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.