And you don’t often get one in the novels of George Gissing.
“Writers’ lives are rarely as interesting as their books. The life of George Gissing (1857-1903) is an exception,” begins the introduction to Born in Exile, a book that was on my bookshelf and until recently unread.
I had read New Grub Street, surely required reading for any writer, many years ago and then a few other Gissing novels. They had made such an impression on me that I had also bought a biography Gissing, a life in books, by John Halperin, and so I knew a little of the author’s life. A life so frequently played out in his writing.
Gissing was born in Wakefield. A brilliant scholar he was expelled from college at the age of eighteen for stealing money from his fellow students to support his mistress, Nell, an alcoholic prostitute. He wanted to buy her a sewing machine to give her a respectable occupation. After the disgrace he went to America where he was kept from starvation by selling stories to Chicago newspapers. He returned to England but, no longer welcome at home, he left Wakefield for London. There he began writing while tutoring as a means of support and, disastrously, he met up with Nell again. They moved from lodging house to lodging house as Nell fell out with the landladies.
In 1879 Gissing’s first novel Workers in the Dawn was completed and, despite the misgivings he must have felt, he married Marianne Helen Harrison and contracted an exogamous marriage (yes, I had to look it up) that was to be a theme in so many of his novels. The well-educated, but poor, man marries a woman of low birth in the vain hope of elevating her to his standing. To a woman equal to him in intellect and rank he would be “unlovable”.
The marriage lasted until Nell’s death of drink and syphilis, cold and hunger in a miserable rented room in Lambeth in 1888. Gissing had not lived with his wife for several years but had provided her with an allowance. In the room he found many pawn tickets, the money she raised spent on drink. He redeemed her wedding ring. Less than three weeks later Gissing threw himself into writing The Nether World and finished it in July.
Reading the biography I am struck by the speed with which he completed his books, although corrections would come later at the proof stage. Between 1880 and 1903 he wrote 23 novels and 111 short stories, as well as non-fiction.
“Gissing’s subjects are sex, money, and class, and the three dovetail in most of his novels and stories into the single subject of marriage,” says Professor Halperin. To a friend Gissing wrote, ‘It is strange how many letters I get from women asking for sympathy and advice. I really can’t understand what it is in my work that attracts the female mind.”
Mr Gissing, you are not a light-hearted read. You eschew one word where six may be employed, and your novels are the three-volume tomes of the Victorian fashion. You are preoccupied with women’s lack of education that renders them unsuitable companions for their husbands. To your sister you wrote, “If you could know how much of the wretchedness of humanity is occasioned by the folly, pigheadedness, ignorance and incapacity of women you would rejoice to think of all these new opportunities for mental and moral training.” Yet women liked you and you liked them.
In September 1890 when he was bemoaning his lonely life, “starved emotions made me a madman”, George Gissing met Edith Underwood, a respectable working class girl. Within a week of meeting her he began writing New Grub Street and finished it ten weeks later. Halperin comments that 1890 produced “both one of the greatest novels in the English language and one of the unhappiest marriages in English history.”
Gissing thought he could educate Edith to be a congenial spouse and a competent homemaker. He was sadly mistaken. She was incapable of ordering servants, quarrelling with them and smashing crockery. The domestic harmony Gissing hoped for was a dream, a nightmare when a crying baby was added to the scene. The son, Walter, Gissing often had to care for himself as Edith had little maternal feelings and nursemaids came and went. In 1896 second son, Alfred, was born. “Endless misery in the house,” Gissing reported in his diary.
The following year while the family was on holiday in Wensleydale midst more domestic strife, Gissing determined to leave his wife. Walter was to be sent to Wakefield under the care of his father’s sisters. Edith and Alfred were to go to lodgings and George was to go to Italy, where he wrote Charles Dickens: a Critical Study.
On his return to England in 1898 he was desperate that Edith should not find him. He took a house in Dorking. In June that year he received a letter from a Frenchwoman asking if she could have the rights to a French translation of New Grub Street. On 6 July Gabrielle Fleury, the respectable woman Gissing supposed he would never find, tracked him down at the home of his friend H G Wells.
Edith was continuing to cause trouble. In August she assaulted her landlady and had to be restrained by a policeman. Gissing longed to get Alfred from her, but Edith would only agree to a legal separation that provided her with a house and custody of both boys. There would be no divorce.
Gissing didn’t hide his marital status from Gabrielle. After a romance conducted mainly by letters to France, and for the sake of respectability, on 7 May 1899 George Gissing and Gabrielle Fleury were married in Rouen Cathedral. The “marriage” was not without its own ups and downs, hampered by Gissing’s failing health and the disagreement of Gabrielle and H G Wells over the best treatments.
George Gissing died on 28 December 1903 and was buried in the English cemetery at St. Jean de Luz.
There it is: a thumbnail sketch of the life of a Victorian novelist. I have not covered his struggle for funds – his first publishers treated him shabbily – his admiration for Charlotte Brontë also badly served by the same firm, his friends including the English writers of his time: George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, H G Wells among them.
I doubt there is much here to entice you to turn to George Gissing. The only person I have ever debated his work with is my daughter. It must be in the genes.
I’m off to read The Odd Women, borrowed from the said daughter. I think it might have a rare happy ending.