George Gissing published “New Grub Street” in 1891. I picked it up for free on the Kindle store and read it on my ereader, initially just as something to pass the time whilst I waited for another book to arrive. Gissing’s novel starts off fairly slowly and I almost gave up, but I am rather glad I continued through to the end. I’ve since learned that Gissing wrote the book at 4,000 words a day – I wasn’t even reading it at 4,000 words a day. What a prodigious output.
I won’t go into too much depth in my review. There are numerous plot summaries online, The Guardian has it at Number 28 in its “100 Best Novels” and there is a George Gissing journal that publishes four editions a year. Clearly, people have a lot to say about him, which is good because Gissing has a lot to say about people. There’s some good context on the book here at the University of Iowa. The people that fill New Grub Street are a mixed bunch of scholars, hacks, writers, ladies and gentlemen. It is a world that is in its nascency: the world of ‘professional’ writers and a world where one must have ‘a few thousand a year’ in order to live a life of comfort. To get this money, people write novels, write about novels, write about people who write novels, or marry into even more money which then proceeds to make enough interest that they can live off it. Gissing is piercing when talking about money, about lack of money, about what money does when it is both present and absent, and his chief vehicle of satire is the mercenary and rather smug Jasper Milvain. Edwin Reardon plays the role of the tragic talent crushed under the wheels of the free market, and many other incidental characters suffer at the hands of a system that has to be played.
What I want to talk about is New Grub Street as a novel of escape. On the one hand it is entirely about escape – about fiction, writing – and on the other, it is about how there is often no escape – for the Reardons, the Judes, the working class boys who dream big. More stylistically, Gissing allows the characters much in the way of mental relief and clarity when they have finally made up their minds and are freed from difficult situations. The writing is light and airy and the mental states of the characters are rendered extremely well.
There are numerous quotes I could use (and I won’t list them: you don’t want me to do all the work for you, do you?) but here is perhaps one of the most telling. It is the suicide of Biffen, towards the end of the book. As soon as the ‘will to live’ that Biffen possesses is gone, his mood settles into something approach rhapsody. You can find lots of these little eddies of ‘clarity of purpose’ in the book.
His mood was one of ineffable peace. Only thoughts of beautiful things came into his mind; he had reverted to an earlier period of life, when as yet no mission of literary realism had been imposed on him, and when his passions were still soothed by natural hope. The memory of his friend Reardon was strongly present with him, but of Amy he thought only as of that star which has just come into his vision above the edge of dark foliage – beautiful, but infinitely remote. Recalling Reardon’s voice, it brought to him those last words whispered by his dying companion. He remembered them now. “We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”