George Gissing 1857–-1903
English short story writer, novelist, critic, and essayist.
Gissing was a late nineteenth-century author whose short fiction exemplifies the changes that marked the transition from Victorian to modern literature. While his early works display a Dickensian concern for the plight of the poor and a belief in the effectiveness of social reform, later works manifest a distinctly modern sense of pessimism and moral uncertainty. Although Gissing's disillusionment is attributed to personal frustrations rather than to the failure of his Victorian ideology, critics note that his short stories and novels nevertheless express the evolving philosophical awareness of his entire literary generation.
Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, Gissing was the eldest son of a drugstore proprietor. When the death of his father when Gissing was thirteen left the family destitute, concerned friends and neighbors established a fund that enabled Gissing and his two brothers to attend a boarding school at Alderly Edge, in the nearby county of Cheshire. Gissing proved to be a brilliant student and thus earned a full scholarship to Owens College. In his final year at the college, he met and fell in love with a sixteen-year-old alcoholic prostitute named Nell Harrison. To support and perhaps reform her, he began to steal from his classmates but was apprehended in May of 1876. He was immediately dismissed from Owens and was sent to America after serving a thirty-day jail sentence.
In America Gissing moved to Chicago and began to write short stories for the local newspapers. In late 1877 he returned to England, planning to earn his living as a writer. He wrote novels throughout the early 1880s, but his books sold poorly. However, with the publication of New Grub Street in 1891, his work began to garner critical and commercial attention. During the last phase of his career Gissing demonstrated his greatest versatility, producing short stories, novels, a travel memoir, criticism, and a fictionalized biography, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. He died from a lung ailment in 1903.
Many of Gissing's stories are clearly autobiographical, and employ his recurring thematic concerns: his pessimism regarding human relationships; the repressive nature of familial expectations; class conflict; and the effects of industrialization, especially the loss of religious faith. In his first published story, “Sins of the Fathers,” which appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1877, a middle-class student falls in love with an impoverished prostitute named Laura. As their relationship intensifies, the boy's father sends him to America, where he marries a woman of his own class. In a twist of fate, one night he attends a play in which Laura appears as a chorus girl. He meets with her only to find he still is attracted to her. Knowing that the relationship is doomed, Laura pulls him into the river and they die together. In a later story, “The House of Cobwebs,” an aspiring writer named Goldthorpe moves into a run-down house owned by a man named Spicer. The two men form a peaceful and satisfying domestic partnership, but after Goldthorpe finishes his novel he falls ill; the doctor advises him to move to his mother's house and out of his “unhealthy” environment. After his recovery, he learns that Spicer has fallen ill and the house has been demolished, presumably a just punishment for a relationship that transgresses social conventions. Recently, there has been an effort to bring to light all of Gissing's short fiction, as evinced by the 1992 publication of Lost in America, a collection of several rare stories that originally appeared in American newspapers.
Critics continue to debate Gissing's contribution to the short story genre. Although his early stories were derided as gloomy and drab, they were also noted for their lack of sentimentality and melodrama. Scholars agree that one of the most outstanding characteristics of Gissing's fiction is its intensely autobiographical nature, and many critics assert that his works can only be fully understood when considered in the context of his life. His insistence upon the importance of environmental factors in the development of his characters has led Gissing's name to be linked with that of Emile Zola. His stories were deemed mature and complex character studies, replete with deft insights into human perception and behavior. Most commentators agree that Gissing's short fiction has a clear place in English literary and social history, because it illuminates the economic and psychological currents of an era as well as the harsh social circumstances and realities of the day.
Human Odds and Ends (short stories and sketches) 1898
The House of Cobwebs, and Other Stories 1906
The Sins of the Fathers 1924
Stories and Sketches (short stories and sketches) 1938
George Gissing: Lost Stories from America 1992
The Day of Silence, and Other Stories 1993
Workers in the Dawn (novel) 1880
The Unclassed (novel) 1884
Demos (novel) 1886
Isabel Clarendon (novel) 1886
Thyrza (novel) 1887
A Life's Morning (novel) 1888
The Nether World (novel) 1889
The Emancipated (novel) 1890
New Grub Street (novel) 1891
Born in Exile (novel) 1892
Denzil Quarrier (novel) 1892
The Odd Women (novel) 1893
In the Year of Jubilee (novel) 1894
Eve's Ransom (novel) 1895
The Paying Guest (novel) 1895
Sleeping Fires (novel) 1895
The Whirlpool (novel) 1897
Charles Dickens (criticism) 1898
The Town Traveller (novel) 1898
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SOURCE: A review of The House of Cobwebs, in The Academy, Vol. 70, No. 1776, May 19, 1906, p. 479.
[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of The House of Cobwebs.]
We are not of those whose pleasure in a man's work is necessarily increased by an intimate acquaintance with the circumstances of his life, yet it were idle to deny the power of that faculty (none the less irresistible for being frequently unconscious) which some writers have of exciting their readers' curiosity, and we well remember wondering, on taking up a book of George Gissing's for the first time, what manner of man this might be who could write with such bitter suavity, with such delicate irony, of a milieu which he appeared to know well and thoroughly to detest. The few hard, essential facts which invested Gissing's career with a not quite ordinary pathos are now well known to all who care enough to estimate an achievement standing in some sense apart; but the appearance of these fifteen short stories, aptly epitomising his personal attitude towards life as he found it, in conjunction with a strenuously condensed “chronological survey” of his work, justify a brief recapitulation. Educated at Lindow Grove School at Alderley and at Ownes College, Manchester, Gissing found himself at twenty, utterly poor and without a shred of influence, in London. Talented, delicate, and sensitive, of...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The House of Cobwebs, in Gissing: The Critical Heritage, edited by Pierre Coustillas and Colin Partridge, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, pp. 509-17.
[In the following excerpt, which was originally published as the introduction to the 1906 edition of The House of Cobwebs, Seccombe surveys the distinctive qualities of Gissing's fiction and places him in context with other nineteenth-century English authors.]
In England during the sixties and seventies of last century the world of books was dominated by one Gargantuan type of fiction. The terms book and novel became almost synonymous in houses which were not Puritan, yet where books and reading, in the era of few and unfree libraries, were strictly circumscribed. George Gissing was no exception to this rule. The English novel was at the summit of its reputation during his boyish days. As a lad of eight or nine he remembered the parts of Our Mutual Friend coming to the house, and could recall the smile of welcome with which they were infallibly received. In the dining-room at home was a handsomely framed picture which he regarded with an almost idolatrous veneration. It was an engraved portrait of Charles Dickens. Some of the best work of George Eliot, Reade, and Trollope was yet to make its appearance; Meredith and Hardy were still the treasured possession of the few; the reigning models during the period...
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SOURCE: “Short Stories,” in George Gissing: A Critical Study, Kennikat Press, 1923, pp. 125-36.
[In the following essay, Swinnerton offers a mixed assessment of Gissing's short fiction, but praises his adept characterization, particularly his female characters.]
The art of the short story, it has been sufficiently explained by critics who specialise in short stories, is very different from that of the novel. Mr. Max Beerbohm, in a reckless mood, once said that as the brick was to the house, so was the short story to the long one (and it is true that the novel makes in every way greater demands upon the imagination, the invention, and the staying powers of the author); but it is well known that Mr. Beerbohm is a law unto himself in these matters, and others, taking his words in a very literal sense, have thought differently. Gissing might have agreed with Mr. Beerbohm upon the most literal interpretation, for he wrote two little books which were either very long short stories or very short novels; and of his legitimate short stories (by “legitimate,” I mean those which do not exceed eight or ten thousand words), quite a number are very small novels, while others again are the merest sketches. Some of these last, perhaps, do not quite justify themselves. They start, and they end; but otherwise have no positive qualities. Others, again, have a pleasant and enjoyable flavour, and justify themselves...
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SOURCE: A review of A Victim of Circumstances, in The Dial, Vol. LXXXIII, December, 1927, pp. 512-14.
[In the following review, Aiken discusses Gissing's later works.]
To this collection of short stories by George Gissing, “never before issued in book form,” Mr Alfred Gissing contributes a preface, which is largely a discussion of “realism” in fiction; and in this preface Mr Gissing moves, a little naïvely, to the conclusion that the author of the Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft was something more, or better, than a mere realist, because his stories contained a “moral,” or here and there pointed to a “higher truth.” At this date, it seems a little odd to encounter a critic who is still worrying about the defence of the “ugly” in art, and who finds it necessary to discover a moral or social—if not aesthetic!—justification for such a portrait as that of Mrs Gamp. And it is odder still that Mr Alfred Gissing can proceed, as he does, with his pointing of Gissing's “moral,” after quoting a passage from a letter in which Gissing wrote: “Human life has little interest for me, on the whole, save as material for artistic presentation. I can get savage over social iniquities, but, even then, my rage at once takes the direction of planning revenge in artistic work.” This could hardly be clearer. If, in his early work (Demos, for example) Gissing was...
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SOURCE: “Gissing and the English Novel,” in Scrutiny: A Quarterly Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1938, pp. 73-81.
[In the following review of Stories and Sketches, Leavis discusses the biographical background to Gissing's fiction.]
These stories, which mistaken piety must have induced Mr. A. C. Gissing to publish, will unfortunately persuade no one to read George Gissing who is not already interested in him. They exhibit chiefly his weaknesses and give no indication of his virtues. This is nothing like as interesting a volume of stories as the better of his other two collections, The House of Cobwebs, which ought by now to have been put into one of the pocket libraries together with the interesting long ‘Introductory Survey’ Thomas Seccombe wrote for the 1906 edition. But if this new volume had persuaded reviewers to look up Gissing's novels, re-estimate his achievement, and demand for New Grub Street recognition as a classic, its publication would have been justified. There have been no such signs of a reviewer's conscience. It is odd that the Gissing vogue—subsequent to the Meredith vogue and much less widespread—has faded even out of literary history.
This is discouraging, but let us disinter Gissing nevertheless. He wrote twenty-two long novels but only one that posterity would want to read, two books of reminiscence (one the extremely popular...
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SOURCE: “Gissing's Allegorical ‘House of Cobwebs,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 324-26.
[In the following essay, Adams deems Gissing's short story “The House of Cobwebs” as an allegory depicting the fate of the artist in society.]
Literary critics class George Gissing most frequently with the realistic-naturalistic writers of the late nineteenth century. However, as Wendell V. Harris has noted in “An Approach to Gissing's Short Stories,” Gissing's stories lack “the omnipresent greyness and bitterness of tone” usually attributed to late nineteenth-century realistic fiction and contain instead warmth of tone, humorous touches, and subtle character portraiture.1 These characteristics are especially notable in Gissing's short story “The House of Cobwebs,” which Mr. Harris finds typical of Gissing's best work. The story is, in fact, even further removed from the characteristics usually associated with realistic-naturalistic fiction in its being an allegory depicting the fate of the artist in middle-class society.
The plot of “The House of Cobwebs” is hardly eventful: a 23-year-old artist, Goldthorpe, decides to move to cheaper quarters until he has finished his first book; he discovers a dilapidated and decaying house, the “house of cobwebs,” and rents a room from the owner, Mr. Spicer, who also lives there. A...
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SOURCE: “Jerusalem Artichokes in Gissing's Garden: A Postscript to the Allegorical Readings of ‘House of Cobwebs’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 86-9.
[In the following essay, Ware expounds on the allegorical meaning of the Jerusalem artichokes in “The House of Cobwebs.”]
In her recent note in Studies in Short Fiction,1 Miss Elsie B. Adams convincingly makes the point that in “The House of Cobwebs” George Gissing's principal theme is the difficulty (perhaps even the inability) of the artist's survival in the rank domesticity of the middle-class world. Such a world is symbolized in this work by the “cobweby and decaying house,” inhabited—but only on leasehold—by the kindly bourgeois Mr. Spicer, who offers an impoverished young writer a haven while he works on his novel. I would like to suggest that Mr. Gissing, who was not simply the flat realist nor the heavy-handed symbolist he appears to some readers, skillfully refined his theme in this story by the use of some details that Professor Adams either overlooked or deemed not important enough to analyze: the Jerusalem artichokes prized by the host, Spicer.
As readers of Gissing's story will note, Spicer is a fancier of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English literature; but he loved especially the moral sentiments of Cowper,2 a soothing writer...
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SOURCE: “Short Stories,” in George Gissing, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 112-23.
[In the following essay, Selig outlines the themes and plots of Gissing's most accomplished short stories: “A Victim of Circumstances,” “Comrades in Arms,” “The Schoolmaster's Vision,” and “The House of Cobwebs.”]
George Gissing's still-underrated short stories deserve to rank among the best of the late-Victorian era. He wrote some 110 in all, many very fine. Once he had mastered the art of brief narrative, it allowed him to break away from the wills, rival lovers, and theatrical climaxes that often clutter his novels. His finest short stories end, not with a melodramatic bang, but an ironic whimper. Yet even Gissing's admirers tend to ignore his impressive short fiction, perhaps because it has become rather inaccessible.1
Gissing's work in the short-story form falls into three distinct periods. First came the 1877 journeyman pieces written in America and the few additional ones from 1878 to 1882 that he wrote back in England but could not sell. Because they follow such mid-Victorian fashions as Poe-like horror and Dickensian moral sentiment, these pieces have little resemblance to Gissing's mature work. Yet these amateurish tales have autobiographical interest. Their fictional themes of guilt seem closely related to Gissing's own crime and punishment in Manchester....
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SOURCE: “Evidence of a Dickensian Gissing in ‘Joseph Yates' Temptation’,” in English Language Notes,Vol. XXVI, No. 3, March, 1989, pp. 82-7.
[In the following essay, Lefew traces the influence of Charles Dickens on Gissing as demonstrated in “Joseph Yates' Temptation.”]
Seven years after the death of Charles Dickens, George Robert Gissing found himself penniless and starving in Chicago, Illinois, having left his native England following a brief imprisonment for stealing money to support his prostitute-lover, Marianne Helen (“Nell”) Harrison. During his visit to the American midwest, Gissing wrote several short stories and sold them to various Chicago publications.1 The process of discovering and identifying these obscure tales has received considerable attention. The stories themselves, however, are largely ignored.2 To date, only two editions of these stories exist, and neither is comprehensive. Sins of the Father and Brownie preserve Gissing's early tales, but neither work offers any criticism or commentary on the stories except for brief references to influence, tradition, or style considered for the purpose of identification. The tales are presented as “potboilers of no real literary value.”3
Though they are weakly plotted, melodramatic and predictable, the stories reveal important influences acting upon Gissing at age...
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SOURCE: “Gissing's Exile in America,” in George Gissing: Lost Stories from America, edited by Robert L. Selig, Edwin Mellen Press, 1992, pp. 1-18.
[In the following introduction, Selig investigates the circumstances surrounding the writing of Gissing's American stories, and asserts that “his large body of fiction accepted in America paved the way later for Gissing's success.”]
In 1876 an eighteen-year-old George Gissing, later to become a major English novelist, disgraced himself so utterly that friends shipped him off to America, far from the shame of his petty criminal acts. Without knowing the squalid details of this scandal, one cannot even start to understand his desperate courage during a hard year of exile. As a brilliant underaged scholarship boy at Manchester's Owens College, which lacked all student housing, he had remained throughout even his junior year in his old high-school dormitory, a train-ride away, where he often studied ascetically from 4:00a.m. to 10:00p.m. His asceticism ended disastrously in his senior college year when his family permitted him to move at last to a rooming house in the city, where he soon encountered a pretty blonde prostitute in a local bar—seventeen-year-old Marianne Helen (Nell) Harrison. Prostitutes swarmed in the bars around the Cobden House, the college's temporary home during Gissing's freshman year, and although the campus had moved by the time of...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Day of Silence and Other Stories, edited by Pierre Coustillas, J. M. Dent, 1993, pp. xiv-xx.
[In the following essay, Coustillas provides a thematic analysis of the short fiction comprising The Day of Silence and Other Stories.]
Despite the considerable interest in George Gissing's life and works in the last four decades—witness the steady flow of biographies and critical studies, of new editions and translations of his novels—his short stories have received very little attention from publishers and critics. Ten years ago Robert L. Selig deplored the situation, observing that in his opinion ‘the author's short stories deserve to rank among the best of the late Victorian era’.1 Whereas The Odd Women, his feminist novel, has been dramatized successfully and is available in three paperback editions, and New Grub Street, an acknowledged masterpiece, can be obtained from as many publishers, none of his four main collections of short stories is currently in print.
Not that admirers have been wanting. A.H. Bullen, Gissing's own publisher in the 1890s, was one of them. In his Guide to the Best Fiction (1913), Ernest A. Baker declared Human Odds and Ends and The House of Cobwebs to be ‘very significant and representative fragments’ which show ‘how admirably Gissing could work on a small...
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Collie, Michael. George Gissing: A Bibliographical Study. Winchester, England: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1985, 167 p.
Comprehensive information regarding the composition, sale, and publication of Gissing's works, including the locations of extant manuscripts.
Coustillas, Pierre. “Gissing's Short Stories: A Bibliography.” English Literature in Transition 7, No. 2 (1964): 59-72.
Provides a primary bibliography of Gissing's short fiction, including Japanese translations.
Collie, Michael. George Gissing: A Biography. Folkestone, England: William Dawson and Sons, 1977, 189 p.
Concentrates on the relationship between Gissing's life and his work.
Donnelly, Mabel Collins. George Gissing: Grave Comedian. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954, 254 p.
Halperin, John. Gissing: A Life in Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, 426 p.
Comprehensive critical biography.
Korg, Jacob. George Gissing: A Critical Biography. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963, 311 p.
Chronicles Gissing's life and works, providing critical commentary on his novels.
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