As with many Victorian writers, George Gissing’s life (1857-1903) reads rather like one of his novels. In some spooky cases, his life actually imitated his art, the fates suffered by some of his characters later befalling the author. Born in Wakefield in 1857, George Gissing’s existence was one of eternal struggle. Although a gifted scholar, the early death of his pharmacist father left Gissing perennially short of money. His extraordinary talent won him a prestigious scholarship to Owen College (now the University of Manchester) and it looked as though his troubles were over, with a distinguished academic career virtually guaranteed. However, his weakness for a prostitute called Nell was to be his undoing. Initially her client, they soon became lovers, but she still demanded increasing sums of money from him to fund her alcohol addiction. With very limited means, he was forced to steal on her behalf and was eventually caught when the suspicious college authorities laid a trap for him. He was expelled in disgrace and his family wanted nothing more to do with their black sheep.
After a short spell in prison, Gissing emigrated to Boston, hoping to put some distance between him and his disgrace. He supported himself through writing and teaching, proving to be gifted at both. His continued correspondence with Nell, however, meant he was unable to completely embrace his new life, and he soon returned to England. He settled in London and began eking out an existence through literary hackwork. Any chance of advancing himself was scuppered by the reappearance of Nell, who came to live him. Her anti-social behaviour meant they were continually having to look for new lodgings, and her drunken outbursts ruined his concentration. She would also regularly desert him to return to her old trade.
Despite these considerable challenges, in 1879 Gissing managed to complete his first novel – Workers in the Dawn. This achievement was tempered by his curious decision to marry Nell a few days before it was finished. Even more curiously, his action mirrored that of his protagonist, Arthur Golding, a talented artist from humble origins who marries an alcoholic prostitute in the hope of reforming her. Like Arthur, Gissing believed that marriage would provide a moral framework which would help Nell improve herself, and also give him the stability he craved. Unfortunately, Workers in the Dawn was not an auspicious start. No publishers were prepared to take a punt on this unknown writer, and Gissing was forced to spend £125 of his own money to get it published. This was at the time Disraeli received a whopping £10,000 advance for Endymion, thus illustrating the enduring bankability of celebrity. He earned a paltry sixteen shillings from sales of 49 copies, and the critical reception was distinctly frosty.
Undeterred, Gissing continued writing in the hope of achieving critical acclaim and financial reward. He separated from Nell, moving house several times in order to evade her, but she kept tracking him down (just like Arthur Golding’s wife). The quality of his fiction improved, and novels such as The Unclassed, Demos, Thyrza and A Life’s Morning received some favourable reviews. There was to be little financial reward, however – his perpetual impecunious state forced him to accept trifling flat rate fees, rather than a potentially more lucrative royalty. When success came, it was the publishers, rather than Gissing, who benefited. He worked himself ragged and had but a few hundred pounds a year to show for it.
After a particularly bleak period, a measure of relief came in the form of Nell’s death. They had been estranged again, and Nell’s body was found in a miserable room in Lambeth. She had died of alcohol, syphilis, cold and hunger. Gissing used the powerful emotion evoked by her tragic end to spur him on to new literary heights, beginning with his masterly account of urban decay, The Nether World. Although this work graphically depicted the plight of London’s poor, Gissing’s agenda was not one of reform, rather a Social Darwinist argument that the very lowest classes were irredeemably hopeless, and any intervention in their miserable lives would be entirely pointless. Gissing believed that social class was an indelible mark, and that any attempt to rise above one’s station in life would end in disappointment, or worse. Although an intensely depressing read, The Nether World is a welcome antidote to Dickens’s irrepressibly chirpy cockney sparrows, whose essential good nature shines through the grime of their poverty. There couldn’t be much more difference between the diminutive heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop and Gissing’s own Nell.
Although Nell’s death had meant freedom for Gissing, he struggled with his solitary state, threatening to appropriate the first “decent work-girl” he could find. The waspish H G Wells commented that Gissing sought another wife simply because he couldn’t afford prostitutes. His first biographer wrote that he met Edith Underwood when unbearable solitude prompted him to rush into Baker Street and speak to the first woman he saw. His intentions towards her were entirely dishonourable – he was too poor to marry an “equal”, so compromised on co-habitation with someone he considered beneath him. Edith, however, was unconvinced by the merits of a free union, and he was forced to relent and give her the dubious honour of becoming the second Mrs Gissing.
One could take a generous view of his behaviour by concluding that he was distracted by the completion of arguably his greatest novel, New Grub Street. As Halperin writes, it deals with the “collision of the creative impulse with material circumstances,” a situation with which Gissing was only too familiar. It is almost masochistic, therefore, that he exacerbated this collision by making another imprudent marriage. Many reviewers disliked the inherent pessimism in New Grub Street, but overall it was praised for its power and skilled execution. Although sales were brisk, Gissing had again accepted a meagre flat payment (£150), and the profits from one of his most successful novels lined the pockets of his publisher. He ploughed on with his writing, the time with the more commercially-minded bigamy novel, Denzil Quarrier, the completion of which coincided with the arrival of his first son. Gissing’s reaction to this addition to his family was characteristically mournful: “The baby has a very ugly dark patch over right eye. Don’t know the meaning of it.”
With another mouth to feed, Gissing’s financial situation became even more precarious. Even at his peak, he was averaging only £500 per annum. He was incredulous at the news that Mrs Humphry Ward had earned £18,000 (around £900,000) from David Grieve. Perhaps the resulting feelings of inadequacy prompted the idea for his next novel, The Odd Women. Although drawing attention to the predicament of those one million “surplus” spinsters who were destined never to marry, Gissing’s call for women to be educated was inspired by his belief that it would make them better wives for intelligent men (like himself). He well-publicised views on the matter were:
“I am convinced there will be no social peace until women are intellectually trained very much as men are. More than half the misery of life is due to the ignorance and the childishness of women…I am driven frantic by the crass imbecility of the typical woman.”
This outburst was perhaps provoked by Edith’s dislike of her husband’s novels and her inability to lose her “vile” London accent. Marriage seemed not to have a mellowing effect on either of them, and Gissing admitted defeat in 1897, leaving his wife and claiming that she had “behaved like a maniac”. Magnanimously, Gissing admitted that he too had been at fault in trying to remove her from her natural sphere, gallantly declaring that she “would have made an ordinary mate for the lower kind of London artisan.” His estrangement from Edith brought Gissing closer to H G Wells and his wife. The two authors were able to commiserate with one another over their often unfavourable critical reception. Gissing pondered as to the identity of the reviewers: “Are they women, soured by celibacy and by ineffectual attempts to succeed as authors?…They are beastly creatures.”
It was during the unlikely event of H G Wells teaching Gissing to ride a bicycle that he met the third Mrs Gissing, Gabrielle Fleury. She had written to him to suggest a French translation of New Grub Street and decided to come and see the author for herself. She was young, intelligent and beautiful – Gissing’s ideal woman – and he fell hopelessly in love. Of course, there was the inconvenient matter of the previous Mrs Gissing in London, and she had been making a nuisance of herself by attacking her perceived enemies with a stick. Although Wells snottily reminded him that his duty lay with his wife and children, Gissing followed his heart and pursued his seemingly futile relationship with Gabrielle. He knew Edith would never give him the satisfaction of a divorce, and he bemoaned the unfairness of the English marriage laws which trapped men in unhappy unions. Presumably, it never occurred to him that the law didn’t treat women any better. His egregious solution was simply to move to France and marry Gabrielle anyway, keeping the news secret from those back home (echoing the plot of his earlier novel Denzil Quarrier). Divine retribution came in the form of an infuriating mother-in-law, who made his life a misery and practically starved him. Although he was the first time happy in a relationship, his perpetual lack of money forced him to endure yet another unsatisfactory domestic situation. The lack of food had a disastrous effect on his already delicate constitution and he decamped Chez Wells to be fattened up. Meanwhile, in true Victorian sensation tradition, Edith was confined to an asylum.
Gissing’s health continued to deteriorate, with H G Wells and Gabrielle squabbling over his sick bed that the other was responsible for his condition, and his struggle finally ended in 1903. Although loyal to his friend during life, Wells became positively vituperative after his death, which is not entirely surprising behaviour from this unpleasant little misogynist. He embarked upon a campaign to undermine Gissing’s literary reputation, which had risen towards the end of his career with the successes of Born in Exile, The Whirlpool, In the Year of Jubilee, and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. The Times‘ obituary was rather equivocal, evaluating his output as a “series of books which, if they cannot justly be called great work, were at least the work of a very able and conscientious literary artist, whose purity and solidity may win him a better chance of being read a hundred years hence than many writers of greater grace and more deliberately sought charm.” Whilst Gissing had greatly envied Mrs Humphry Ward’s astonishing ability to turn out remunerative novels, she is largely forgotten today, while there are three major editions of Gissing’s works in print.
Gissing’s attitude towards women was nothing short of rebarbative, but he is one of the most extraordinary writers of the nineteenth century. His novels are just as interesting as his life, mainly because they are so overwhelmingly autobiographical. His obsession with sex, money, and class are on every page, and many characters share his tendency towards exogamous marriages. Where else in Victorian fiction do the wicked always prosper and the good come to a sticky end? In Hardy, perhaps, but Gissing’s creations seem more realistic. John Halperin’s biography manages successfully to praise the work without endorsing the opinions of the author. I don’t always agree with Halperin’s assertions, such as his wholesale dismissal of Workers in the Dawn, but it is refreshing for a biographer to be unashamedly opinionated, rather than attempting to give an illusion of objectivity. My selfish perspective as a modern reader is that we wouldn’t have the novels without the misery. Gissing must have known that too, else he wouldn’t have done such a good job of making his life so extraordinarily complicated. As he said himself, “Few men, I am sure, have led so bitter a life.” Few men, I am sure, have written about it so well.