New Grub Street

(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 938 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.