Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
“The House of Cobwebs” is told in the third person through the consciousness of Goldthorpe as he progresses from struggling writer to successful novelist. George Gissing provides detailed descriptions of the primary setting and other places his hero visits.
The twenty-two-year-old Goldthorpe estimates that he needs three months to complete his first novel, but he does not have enough money to continue living in his lodging house. He hopes to find a place where he can live on fifteen shillings a week. Walking rather aimlessly in the suburbs of Surrey, Goldthorpe comes upon three deserted houses in a row in a middle-class neighborhood. Their once well-tended gardens are overrun with weeds, and the houses are in severe disrepair. From one of the houses, he hears someone playing “Home Sweet Home” on a concertina. Moving closer, he sees the musician, a middle-aged man dressed like a clerk or shopkeeper. Learning that the man is the owner of the three houses, Goldthorpe asks immediately to rent a room. At first suspicious, the man changes when he discovers Goldthorpe is a literary man because he is a great admirer of such writers as Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. Goldthorpe engages the man, who identifies himself as Mr. Spicer, further by complimenting him on the flowers and vegetables growing in the garden, which the owner hopes to improve.
Spicer explains the complicated legal means by which he has come to inherit the lease on the properties from an uncle. The lease has a little more than a year to run, and Spicer explains that he plans to occupy a room in one of the houses until then. Spicer asks only that his tenant pay half the water bill, but Goldthorpe cannot accept such generosity and offers to pay two shillings a week. Goldthorpe copies his landlord by acquiring the bare essentials for his room: a camp bed, table, chair, and oil stove. After these expenditures, he must exist on fifteen pence a day.
As Goldthorpe’s tenancy continues, he and Spicer become friends. Little by little, Spicer reveals his life story, beginning as an errand boy for a chemist (the British term for pharmacist) and eventually becoming a chemist’s assistant before leaving his job on receiving his inheritance, which also includes a small amount of money that will enable him to live once the lease expires. Goldthorpe promises to remain with Spicer until then and to pay a higher rent once his book is sold. The success of Goldthorpe’s novel becomes the center of the lives of both men. The sight of the growing manuscript fills Spicer with reverence.
When the book is rejected by the publisher on whom Goldthorpe has most been counting, he becomes ill and leaves for his mother’s house in Derbyshire. Spicer sends letters describing the progress of the garden while the writer convalesces. When the novel is accepted by another publisher the following January, Goldthorpe returns to the house of cobwebs to find its roof collapsed just above his old room after a storm has toppled the chimney. He learns that Spicer has sustained minor injuries in the accident. When Goldthorpe visits the hospital, Spicer’s first concern is with the novel. On hearing the happy news, he pronounces himself cured and announces that although the house is no longer habitable he will continue cultivating the garden.
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