital difficulties. Also highly regarded is The Odd Women (1893), one of the best novels of emergent feminism, which deals from several different angles, not all of them equally sympathetic, with the plight—economic and marital—of the genteel, well-educated, single woman. Most agree that Gissing's work offers a most accessible pathway into urban alienation and rootlessness, as Victorian certainties started to disintegrate under the impact of modernism.

See alsoModernism; Realism and Naturalism; Turgenev, Ivan; Zola, Émile.


Primary Sources

Gissing, George. The Collected Letters of George Gissing. Edited by Paul Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young, and Pierre Coustillas. 9 vols. Athens, Ohio, 1990–1997. This superbly edited collection has reshaped current understanding of Gissing's career, and the long biographical essays preceding each volume are masterly.

——. The Nether World. Edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

——. New Grub Street. Edited by John Goode. Oxford, U.K., 1993.

——. The Whirlpool. Edited by William Greenslade. London, 1997.

——. The Odd Women. Edited by Patricia Ingham. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Secondary Sources

Halperin, John. Gissing: A Life in Books. Oxford, U.K., 1982.

Tindall, Gillian. The Born Exile: George Gissing. London, 1974.

Peter Morton

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Gissing, George (1857–1903). Novelist. Gissing made a career out of his own misery. Born in Wakefield, he seemed destined for brilliant academic honours, winning prize after prize at school and at Owen's College, Manchester. His progress ended abruptly at 18, when he was sent to gaol for a month for stealing from friends at college to support a prostitute, Nell Harrison, whom he subsequently married. She did not reform and died of alcoholism in 1888. Meanwhile Gissing had moved to London to scrape a living from authorship, achieving some success with Demos (1886), a fierce attack upon the demeaning effect of poverty. The same theme was pursued in New Grub Street (1891), the autobiographical element in his early work giving it a persistently lugubrious character. Gissing compounded his difficulties in 1891 by a second marriage to a working-class girl, who became a shrew and died in an asylum. His third (and bigamous) marriage in France was more successful, but Gissing complained that his mother-in-law starved him. His novels received some comment and considerable praise and he was compared with Zola, but they did not sell well. His later work showed greater variety of subject-matter and a more cheerful attitude in By the Ionian Sea (1901) and Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903). His finances were improving when he died of lung congestion at 46. The final twist of fate was when his novels began to attract much attention in the 1960s because of his interest in class relationships.

J. A. Cannon