Saturday, June 9, 2018

New Grub Street by George Gissing

George Gissing (1857 - 1903) was a nineteenth century British Victorian novelist who is not widely known today and that's a real shame. I discovered Gissing years ago when I read his novel The Odd Women (published 1893).  I was struck by Gissing's talent and also his understanding and sympathetic view of the suffrage movement.  I learned that George Gissing's novel New Grub Street (1891) is the book he is most famous for and so I decided to include New Grub Street for my 2018 Back to The Classics Challenge - choose a classic from the nineteenth century and I made a very wise choice indeed.

New Grub Street is set in London's literary world of the 1880's and when the novel begins the Victorian Era is coming to a close and the Modern Age is just around the corner.  Class is beginning to be overtaken by commerce and how much money one can earn.  The book trade is undergoing a revolution as well and no one understands this new world better than Jasper Milvain,  the cynical young journalist who is one of the main characters in the book.  Jasper at the start of the novel explains to his sisters what is required tto succeed these days in publishing:

"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 skillful 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 appetizing. ... Reardon can't do that kind of thing, he's behind his age, he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson's Grub Street".

Edwin Reardon, of whom Jasper speaks, and his wife Amy Reardon, are also main characters in New Grub Street.  Edwin is a talented writer who prior to his marriage was able to publish three well reviewed novels but they did not sell well.  Since their marriage Edwin has not been able to publish anything and Amy is not supportive.  In fairness, Amy is justifiably worried about their financial situation since they have a young son.  But when Edwin tries to write any sort of book just so it will sell, Amy is worried about what their friends will think:

"But darling, he took her hands strongly in his own.  "I want you to disregard other people.  You and I are surely everything to each other?  Are you ashamed of me, of me myself?"

There was silence

"Edwin, if you find you are unable to do good work, you mustn't do bad".

Later when Edwin gets his old job back as a hospital clerk so they can make ends meet, Amy is not happy with that either.  She was counting on Edwin rising in the literary world when they married so that she could be the wife of a great man.  Amy and Edwin separate and as the book proceeds the lives of Amy and Jasper go quite well.  While the fortunes of Edwin Reardon and Marion Yule decline.

Marion Yule is the fourth major character in New Grub Street.  She is an intelligent, shy young woman who helps her parents and spends her time in the British Museum researching and writing her father's scholarly articles.  It is at the museum that she has the misfortune of meeting and eventually falling in love with Jasper Milvain.  Jasper does care about Marion but his plan is to marry a woman with an income larger than his own so that as he puts it "casualties may be provided for" and Marion does not have alot of money.

New Grub Street is a cynical look at what it takes to succeed in publishing and in life.  Tragedy looms in this book but there are also lovely moments in which Gissing shines a light on friendship and the love of books.  Here for example are Edwin Reardon and his fellow impoverished writer friend Harold Biffen having dinner in a coffee-shop.  Edwin has been complaining bitterly to Biffen about Amy having left him but then:

"They ate their ham and eggs and exilerated themselves with a cup of chicory -called coffee.  Then Biffen drew from the pocket of his venerable overcoat the volume of Euripides he had bought, and their talk turned once more to the land of the sun.  Only when the coffee-shop was closed did tney go forth again into the foggy street, and at the top of Pentonville Hill they stood for ten minutes debating a metrical effect in one of the Fragments".

George Gissing during his short life published twenty three novels and in New Grub Street what he had to say about literature, poverty, love, social standing, money is as relevant today as it was back in the Victorian Age.  If you are a fan of 19th century British novels, or great novels in general, your collection is not complete without New Grub Street.