Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877
Born on November 22, 1857, in Wakefield, Yorkshire, George Robert Gissing was the eldest of five children of Thomas Waller and Margaret Bedford Gissing. Thomas Gissing was a chemist in Wakefield and something of a religious skeptic whose extensive library provided the young George with convenient access to a variety of reading material. The early years of financial security and familial harmony were disrupted when Thomas Gissing died in December, 1870. George, only thirteen, and his two brothers were sent to Lindow Grove School at Alderley Edge, Cheshire. There, the young Gissing’s studious habits gained for him the first of many academic accolades. His performance on the Oxford local examination in 1872 was especially encouraging, but financial circumstances made it necessary for him to attend Owens College in Manchester, where he had won free tuition for three sessions and where he continued with his academic success.
Gissing was not, however, enjoying the same success in his personal life. Living a lonely and studious life in Manchester, he fell in love with a young prostitute named Marianne Helen Harrison, or Nell. With the zeal of the reformer, Gissing tried to save her from her profession and her penury, apparently not realizing at first that she was an alcoholic as well. Exhausting his own funds, the young Gissing stole miscellaneous property from his fellow students at Owens College. He was soon caught and the course of his life was radically altered, for he was forced to abandon all thoughts of an academic life. With the aid of friends, he sailed for the United States in the fall of 1876 and worked briefly as a high school teacher in Waltham, Massachusetts. Why he left Waltham, where he apparently enjoyed a reasonably good life, is not known, but in the spring of 1877 he moved to Chicago, where he tried to eke out an existence as a writer. Though he did publish his first work (a short story called “The Sins of the Fathers,” in the Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1877), he was not well paid for his endeavors and left after only four months. He worked at odd jobs in New England and elsewhere, and then in the fall of 1877 he made his way back to England.
In London, Gissing lived in near poverty, working sporadically as a tutor and drafting his first novels. Nell came to live with him, and in October, 1879, they were married. Despite Gissing’s noble intention to reform her apparently self-destructive character, the marriage was not successful. A vivid fictionalized account of the sordidness of their married life is given in Workers in the Dawn, Gissing’s first published novel. He lived a turbulent life with Nell until he put her in a so-called invalids’ home in January, 1882. Even after that, she gave him trouble, both financial and emotional, until she died in 1888.
The direction of Gissing’s writings in the 1880’s was influenced not only by his failed marriage but also by a number of other lifelong interests that were well established by the end of the decade: his friendship with the budding German writer Eduard Bertz, his reading of Auguste Comte, his unfailing compassion for the poverty of late Victorian England, his friendship with Frederic Harrison, who read his first novel and provided much-needed encouragement, and his friendship with Morley Roberts, who later became Gissing’s first biographer with the thinly disguised The Private Life of Henry Maitland (1912). Not until 1886, with the publication of Demos, did Gissing gain moderate success with his writing. Buoyed by more favorable circumstances, especially the sense of freedom once Nell died, Gissing left for an extended tour of Europe in September, 1888. He also shifted the emphasis of his novels from the working class to the middle class, beginning in 1890 with The Emancipated.
The 1890’s began auspiciously for Gissing’s literary career, particularly with the publication of New Grub Street and Born in Exile. His personal life, however, was following a different course. On a trip to Italy in 1890, he noticed the first signs of the respiratory illness that would plague him the rest of his life. On February 25, 1891, he married Edith Underwood, a “work-girl,” as he described her, with whom he was not in love. The marriage was a complete failure, despite the birth of two sons (Walter Leonard, born 1891, and Alfred Charles, born 1895). Gissing’s literary success in the 1890’s, as moderate as it was, was achieved in spite of his loveless marriage and domestic unrest. He persevered until September, 1897, when he permanently separated from his wife and went to Italy. In the summer of 1898, he met Gabrielle Fleury, a Frenchwoman who was the complete opposite of his two wives in her refined and cultured manner. Gissing was immediately attracted to her and would have legally married her had a divorce from Edith been possible. Instead, the two sanctified their relationship with each other in a private ceremony on May 7, 1899, in Rouen.
Living in France under the most favorable circumstances of his entire life, Gissing continued to write, and in 1903 he saw The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, his most popular work, go through three editions. His health, however, had been growing steadily worse, and his short-lived happiness came to an end when he died on December 28, 1903, of myocarditis at St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.