In the course of a twenty-seven-year career of ferocious literary labor, George Gissing published twenty-two novels; volumes of literary criticism, travel writing, and fictionalized autobiography; and 115 short stories. Although the fame, sales, and wealth he would have so much appreciated and deserved eluded him to the end, in the last years of his life he was widely acknowledged as one of the three leading English novelists of the day, along with George Meredith and Thomas Hardy.
After his death, Gissing’s reputation declined somewhat, but starting in the 1960’s, a Gissing revival took place. Led by French scholar Pierre Coustillas, students of Gissing’s work in Great Britain, continental Europe, North America, and Japan have published biographical and critical articles and books, edited editions of Gissing’s novels, and contributed to a thriving quarterly, The Gissing Journal (formerly The Gissing Newsletter).
Despite the vicissitudes of Gissing’s reputation, New Grub Street has almost invariably been regarded as a masterpiece. Gissing himself was pleased with the book, writing to his brother as he went through the proofs that “I am astonished to find how well it reads. There are savage truths in it.” John Goode, editor of the World’s Classics edition (1993), calls the work “the most eminent nineteenth-century novel dealing directly with the position of writing in the social context of its time” and compares Gissing’s work with William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends, and His Greatest Enemy (1848-1850, serial; 1849, 1850, book) and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850, serial; 1850, book). These two novels have writers—a journalist and a novelist in the first case and a novelist in the second—as eponymous central characters around whose lives a varied autobiographical/biographical plot is arranged. However, Gissing uses a different technique, choosing rather to present a dramatic microcosm of failed, would-be, or successful writers in a world that is almost exclusively literary and almost exclusively London.
In the tradition of the boarders of the historical Grub Street, three people—Alfred Yule, Edwin Reardon, and Harold Biffen—arrive in London honestly aspiring to win literary fame and fortune. All of them fail, however. The embittered Alfred is exiled from London when he begins to lose his sight, and Reardon’s slender talent is insufficient to withstand the merciless demands of the literary marketplace. Biffen completes his magnum opus, but it is, of course, a critical and commercial failure.
Behind these three primary characters is a collection of minor writers who are fascinating in their variety of shabby mediocrity or eccentricity. There is Alfred’s lower-middle-class clique, lesser lights than himself whom he meets occasionally by chance in the British Museum’s reading room or who gather once or twice a year in Alfred’s (significantly) rented house for literary gossip. Three of these men—Hinks, Gorbutt, and Christopherson—are held back by unpresentable wives. Indeed, one of the themes of the novel, an ironic counterpoint to Milvain’s careerist search for a moneyed female springboard, is the difficulty that intellectual men of little or no reliable income experience in finding suitable mates. Readers also meet Sykes, once found drunk and disorderly on Oxford Street, who is writing his autobiography (Through the Wilds of Literary London) in installments for a provincial newspaper.
It is perhaps the successful men who provide the strongest condemnation of late-Victorian literary London. Milvain, whose name would seem to be a version of “villain,” sees clearly the commodification of literature in a world where, like everything else, literature is judged in utilitarian and monetary terms. Although not without geniality and generosity, his one aim is financial success. Another failed novelist in the story becomes a literary adviser, reading and correcting manuscripts and suggesting possible publishers to aspiring writers. In one manuscript, he changes the name, and style, of “chat” into “chit chat,” even the former making too high a demand on its readers.