George Gissing Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

George Robert Gissing was surely one of the more unfortunate men ever to achieve a place in the world of letters. Certainly his novels constitute a broad panorama of dismal lives, meticulously recorded without warmth, humor, or hope. After being educated at a Quaker academy, Gissing won a scholarship to Owens College in Manchester. His career as a classical scholar was, however, cut off by an unhappy relationship with a prostitute whom he desperately hoped to reform, and he was briefly imprisoned for theft. After his release he went to the United States, where he sold short stories to the Chicago Tribune. Upon his return to England he entered into a short-lived marriage with the prostitute who had earlier embroiled him in crime. He was, however, determined to become an author. His first novel, since lost, never found a publisher. He published his second novel, Workers in the Dawn, in 1880 at his own expense. When that work failed to find a public, the quality and circumstances of Gissing’s life declined, but before he could become utterly corrupted he was rescued by Frederick Harrison, who made him tutor to his sons. Encouraged, Gissing wrote in rapid succession a number of novels that were Victorian in form but not in subject matter. These included The Unclassed, one of the first environmental studies of prostitution; Demos, a bitter account of social agitation among the working classes; Thyrza, the sordid story of a London working girl; The Nether World, a realistic tale of slum life and the underworld; New Grub Street, an assault on unscrupulous publishers and the stupid reading public; The Odd Women, a view of old age among poor, uncultured, and unmarried women; and almost a dozen similar portraits of despair among the underprivileged segments of Victorian society.


(The entire section is 756 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 877 words.)