Analysis

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Gissing's New Grub Street vividly captures a moment of social history, the brutal, Darwinist world of late Victorian publishing that he himself experienced. At this time, the circulating libraries that had been the backbone of the publishing industry for generations were being superseded by new business models.

Middle-class people had...

(The entire section contains 3981 words.)

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Gissing's New Grub Street vividly captures a moment of social history, the brutal, Darwinist world of late Victorian publishing that he himself experienced. At this time, the circulating libraries that had been the backbone of the publishing industry for generations were being superseded by new business models.

Middle-class people had long paid a fee to subscribe to the circulating libraries, and, as with a service such as Netflix today, had access to a wide range of popular current novels and nonfiction. To boost profits, publishers put out long, three-volume books, knowing that if the books were successful, the circulating libraries would have to purchase all three volumes.

However, by the late nineteenth century, new paper and print technologies enabled publishers to produce much cheaper, shorter works that people could afford to buy directly. Further, literacy grew as government policy put more emphasis on education in childhood and as night schools and workers' university program proliferated, creating new book markets.

These factors changed the publishing industry and put more emphasis on speed in grinding out works in popular genres or on popular subjects. Gissing's novel reflects this world, one in which the publishing industry truly could become mass market.

The novel also shows a world where, although still constrained, women were on the cusp of breaking out and establishing their own careers. Women like Amy Reardon function as traditional wives and mothers—if with an decidedly ambitious twist—but others head in new directions. Women like Marian Yule sacrifice, for instance, for the men in their lives, as traditional Victorian "angels of the home" were expected to, but by the end of the novel, Marian is standing up to her father and refusing to tolerate his verbal abuse. More significantly, women like Dora Milvain, although she ultimately marries, is able to make her way in London as a children's author, albeit with her brother's help getting work. While her writing, like much of women's work in the era, is marginal and undervalued, she is still able to earn her own money in a dignified and respectable middle class way. This points towards a brighter future for women, though much struggle is still ahead.

New Grub Street

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2455

The Story:

There had been three Yule brothers. John, the oldest, had gone into a profitable paper manufacturing business; he abhorred the relatively impoverished state of his brother Alfred, a writer. Edmund Yule, the third brother, died, leaving only a small income to his wife, his daughter Amy, and his son John. Amy married Edwin Reardon, a man with much promise as a writer but who had little success after his first book. Jasper Milvain was Edwin’s friend. Jasper spent most of his time writing small pieces for different publications and making friends among people who counted in the world of letters. He believed, as Amy did, that Edwin would some day become financially successful in his work.

Alfred Yule had married a poor woman of a lower class. Her limited education and intelligence made her a drawback to his career. An unfortunate quarrel with an editor named Fadge had caused Alfred to hate Fadge and those associated with him. When Jasper Milvain accepted his first literary appointment from Fadge, Alfred did not want to invite the young man to call at his home in London, although Marian, his daughter, wished him to do so.

Jasper’s mother died, leaving his two sisters, Dora and Maud, with no means of support; so Jasper brought the girls to live with him in London. When his sisters arrived in London, Jasper called at Alfred Yule’s home to ask Marian if she would become friends with them. Marian was happy to meet Dora and Maud, as she had no close friends of her own.

Because of her calls on his sisters, Jasper was able to see Marian frequently. Dora and Maud were aware of their brother’s selfishness, and they viewed their new friend’s affection toward Jasper with trepidation. He was looking for a rich wife to support him while he made his way in the world of letters. If Marian suspected Jasper’s mercenary motives, she did not admit them to herself. Her great sorrow was that her father hated Jasper along with his enemy, Fadge. Edwin Reardon’s personality was such that he succumbed easily to adversity. Amy loved her husband; when he became discouraged, she tried to push him back to work. Edwin became irritable and depended more and more for inspiration on Amy’s love. They began to quarrel until they spoke few civil words to each other.

One day, Amy and Edwin realized that they would be starving within a month, for there was no hope that Edwin could produce a profitable story in time to save them. Edwin felt he could no longer write. He had been a clerk in a charitable institution before his marriage and now resumed his former occupation as a means of saving himself from ruin, both spiritual and financial. Amy was furious to think her husband would degrade himself by accepting the position of a mere clerk. She had believed that she had married a clever writer; as a clerk, Edwin did not appeal to her. Finally, they parted. Amy returned to her mother’s home, and Edwin assumed his clerical job.

Jasper hesitated to become too much involved with Marian Yule. Although he found her well-suited to himself in temperament and intellect, he could not marry her because she was poor. Suddenly, fortune fell upon all these confused people. John Yule died, leaving a large sum of money to his nieces, Amy and Marian. Jasper immediately proposed to Marian. Convincing herself that Jasper’s proposal came from the love he bore her rather than from her new wealth, Marian promised to marry him. Her greatest problem was to reconcile Alfred to his future son-in-law.

Amy was so stunned by the money that John had left her that at first she failed to realize her problems were at an end. The legacy would make it possible for her to return to Edwin, who could now write with no fear of poverty resulting from literary failure. Edwin, however, refused her aid. First, he was sure he had lost his ability to write. Second, his pride would not allow him to accept Amy’s kindness, since he felt he had lost her love. His health broke. When he retired at last to his bed because of a serious congestion in his lungs, he would not allow his friends to tell Amy of his condition. He did not want her to come to him out of pity or through a sense of duty.

Marian soon saw Jasper’s love put to a test when she learned that because of unfortunate investments she could receive only a small part of the original inheritance. Hearing the news, Jasper said they should not consider marriage until he could establish himself. Meanwhile, Alfred Yule learned his eyesight was failing; in a short while, he would be blind and incapable of earning enough money to support his wife and his daughter. Planning to retire to a small institution with his wife, he called Marian to him and told her that henceforth she must try to earn her own income in anticipation of the time when he could no longer support her.

Edwin received a telegram from Amy, asking him to come to her immediately because their son, Willie, was sick. Edwin went back to his wife. The two, in their sorrow over their son’s ill health, were reconciled. Willie died, and Amy went with Edwin to nurse him in his own illness. His last few days were lightened by her cheerfulness and devotion. Jasper’s situation became more uncomfortable; without her money, Marian was a luxury impossible for him to contemplate. While his sister Dora disdainfully looked on, Jasper secretly proposed to another woman of his acquaintance, a woman who had both money and connections. When the woman refused his proposal, Jasper went to Marian and insisted that she marry him immediately. Marian’s blind father was now totally dependent upon her for support, so Jasper hoped to break the engagement by forcing Marian to make a decision between him and her parents. Marian desperately tried to hold the love she had always imagined that Jasper had for her. At last, however, she saw him as he really was and broke their engagement.

A posthumous publication of the works of Edwin Reardon occasioned a very complimentary criticism from the pen of Jasper Milvain, and a series of grateful letters from Amy Reardon sealed the friendship that had once existed between Jasper and the wife of his former friend. Jasper realized that he must have wealth to attain his goals in the literary world, and Amy recognized that a successful man must know how to use his social and financial advantages. They were married after a very brief courtship.

With Amy’s help and with Jasper’s wise manipulations, the Milvains soon achieved the success that Jasper had coldly calculated when he had proposed to Marian Yule. Shortly after their marriage, Jasper was appointed to the editorship that Fadge had vacated. With mutual admiration and joy, Jasper and Amy accepted their unexpected success in life together, both satisfied that they were perfectly mated.

Critical Evaluation:

Grub Street was a dismal London street where eighteenth century writers such as Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith earned meager livings. The name, since changed to Milton Street, came to stand for impoverished, overworked hack writers. By using “Grub Street” in his title, George Gissing implies that the profession had not improved by the late nineteenth century.

During his unhappy lifetime, Gissing produced twenty-two novels. His name was linked with such distinguished contemporaries as George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Yet if Gissing is remembered at all, it is for his novel about literary life in Victorian England. The reason New Grub Street keeps Gissing’s reputation aglow is that readers see its parallels with their own times. John Steinbeck said in his 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” Gissing displays his intelligence and social awareness by creating characters who all illustrate aspects of his thesis that literary work may seem glamorous to outsiders but is in reality a dog-eat-dog business.

Alfred Yule is an example of men of mediocre talents and unrealistic ambitions who dedicate their lives to literature. Alfred never had any money, so he felt unable to marry a woman of his own class. His kindhearted but hopelessly dull wife is a millstone. They have no social life, which leads to loneliness for their daughter Marian as well. After devoting fourteen hours a day to literature, Alfred goes blind.

Marian’s life is blighted by poverty. She is forced to give up any idea of marriage in order to care for her destitute parents. She comes to hate literature. “I don’t know how it is in other professions,” she tells a friend, “but I hope there is less envy, hatred and malice than in this of ours. The name of literature is often made hateful to me by the things I hear and read.”

Dora and Maud Milvain illustrate one persistent problem with writing as a profession. They have no particular talent or great interest in literature, yet on Jasper’s advice they begin producing books. The ease with which they become professionals suggests why writers will always be victims of the basic economic law of supply and demand. Too many people flood magazines and book publishers with manuscripts, creating a buyer’s market.

Reardon’s wife Amy represents the long-suffering wives of many aspiring freelance writers. She has to suffer the same hardships as her husband without the compensatory satisfaction of creative expression. There are still many women who fall in love with artistic men such as Edwin, only to fall out of love during the ensuing years of struggle and disappointment.

Edwin Reardon represents the many writers who fall in love with literature and dream of emulating authors who have inspired them. Like such writers, his sensitivity, introversion, and imagination render him totally “unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world’s labour-market.” A married man of his time needed three hundred pounds a year to support a family. Jasper shrewdly remarks, “He [Edwin] is absurd enough to be conscientious, likes to be called an ‘artist’. . . . He might possibly earn a hundred and fifty a year if his mind were at rest. . . . the quality of his work would be its own reward.” Edwin himself admits, “It’s unlikely that I should ever have got more than two hundred pounds for a book; and to have kept at my best, I must have been content to publish once every two or three years.”

Many creative writers face similar financial problems today. It is not unusual for a contemporary novelist to work one or two years on a book and receive nothing more than the publisher’s advance of fifteen hundred dollars. This is why so many writers turn to Hollywood or produce potboilers full of sex and violence. Many dedicated contemporary creative writers are getting academic jobs because they realize it is nearly impossible to make a living writing poetry, short stories, or novels. Another contemporary phenomenon is that of universities’ becoming heavily involved in publication of quality literature because commercial houses find it unprofitable. In the times of New Grub Street, however, such alternatives were not available.

Jasper Milvain, who resembles the character Mr. Worldly Wiseman in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), is Edwin Reardon’s foil. He says of himself: “It is men of my kind who succeed; the conscientious, and those who really have a high ideal, either perish or struggle on in neglect.” Jasper would be right at home in the contemporary literary marketplace, getting invited to the right parties and appearing on all the talk shows.

While Edwin sees literature as a sacred mission and is indifferent to money, Jasper sees success as a sacred mission and is indifferent to literature. Jasper understands public taste. He can turn out an article in one evening that Edwin would labor over for a month. Jasper is a success because the majority are superficial philistines such as himself.

Whelpdale, whose name has canine connotations, is another superficial opportunist who understands the mass mentality. He achieves success when he hits upon the idea of publishing a magazine with no article longer than two column inches. If he were writing in the contemporary marketplace, he would work for one of the tabloids sold at supermarket checkout counters.

Harold Biffen, the hopelessly unrealistic realist, lacks even Edwin Reardon’s limited understanding of the marketplace. Gissing uses Biffen to poke mild fun at exponents of pure realism. New Grub Street belongs to the school of naturalism, not realism. Realism, represented by Biffen’s novel about the life of a grocer, is usually dull because real life is uneventful. Most readers have always preferred romance which typically involves glamorous settings, noble motivations, adventure, and happy endings. Naturalism adds dramatic interest to realism by substituting for interpersonal conflict a sense of destinies shaped by invisible forces.

George Gissing, one of the best writers England ever produced, was overshadowed by Charles Dickens, whose genius has blinded many to the merits of Dickens’ contemporaries. Gissing deserves to be better known; New Grub Street is an excellent starting place.

Bibliography:

Coustillas, Pierre, and Colin Partridge, eds. Gissing: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. Reviews of Gissing’s novels by British and American critics of his own time. Contains a generous selection of reviews of New Grub Street that offer insight into why Gissing did not achieve popular success.

Halperin, John. Gissing: A Life in Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A biography with many references to New Grub Street, including a discussion of its reflections of Gissing’s own hardships. Contains a wealth of reference material. Illustrated with rare photographs of Gissing, his relatives, and friends.

Michaux, Jean-Pierre, ed. George Gissing: Critical Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981. Fully one-half of the book is devoted to essays about New Grub Street, including selections by such prominent authors as Angus Wilson, John Middleton Murry, and Gissing’s great admirer and champion, George Orwell.

Selig, Robert L. George Gissing. Boston: Twayne, 1983. The best short book on Gissing’s life and works. One chapter contains extensive discussion of New Grub Street. Bibliography.

Toynton, Evelyn. “The Subversive George Gissing.” American Scholar 59 (Winter, 1990): 126-138. Discusses Gissing’s works, including New Grub Street, in relation to Gissing’s life. States that Gissing, neither a socialist nor an elitist, presents a picture of Victorian life that makes the reader reevaluate more entertaining but less realistic writers such as Charles Dickens.

Places Discussed

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Milvain home

Milvain home. English provincial home of Jasper Milvain’s mother, where the novel opens in a peaceful English scene. There, the self-centered Jasper dominates conversations with his mother and sisters, expounding his cynical principles and materialistic values. Gissing intends to depict cold, foggy London in all its dirt, noise, and competition for living space, but he employs the venerable artistic device of contrast by devoting several opening chapters to a bucolic setting, which is the diametrical opposite of the narrow, unsanitary streets and grim, overshadowing buildings of the city. Throughout the novel, escape to the English countryside remains an impossible dream to literary toilers like Edwin Reardon, Alfred Yule, and Harold Biffen, who cannot afford vacations and dread losing their precarious footholds in the literary marketplace.

Reardon home

Reardon home. London home of Edwin Reardon and his wife, Amy, located in a respectable neighborhood near St. James Park. Like many characters in New Grub Street, they aspire to middle-class status even though their income level should make them lower class. Their shabby genteel lifestyle requires a minimum of several hundred pounds per year to maintain; however, Edwin can only earn about half that much from his writing. The description of their tiny flat tells a great deal about Amy’s social aspirations and Edwin’s ambitions. It is respectable enough, but they have to climb eight flights of stairs to get to it. Edwin has to use the sitting room as his study, forcing Amy to sit in the kitchen. They share the only bedroom with their infant, whose crying torments Edwin while he tries desperately to write. The rent is more than they can afford, but Amy requires a middle-class standard of living and Edwin feels duty bound to provide it. Though poor, Edwin owns hundreds of tattered books in English, Latin, Greek, and French. While lying sleepless, Edwin can hear the clock of the Marylebone Workhouse chiming the hours, seemingly threatening him with disgrace and disaster if he ceases to write for a single day.

*British Museum reading room

*British Museum reading room. Reading room of London’s great national library, which Gissing uses as a setting for several important scenes, including one in which Marian Yule falls in love with Milvain. This cavernous room with walls covered with books is the very nucleus of the literary world. Writers gather here, not only because it offers the reference materials they need, but because it offers them a haven from their nagging landlords, threatening creditors, squalling babies, and anxious spouses.

The reading room is a meeting place in which writers exchange malicious gossip motivated by the dog-eat-dog competition of their trade. Marian, whose father has been a permanent fixture in the reading room for many years, sees the place from Gissing’s viewpoint. Jasper Milvain, the cynical opportunist, calls the reading room “the valley of the shadow of books,” echoing words from the Bible’s Twenty-third Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Many freelance writers live close to the British Museum because they depend on its reading room. Therefore, the setting provides a center of gravity around which Gissing’s characters orbit.

Yule home

Yule home. Home in which Marian lives with her parents on St. Paul’s Crescent, a street consisting of “small, decent homes.” By working through the day and halfway through the night, Yule manages to achieve a respectable middle-class lifestyle, but his home is a stark, cheerless place in which meals are eaten in silence, and his wife and daughter are afraid to disturb the master of the house when he retires to his study to do more literary hackwork by lamplight. Gissing uses this grim setting to symbolize the life of a certain type of writer who discovers too late that he lacks the talent to realize his youthful dreams. It is worth noting that Gissing, the modern realist, describes this setting objectively and dispassionately, in contrast to the seriocomic manner in which such a place would certainly have been handled by the flamboyant Charles Dickens.

Biffen home

Biffen home. Home of Harold Biffen, located in a respectable London neighborhood on Clipstone Street between Portland Place and Tottenham Court Road. Biffen is an educated man with middle-class aspirations, but his home is a drafty garret in which he lives while writing books that will never get published, while eking out a living by tutoring dullards for sixpence an hour.

Gissing characteristically describes the place in objective terms: “It was a very small room, with a ceiling so low that the tall lodger could only just stand upright with safety; perhaps three inches intervened between his head and the plaster, which was cracked, grimy, cobwebby. A small scrap of weedy carpet lay in front of the fireplace; elsewhere the chinky boards were unconcealed.” It is ironic that Biffen, the most idealistic of the writers portrayed in the novel, should be forced to endure the worst living conditions. There, Gissing uses place to underscore the fact that conscientious, gifted artists freeze, starve, and perish while plagiarists and empty-headed scribblers thrive in this modern literary marketplace he calls New Grub Street.

*Bayswater

*Bayswater. Fashionable district of London, where Jasper Milvain and his wife, Amy—the two most materialistic and selfish characters in the novel—are ensconced at the end of the novel. There, they entertain small and select parties of friends. Their comfortably appointed home is a tangible illustration of Gissing’s cynical thesis that in the real world, as opposed to the world of romantic literature, Philistines prosper while dreamers and idealists get trampled underfoot.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226

Coustillas, Pierre, and Colin Partridge, eds. Gissing: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. Reviews of Gissing’s novels by British and American critics of his own time. Contains a generous selection of reviews of New Grub Street that offer insight into why Gissing did not achieve popular success.

Halperin, John. Gissing: A Life in Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A biography with many references to New Grub Street, including a discussion of its reflections of Gissing’s own hardships. Contains a wealth of reference material. Illustrated with rare photographs of Gissing, his relatives, and friends.

Michaux, Jean-Pierre, ed. George Gissing: Critical Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981. Fully one-half of the book is devoted to essays about New Grub Street, including selections by such prominent authors as Angus Wilson, John Middleton Murry, and Gissing’s great admirer and champion, George Orwell.

Selig, Robert L. George Gissing. Boston: Twayne, 1983. The best short book on Gissing’s life and works. One chapter contains extensive discussion of New Grub Street. Bibliography.

Toynton, Evelyn. “The Subversive George Gissing.” American Scholar 59 (Winter, 1990): 126-138. Discusses Gissing’s works, including New Grub Street, in relation to Gissing’s life. States that Gissing, neither a socialist nor an elitist, presents a picture of Victorian life that makes the reader reevaluate more entertaining but less realistic writers such as Charles Dickens.

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