Ferdinand Mount

The downfall of a pessimist

Ferdinand Mount reviews Paul Delany's biography of George Gessing

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George Gissing: A Life

Paul Delaney

Weidenfeld, pp. 472, £

In some moods, I would rather read George Gissing than any other 19th-century English novelist. In the 1890s he was ranked with Hardy and Meredith, at a time when they had finished writing novels and he was only just getting into his tortured stride. Orwell called The Odd Women ‘one of the best novels in English’. But somehow Gissing has fallen off the shelves, not out of print but of public regard, fatally obscured by a reputation for gloom and pessimism. Gissing — the very word is like a South London street on a wet Monday. He himself rather revelled in that reputation. When he discovered that the next tenant in his old lodgings in Brixton had killed himself, he noted in his diary: ‘The atmosphere I left behind me, some would say, killed the poor man.’

Yet reading any of his best novels — New Grub Street, Born in Exile, In the Year of Jubilee — is in fact an exhilarating experience, like splashing through icy puddles with the rain in your face. They move at a breakneck pace, partly because he wrote them at unbelievable speed, making other famously facile writers like Trollope and Simenon look positively constipated. He finished The Odd Women — 336 pages in the Virago edition — in 50 days. His mind was always bubbling with new plot-lines, which generated any number of false starts. In the year after finishing Born in Exile, he began and then abandoned at least nine other novels. It comes as a shock, though it shouldn’t, that someone who wrote so much about defeated people — struggling writers, devitalised shop assistants, unloved spinsters — could himself master anything he tried his hand at. The son of a Suffolk pharmacist with literary tastes who migrated north to Wakefield, George Gissing passed out top in the whole country in English and Latin when he sat his London BA at Owens College, Manchester, a feat never achieved before. He also taught himself Greek, French, German, Italian and Spanish. He chucked out Christianity, read Darwin, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, walked 50 miles in a day, was a competent illustrator and knew more about flora and fauna than Thomas Hardy. He was a handsome man too, with a great mane of swept-back hair, grey-blue eyes and a profile as fine as Rupert Brooke’s. For all his grouchiness, he didn’t have an enemy in the world — until he got married. E. W. Hornung met him in Rome towards the end of his life and said:

Gissing is really a sweet fellow, he has charm and sympathy, humour too and a louder laugh than Oscar’s. That man is not wilfully a pessimist. But he is lonely —there has been a great sorrow and ill-health too.

So what went wrong? Well, that is the question pipe-sucking professors used to put, and though professors may no longer suck pipes, at least on college property, that is the question Paul Delany can’t stop asking. This is a highly enjoyable life of Gissing, lucidly written and carefully researched. Unfortunately, it is also so horribly bland, so wretchedly wrong-headed from start to finish, in the most important aspect of that life that it made me want to seek out the nearest ninth-story window to hurl it from. However, let us remember our anger management training and strive to condemn a little less and understand a little more.

The facts of Gissing’s first downfall are well-known. They remain startling. At the back of the estimable Owens College, which later turned out Nobel-prizewinners in droves, were the slums along the River Irwell. And in the handily situated brothel in Water Street, Gissing met Nell Harrison and fell in love with her, or with the idea of reclaiming her from her fallen state, or both. He stole books and clothes from his fellow students to raise money for her boozing and her VD treatment. He bought her a sewing machine too. Then he stole 5s 6d and was caught and sentenced to a month’s jail with hard labour, which meant the treadmill: climbing the equivalent of 10,000 feet a day. After his release, far from making a big deal of his month inside, he never spoke of it and did his best to keep it dark for the rest of his life. The Governors of the College remained keen to help their star pupil, and raised about £50 to speed him on his way to America where he could forget Nell and be himself forgotten.

No such thing. Gissing returned, having gained nothing from his year in the US ‘except to have studied with tolerable thoroughness the most hateful form of society yet developed’. American readers should not take too much offence at this. Gissing was a great hater of wherever he happened to be. After his stay in Exeter, he told Nell that ‘I should fancy no town in England has a more unintellectual population. And the country people are ignorance embodied.’ After an evening at the Authors’ Club, he recorded that ‘to mingle with these folk is to be once and for ever convinced of the degradation that our time has brought upon literature’. Brighton was

simply a lump of wealthy London put back to back with a lump of Whitechapel and stuck down on a most uninteresting piece of coast, a more hideous and vulgar sea-side town the mind of man has not conceived.

Anyway, far from giving up Nell, he poured more money down her throat, and since they could not share lodgings while unmarried, and despite his hatred of the Church, he married her in St James’s Hampstead Road.

Through all this process — a decidedly gruelling one, to put it mildly — Professor Delany has been tut-tutting and pursing his lips and shaking his head. ‘Many Owens students made an occasional visit to a brothel, with no harm to their future careers,’ he sighs in his broadminded way. Gissing, though, ‘brought doom on himself by deciding to save Nell from her way of life’, for ‘if she was just an ordinary girl of the streets, Gissing had been a great fool.’ Even writing to her from the States ‘showed that he had learnt nothing from being sent to prison’. Nothing like the treadmill to prevent prostitutes from finding husbands.

Why on earth could he not settle down with a nice middle-class girl and write nice middle-class novels for the circulating libraries? ‘He might have suffered much less from loneliness and sexual deprivation if he had chosen women whose status was closer to his own’, Delany tells us in his worldly-wise way. ‘All Gissing needed to do,’ he explains, sounding more and more like one of those ads on the back page which promise you the infallible recipe for turning out bestsellers, ‘was study his market and then meet the demand for material.’

Nell and Gissing eventually separate and she dies in ghastly poverty at the age of 30, although he never stops sending her what little money he has (at one point he is supporting no less than 15 members of his family from his scant earnings — Delany calls him ‘a soft touch’). The cause of death was probably the syphilis for which she had been receiving treatment, although the death certificate used the frequent euphemism of ‘acute laryngitis’.

Gissing then endures a solitude so all- consuming that he speaks to nobody but his landlady for weeks. In a frenzy of loneliness, he rushes out into the Marylebone Road and picks up the first girl he sees. This is Edith Underwood, a stonemason’s daughter, who after a long courtship, platonic according to Gissing, becomes his second wife. There is no evidence that she was on the streets in any other sense, although Delany likes to fancy that she might have been, or alternatively that Gissing thought she was and was disappointed to find that she was more respectable than he bargained for. By now Delany seems to have come to dislike Gissing quite strongly, almost as strongly as Gissing came to dislike Edith. The second marriage was as disastrous as the first. Edith gave George hell and vice versa. They separated and she spent the last 15 years of her life in a mental asylum.

Delany is now growing impatient with Gissing’s lack of upward mobility and has begun complaining that ‘his inability to convert the reputations of his books into social success was a chronic handicap in building his literary career’. If he hadn’t insisted on his ‘perverse choices’, ‘there was no external reason why he should not have found a loving young woman who could have helped him up the ladder.’ Yes, and bought a lovely home in South Ken and joined the Authors’ Club, or even the Garrick.

Gissing might be bitter, solitary and self-destructive, and he might be vulnerable to romantic illusions, but what Delany seems uncomfortable with, or bewildered by, is that he was also fiercely intelligent. He was always quick to see the shape of the future. He could see, for example, that Wilhelm II coming to the throne ‘might in all probability lead to wars of incalculable duration’. In Berlin in 1898, he found ‘rampant militarism everywhere about’. The Italy which he loved was ‘being very quickly ruined, owing to the crazy effort to be a first-class power’. He did not share the optimistic hopes about democracy, which he saw, on the contrary, as ‘full of menace to all the finer hopes of civilisation’, and likely to be much worse when combined with the revival of monarchic power based on militarism. ‘There has but to arise some Lord of Slaughter and the nations will be tearing at each other’s throats.’

Having thus nailed down the Kaiser, Mussolini and Hitler, Gissing was no more hopeful about the prospects of improvement at the individual level. A century before the age of celebrities and hedgefunders, he diagnosed the new elites as ‘incapable of romantic passion, children of a time which subdues everything to interest, which fosters vanity and chills the heart’.

At the same time, he was not blind to what he himself was like. He traced the unhappy story of his life to ‘my own strongly excitable temperament, operated upon by hideous experience of low life.’ A change of circumstances would not, however, perk him up: ‘It will never benefit me to take change of air. I am a hermit wherever I go; I merely carry a desert with me’. Delany tells us that Gissing was ‘trapped in a particularly English kind of shabby-genteel poverty’. What’s so particularly English about it? Think of Balzac’s clerks, or Gogol’s. And he was trapped only in the sense that a potholer gets trapped, as an occupational hazard. Gissing plunged into the lower depths because he felt that there was no other way to write truthfully or, just as important, to live honestly. He had, after all, explored the upper reaches of genteel literary society too, staying with his patrons, Mrs Gaussens in the Cotswolds with her pre-Raphaelite connections and the Positivist Frederic Harrison in Bayswater, and was soon as ill at ease there as with Nell Harrison in Kings Cross:

Reflecting upon those more cultured grades which I have also known, I was shocked by the gap between the two classes — not in the mere commonplace matter of material comfort, but in the power of comprehending each other’s rule of life.

Just as he had insisted on returning to Nell and marrying her, so later he deliberately chose to move to Brixton to join the lower middle class which had escaped the misery of the slums into lives which he saw as pinched, phoney and vulgar.

Other writers such as Orwell have briefly descended into the social underclass, but not many of them have chosen to live south of the river. Between A. C. Swinburne (who was dreaming of the Aegean rather than Putney) and J. G. Ballard, offhand I can think only of Thomas Hardy in Tooting Bec and V. S. Naipaul in Stockwell, and they were just passing through, not engaged on a mission as Gissing was.

In all his wanderings he was consistently distressed by the hard-hearted society which he thought the prevailing social Darwinism had generated: ‘If we tread upon the feeblest competitor and have the misfortune to crush the life out of him, we are merely illustrating the law of natural selection.’ He still hated the gloomy dogma of the Church he had been reared in, but he feared that the end of Christianity inevitably meant a great flowering of egotism. We could not hope for happiness in this world or anywhere else. The least bad course was ‘to cultivate our perception of man’s weakness. Let this excite our tenderness.’

Gissing worshipped classical civilisation and came closest to happiness when he was clambering over some ancient ruins in an unspoilt wilderness with a view of the Mediterranean. Delany does not seem to grasp, though, that in his outlook Gissing was anything but classical. Greek moderation and Roman self-control were alien to him. He was in fact a Christian post-Christian, for whom suffering-with was the supreme imperative. When we read about the lives of the five women who were murdered in Ipswich, should we be so quick to condemn Gissing’s project to rescue Nell?

It is natural enough to compare him with Orwell, who died at the same age, 46, and who was such an enthusiast for Gissing’s work. But even the appreciation that Orwell wrote in 1948 shows the difference. There he advances Gissing’s novels as a reason ‘for thinking that the present age is a good deal better than the last one’. The poverty and squalor that Gissing describes so relentlessly had become, if not unimaginable, at least rare in post-war Britain. Gissing himself would not have been so easily satisfied. He would have detected all sorts of deeper cultural and spiritual ailments which Mr Attlee had not yet cured. He was, as he said himself, not a realist but an idealist, and an unappeasable one.

None of which prevented him from being a domestic disaster area. Nell and Edith are not the only unhappy writers’ wives to have suffered from living with a man who writes ten hours a day and hates social life. But Mrs Hardy, Mrs Milton and Mrs Shakespeare did not, I guess, at the same time have to endure being told that they were coarse and vulgar and in need of a complete social and intellectual make-over.

We see Gissing at his most unpleasant when he refuses to allow Edith to answer letters from a middle-class friend, claiming that ‘she has long since given up hope of learning to write, so I will answer for her’ — when in fact perfectly coherent letters from Edith survive to this day. He was almost as horrible to their two sons. Walter, the elder, was ‘deplorably ugly’, as well as being ‘ill-tempered, untruthful, precociously insolent, surprisingly selfish’. He never saw the boys or Edith for the last five years of his life, which he spent at Pau with Gabrielle Fleury, a French literary groupie who acted as his third wife, though Edith was still alive. They settled in the Pyrenees in the mistaken belief that the climate was good for his lungs. In fact what he was dying of was syphilis, probably contracted from Nell all those years ago in Water Street. In the Pyrenees he yearned for the lanes round Guildford.