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.