Monday, 18 February 2013

George Gissing; Or, Fact Is Indeed Sometimes Stranger Than (Credible) Fiction

George Gissing (source: Wikipedia)

 George Gissing was born in the year of the Indian Uprising and although he survived Queen Victoria by two years, dying in 1903, he is almost the epitome of a Victorian writer, not only in that his books are unmistakably  Victorian in flavour, but also because his personal life contained all the elements of prime Victorian melodrama.

The son of a Yorkshire pharmacist, young George showed promise and scholarly aptitude. However, his budding career in the academic field came to a rather sudden halt at a young age, after he became more or less obsessed with a young prostitute named Nell (she was an orphan, naturally - how could it be a Victorian melodrama otherwise?). Having ruined himself trying to keep her off the streets, he began stealing from his fellow students, but was soon exposed (the shame! the shame!) and sentenced to a month of hard labour.

He tried to get a fresh start in America, but he soon returned to England, propelled by the twin forces of financial failure and longing for his Nell, whom he married. It wasn't a successful marriage (I don't think you can label a marriage in which one party engages in prostitution and that ends with separation and the wife dying from alcoholism and/or syphilis as "successful" even if you try) but at least the 1880s saw the beginnings of his writing career – he was first published in 1880 and kept up a decent productivity with seven more novels published in that decade and 12 in the next.

He remarried in 1891, and to hear his friend H.G Wells tell it, the screening process was rather erratic – he simply picked up a servant girl in Regents Park one Sunday afternoon and married her. His reasons were, according to Wells, splendidly Victorian:

"he felt that to make love to any woman he could regard as a social equal would be too elaborate, restrained and tedious for his urgencies, he could not answer questions he supposed he would be asked about his health and means, and so, for the second time, he flung himself at a social inferior whom he expected to be easy and grateful."

This is obviously not a sound basis for married bliss, and so, rather predictably, the marriage was yet another failure. Mrs Gissing's violent and erratic behaviour led firstly to their children being sent away for their safety, and finally, to her being committed to a lunatic asylum in 1902 (yes, that's one wife who was a prostitute and another who went mad, albeit not hidden in the attic, which gives Mr Gissing 8/10 on the Victorian melodrama scale).

To make it even better, Gissing was, according to Wells, "an extremely good-looking, well-built man, slightly on the lean side, blond, with a good profile and a splendid leonine head" (yes, it's hard to tell behind that moustache, I agree, but we'll have to trust Mr Wells on this one). No wonder then that his insane wife should not keep him from scoring yet again – this time with a Frenchwoman, with whom he lived in "psuedo-marriage" until his death. Even that was suitably novel-esque – he died from pneumonia originating from a cold caught on a winter walk (he had emphysema and was thus in poor shape to begin with). It seems his final relationship was only just better than his former ones, and Wells gives poor Gissing a rather depressing epigraph:

"So ended all that flimsy inordinate stir of grey matter that was George Gissing. He was a pessimistic writer. He spent his big fine brain depreciating life, because he would not and perhaps could not look life squarely in the eyes,—neither his circumstances nor the conventions about him nor the adverse things about him nor the limitations of his personal character."

Gloomy, isn't it? If you don't trust Mr Wells' word, you can become personally acquainted with Mr Gissing's writing, since most of his novels can be found online these days.

If you don't know where to start, the most well-known of his books is New Grub Street, followed by Odd Women.  His style is generally realistic, close to documentary, but at the same time, he was an idealist, deeply in love with the Classical world, and his political stance was certainly not that of a reformer – he looked at the lower classes as doomed and mostly unable to reform. The Nether World is especially bleak, being written after Nell's death and describing the life of London's poor. Not a feel-good author, certainly, but a good choice for a close and unsentimental look at Victorian Britain.

Workers in the Dawn (1880)
The Unclassed (1884)
Isabel Clarendon (1885)
Demos (1886)
Thyrza (1887)
A Life's Morning (1888)
The Nether World (1889)
The Emancipated (1890)
New Grub Street (1891)
Denzil Quarrier (1892)
Born In Exile (1892)
The Odd Women (1893)
In the Year of Jubilee (1894)
Eve's Ransom (1895)
The Paying Guest (1895)
Sleeping Fires (1895)
The Whirlpool (1897)
The Town Traveller (1898)
The Crown Of Life (1899)
By the Ionian Sea (1901)
Our Friend the Charlatan (1901)
The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903)
Will Warburton (1905)   



  1. Dear J.B.,

    I am surprised to find a fellow Gissing enthusiast... a rare species!

    If you haven't read it already, you might also be interested in Morley Roberts' thinly-disguised biography of Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland. Roberts was one of his few lifelong friends. The book is available on

    I look forward to reading your blog.

    Best regards,


  2. Rather shame-faced, I must admit I have only read about The Private Life of Henry Maitland, not actually read it. Will put it on my to-read-list!


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