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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535

First published: 1903

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Reflective romance

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Character:

Henry Ryecroft, a thoughtful man

The Story:

For many years, Henry Ryecroft had toiled unceasingly at all kinds of writing. He did straight hack work, translating, and...

(The entire section contains 1535 words.)

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First published: 1903

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Reflective romance

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Character:

Henry Ryecroft, a thoughtful man

The Story:

For many years, Henry Ryecroft had toiled unceasingly at all kinds of writing. He did straight hack work, translating, and editing. At first, he knew the bitterest of poverty, but at long intervals a book appeared under his name. At last, he gained a somewhat less precarious livelihood. At rare intervals, some modest affluence enabled him to take a short trip abroad. By the time he was fifty years old, his health was failing; his wife had been dead for years, and his married daughter had a home of her own.

By a stroke of luck, he inherited a legacy from an acquaintance, a sufficient income for his modest needs. He lost no time in leasing a cottage in rural Devon for twenty years and in bidding good-bye to his writing. In Devon, he settled down contentedly with a quiet housekeeper. After his death, his private papers, written during his few years in Devon, were arranged by a friend and published.

It was spring. For more than a week, Ryecroft had done no writing. His house was perfect, with just enough room, a completely rustic setting, an interminable quiet. His housekeeper, who rarely spoke more than a word or two at a time, kept the house shining and cheerful. Ryecroft walked about the countryside in the pleasant weather. He was no botanist, but before long he knew the names of most of the common plants he saw.

One day, he came upon a boy crying bitterly. The child had been given sixpence and sent to repay a debt, but he had lost the money and had been weeping in the woods for hours. He did not fear his parents’ wrath; rather, he was aware of how much a sixpence meant to them. Ryecroft gave him a sixpence. Not long before, he could not have afforded such a sum.

Ryecroft remembered the many years when he was bound to the pavements of London. He lived in a mean room, ate irregularly, and begrudged time away from his hack writing. The beds he slept in so soundly would now seem an abomination. He had been young in those days, but not for anything, not even for a regained youth, would he go through those lean years again.

Ryecroft had always purchased books, even when he was poor. Once he got a complete Gibbon at a bargain and carried it home in two trips. To look at booksellers’ windows and at advertisements one might think that the English were literary or at least book lovers. The daily newspaper, however, was a better measuring rod. It was devoted to horse racing, scandal, war, and threats of war; books got very little space.

In the summer, Ryecroft sat reading one day in his garden. A chance breeze carried a perfume that reminded him of his boyhood. His wise father had seen to it that his family was seldom in crowds. In those days it was still possible to find spots along the English coast where crowds were unknown, and the Ryecrofts always spent tranquil vacations at the seaside. It always seemed that their keenest pleasure came on the trip home when the train stopped at their station.

At one period of his life Ryecroft, with little respect for the Sabbath, had reserved his best satire for the day of sanctified rest. Now Sunday had become the culmination of a quiet week; its deeper quiet made a perfect day. The housekeeper, doing only necessary work, went to church twice. Surely it did her good. Ryecroft arose later than usual and dressed in different clothes. While the housekeeper was gone, he looked into rooms he seldom saw during the week. In London, Sunday had always meant cacophonous church bells. When he was a boy, Sunday had been the day he was permitted to look at expensive adult books.

One thing about contemporary England was the decline of taste in food. Faddists vaunted the delights of vegetarianism, but lentils were a poor foreign substitute for good, honest English meat. Ryecroft even had met a man who boasted of eating only apples for breakfast.

A friend, a successful author, came to visit for two days. The friend, working only two or three hours a day, made two thousand pounds a year. He and Ryecroft, poor scriveners together in London, had never dreamed that they both should know prosperous times. His friend’s visit recalled London more sharply; the only things he really missed in the metropolis were concerts and picture galleries.

In autumn, Ryecroft was busy learning to distinguish the hawkweeds. He had no notion of a scientific classification; common names were more fitting. As he was walking past a farmhouse at dusk, he saw the doctor’s rig at the gate. After he had passed by, he turned back to see the chimney silhouetted in the sunset afterglow. The scene was irresistible; he hurried home to read TRISTRAM SHANDY again after twenty years. Such impulses came fairly often. One morning, he awoke an hour early, in great impatience to read the correspondence of Goethe and Schiller.

The triumph of Darwinism and the spread of positivism had many consequences. Agnosticism was an early result, too reasonable to last. Oriental magic, Buddhism, and hypnotism were all the rage for a while, as psychical phenomena and telepathy were now, but Ryecroft was equally indifferent to esoteric fads and to the discoveries of Marconi and Edison. Boasts about triumphs of human knowledge were childish. He agreed somewhat with Spinoza, who said that the free man thinks of death only rarely, although he was not free in Spinoza’s sense. Thinking of death very often, he found the stoics a comfort.

During his first winter in Devon, Ryecroft tried to keep a wood fire. Now he had a comfortable coal grate. A storm recalled the days when he would gladly have tramped far in the wind and rain, but such an exploit would kill him now. His room seemed the most comfortable in all of England. Comfortable also because he was able to spend money, he sent fifty pounds to an indigent friend and passed a pleasant hour thinking of his friend’s delight at the windfall.

In those days it was the fashion to condemn the English kitchen. Cooks were called gross and unimaginative, but Ryecroft believed that English cooking was the best in the world. The beef tasted like beef, and the mutton was decidedly mutton. Rather than being a nation with one sauce, only England knew the virtues of meat gravy. English cooking, however, had been better before the oven became the cook’s friend and refuge; a spitted joint was incomparably better than a modern oven roast.

The strength of England probably came from two sources. First, there had been Puritanism, which set moral standards. Second, the English read the Old Testament; they were the chosen people. Perhaps the last thirty years had seen the decline of conventional religion and the growth of materialism. The old prudishness, however, had given way to new strength.

Critical Evaluation:

Not really a novel at all, George Gissing’s long reflective essay is a prose poem, an elegiac celebration of true rest after enervating toil. The author, a persona for Gissing, mourns his past life of poverty, starvation, and loneliness but takes infinite consolation from the simple comforts of his cottage, savory meals, spring flowers, and good books. Walter Allen (THE ENGLISH NOVEL, 1954) finds Ryecroft “repellent” in his irresponsible rejection of life but concedes that Gissing’s cruel struggle to achieve literary success, in the hostile London of hack writer and journalist, explains Ryecroft’s glorification of hermitlike peace.

Gissing’s book is a philosophical meditation very much in the tradition of Thoreau’s WALDEN. Unlike the American transcendentalist, Ryecroft does not go into isolation in order to return to the world a wiser man than he left it. His cottage in Devon is more comfortable than Thoreau’s primitive cabin precisely because he plans to stay until the end. WALDEN celebrates withdrawal as a resting place in the journey of living and being; THE PRIVATE PAPERS OF HENRY RYECROFT is stoical and resigned, and it is content to shore up associations and impressions that will prepare for death. It has a tragic dimension, whereas WALDEN is an idyl and a mental epic.

Ryecroft’s stoicism gives him the courage to live without illusions. “Sympathetic understanding” strikes him as a largely illusory hope; his splendid isolation is far more satisfying: “The mind which renounces, once and for ever, a futile hope, has its compensation in ever-growing calm.” Although still committed to the life of the mind and human values, Ryecroft is skeptical of democracy and contemptuous of science:

I see it (science) restoring barbarism under a mask of civilization; I see it darkening men’s minds and hardening their hearts; I see it bringing a time of vast conflicts, which will pale into significance “the thousand wars of old.”

There are many today who would call Ryecroft’s bias prophetic.

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