In his personal life, George Gissing was a man of divided mind, and the biographical antitheses were paralleled by the literary and philosophical influences on his work. In private life, he gravitated toward Frederic Harrison’s circle of intellectuals and sophisticated people; at the same time, he was drawn into marriages with psychologically, intellectually, and socially unsuitable women. He was attracted to a scholarly career as a historian, philosopher, and classicist, but he was also drawn to journalism, hackwork, and lectures to workingmen’s associations with an emphasis on social reform. Like many writers at the end of the nineteenth century, he was caught between the sociological realists with reform instincts and the adherents of an aesthetic movement with their emphasis on the attainment of ideal beauty. His sensuousness conflicted with his intellectual idealism; his desire for popularity and material success with his austere integrity as an artist.
Gissing’s career as a novelist, at least until the late twentieth century, has been assessed in the context of nineteenth century realism and naturalism. Certainly, the techniques employed in his novels, especially the early ones, owe much to the Victorian conventions that had become well established by the time of Gissing’s first published novel. He was thoroughly acquainted with the work of Charles Dickens; his own novels are often sentimental, cautiously admonitory, and riddled with subplots. Gissing, however, never treated his subject matter as humorously as did Dickens in his early novels. Dickens’s treatment of poverty, for example, is sometimes used for picturesque effects; Gissing saw poverty in a solemn manner, finding it both lamentable and execrable.
For other literary precedents, Gissing turned to the French and Russian writers, discovering in the French naturalists such as Émile Zola the pervasive effects of physical and social environments and finding in the Russian naturalistic psychologists the precise and complete analysis of character. Like Zola, he described the squalor of poverty, probed the psychology of sex (though with more reserve), and generally ended his novels in dismal defeat. Yet, unlike the naturalists, Gissing was not so much concerned with the particular details of the workshop, with conflicts between capital and labor, but with the whole atmosphere of poverty, especially the resultant loss of integrity on the part of those who struggle to rise beyond and above it.
To divide Gissing’s career into neat stages is not an easy task. For the purposes of an overview, however, it is convenient to look at three large, if not always distinct, groups of his novels. In the 1880’s, beginning with Workers in the Dawn and ending with The Nether World, Gissing was most often concerned with the lower class and social reform. In the first half of the 1890’s, beginning with The Emancipated, Gissing turned to the middle class, examining the whole middle-class ethic and ranging his focal point from the tradesman to the “new woman.” In the last half of the 1890’s and until his death in 1903, Gissing’s work was more varied, ranging from a historical romance to a travel book to reworkings of his early themes. In those last years, his works were not always successful, either commercially or critically, but that was the period of his most popular work, the semiautobiographical The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft.
In an early and important reassessment of Gissing’s career, Jacob Korg (in “Division of Purpose in George Gissing,” PMLA, June, 1955) points out that the dichotomy between Gissing’s artistic principles and his anger over Victorian England’s social problems is evident in five of his novels published in the 1880’s: Workers in the Dawn, The Unclassed, Demos, Thyrza, and The Nether World. In each of these novels, Gissing the reformer contends with Gissing the artist; in none of them is the tension resolved satisfactorily.
Workers in the Dawn
Most of the material Gissing used in Workers in the Dawn can be found repeatedly in the other novels of the 1880’s, and most of that material springs from his own experiences. Clearly, his early marriage to a girl from the slums underlined his interest in social themes throughout his life. In the late 1870’s and 1880’s, he had also become enthusiastic about the radical party, read Comte, promoted positivist doctrines, and spoke at various radical-party meetings. Between 1879 and 1880, Gissing began writing Workers in the Dawn, a novel of avowed social protest in which he serves, as he says in a letter of June 8, 1880, as “a mouthpiece of the advanced Radical party.” Equally obvious in the novel, however, is that Gissing is perturbed about placing art in service to political and moral dogma.
Arthur Goldring, the hero of the novel, is both a painter and a social reformer, but he is clearly upset with this duality in his life. Convinced that the aims of his two avocations are antithetical, he looks for consolation from Helen Norman, the woman he loves. Through the mouth of Helen, Gissing propounds the ideas that he had gleaned from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1840)—most specifically that art is the true legislator of the moral order. Gissing, however, found it difficult to practice what he held to be intellectually valid; thus, the early Gissing, like Goldring, constantly found difficulty in accepting the tenet that art should not attempt to teach morality directly.
In The Unclassed, Gissing continued to struggle with the intricacies of the artist’s world. The result was a novel in which the fall of the two artist figures is in one case oversimplified and in the other muddled. Confused and worried about his own failings, Gissing attempted to analyze the artistic temperament and the forces operating against such a temperament by segmenting the artist into Julian Casti and Osmond Waymark. Casti’s story is Gissing’s attempt to depict an artist undone by an...
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