The novels of George Gissing have perhaps always been more respected than enjoyed: readers generally find his books depressing. Though he published twenty-three novels, more than one hundred short stories, and assorted pieces of nonfiction, poverty generally forced him to sell copyrights outright, and for much less than his more popular contemporaries were paid. His reputation as a feminist and as a novelist of the working class is confounded by the misogyny and social conservatism embedded in his fiction. Similarly, his reputation for “modernism” is hardly borne out in the books—except for one striking twentieth century trait: to a far greater extent than most Victorians, Gissing used his own life as the substance of fiction.
John Halperin makes sense out of this mass of contradictions by treating Gissing’s life and the books together in minute chronological detail, using Gissing’s journal and letters, discussing his short fiction in sequence with the novels, noting the public response provided by reviews, and minutely analyzing Gissing’s fictionalized reflections of the life he had lived—and, more astonishingly, was yet to live: Gissing had the disconcerting habit of prefiguring, in fiction, steps (often disastrous ones) that he was about to take in life. Gissing’s novels are always about the interaction of sex, class, and money. His pervasive theme is exile; in particular, he writes about men of intellect and taste who are forced by circumstances to live unhappily among inferiors.
Gissing’s own class outlook was ambiguous from the start. He did not have the working-class background sometimes imputed to him. His father was a chemist, an amateur botanist, and the author of several volumes of poetry. Although active in local Liberal politics, he was apparently something of a snob and he would not allow his children to associate with the children of other tradesmen. After his father died (when Gissing was thirteen), the community raised a subscription to send his sons to a rigorously academic boarding school. In 1883, Gissing entered Owens College, Manchester, on a tuition-free scholarship. He worked hard, took the matriculation examination for London University, won national prizes for English, Latin, and history, and seemed destined for a brilliant academic career, perhaps as a university professor of classics. Then, in May, 1876, he was caught stealing money from other students at Owens College—and worse yet, admitted that he was giving the money to a young prostitute, Nell Harrison. He was stripped of his prizes, denied an academic future, sent to jail for a month, and burdened with a guilty secret which he apparently believed barred him forever from the company of ladies and gentlemen. After a brief exile in the United States, during which he sold some stories to Chicago newspapers, he returned to London, earned a minimal income by writing and tutoring, and lived with Harrison. In October, 1879, he married her.
The marriage was a disaster before it even began, and by 1881, the couple separated. Gissing paid for Nell’s keep at various boardinghouses and invalid homes and quixotically refused to file for divorce even after she had been arrested as a common prostitute. In 1888, she died of alcoholism and syphilis. Gissing sold more novels, took a trip to Italy, and struggled with loneliness. His only close friend was Eduard Bertz, a German exile who made Gissing’s acquaintance by placing a newspaper advertisement seeking intellectual companionship. Gissing felt uncomfortable with everybody but especially with middle-class women. In 1890, feeling that only a “decent work-girl” would be willing to provide domestic comfort and some companionship on slender means, he picked up Edith Underwood at a music hall. They were married in 1891, had two sons, and separated in 1897. In 1902—after abusing their younger child—Edith was declared insane and committed to an asylum. In the meantime, Gissing had already begun a relationship with Gabrielle Fleury, who translated his New Grub Street (1891) into French. In 1899, they began living together. Gabrielle’s relatives in France were told that they were married; Gissing’s relatives (and particularly his legal wife) were told nothing at all. He recorded his infatuation with Gabrielle in The Crown of Life (1899). Although Gissing perpetually felt an exile in his own land, exile in France made him truly miserable. He became convinced that Gabrielle’s mother and French cuisine were conspiring to starve him to death. He died in 1903, before the relationship had completely disintegrated.
Halperin’s treatment emphasizes both the conscious and unconscious self-revelations in Gissing’s work. He traces Gissing’s personae in virtually every novel; he searches even the least autobiographical books for indications of Gissing’s response to his private experiences. Born in Exile (1892) is archetypal. The...
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