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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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this time, the circulating libraries that had been the backbone of the publishing industry for generations were being superseded by new business models.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.

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