The Cost of Living in Gissing’s New Grub Street

The subject of a man’s ‘worth’ comes up frequently in the novels of Jane Austen. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, “five minutes after his entrance ” into a dance,  it’s a matter of public knowledge that Mr. Darcy has “ten thousand a year,”–a veritable Rothschild compared to Bingley, who according to the rapacious Mrs. Bennet has “four or five thousand a year” and is considered an amazing ‘catch.‘  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, and what of Gissing’s world of  late Victorian England, 1891?

In New Grub Street, one of the main themes is the dilemma literary men face when they wish to marry. At the beginning of their careers, they are extremely poor, and if they are lucky, that may change. George Gissing certainly understood exactly what the lack of money could do to you. Gissing was the son of a pharmacist who attended Owens College on a scholarship. He fell in love with a young prostitute and stole money from other students with the aim of keeping his lover off the streets. He was caught, sent to trial and sentenced to gaol. After his release, with support from friends, he travelled to America and for a while worked for an American newspaper and even did a stint as a travelling salesman. These experiences find their way into the pages of New Grub Street through the character of Whelpdale. Gissing later married the prostitute. They lived together but finally separated. Gissing supported her until her alcohol-related death some years later.

In Gissing’s novel, according to the ambitious Jasper Milvain a writer should, in optimum circumstances, marry an heiress, but that’s best case scenario. He sees that other writers marry working class women who accept living in a freezing garret on a diet of bread and dripping.  Jasper has the goal of earning, in ten years time, “my thousand a year,” and meanwhile his widowed mother lives with her two daughters on an annuity of two hundred and forty pounds. The two daughters, Maud and Dora had received “an intellectual training wholly incompatible with the material conditions of their life,”  and because their mother supported Jasper’s life in London to the tune of 120 pounds–half of her annuity– the year previously, they work to supplement their income. During the last year, Jasper earned 1/5 of his living, 30 pounds, himself, and that brings his total cost of living to 150 pounds for the year. Due to supporting Jasper in London, the women in the Milvain household suffer deprivations and do not mingle in society as they cannot afford it.  Maud works occasionally as a music teacher, and Dora is employed as a “visiting governess” with a local family. Are they destined to become old maids?

So let’s look at some of the numbers: When Edwin Reardon was single, he inherited 200 pounds, moved to London and lived for almost 4 years off of the money using “painful economy.” That’s 50 pounds a year. He lived in a garret with rent at 3/6 a week and spent about 1 shilling a day on food. After his inheritance ran out, and still trying to make a living as a novelist, Reardon was lucky enough to land a job as a clerk at a hospital for a pound a week.

He held this position for three years, and during that time important things happened. When he recovered from his state of semi-starvation, and was living in comfort (a pound a week is a very large sum if you previously had to live on ten shillings), Reardon found that the impulse to literary production awoke in him more strongly than ever. He generally got home from the hospital about six o’clock, and the evening was his own. In this leisure time he wrote a novel in two volumes; one publisher refused it, but a second offered to bring it out on the terms of half profits to the author. The book appeared, and was well spoken of in one or two papers; but profits there were none to divide. In the third year of his clerkship he wrote a novel in three volumes; for this his publishers gave him twenty-five pounds, with again a promise of half the profits after deduction of the sum advanced. Again there was no pecuniary success. He had just got to work upon a third book, when his grandfather at Derby died and left him four hundred pounds.

Reardon takes the second inheritance, lives off of it and publishes a third book for which he is paid fifty pounds. He is now an author of modest reputation. He meets Amy Yule, a young woman of good family and fueled by the expectations of his literary career, they marry.  She foolishly imagines that writing a novel is an easy thing and sees the next novel being sold for 300 pounds with royalties in the range of another 200-300.

Poor Edwin Reardon who’s frantically writing himself into a mental and physical breakdown lives with his wife Amy and their child in a flat, eight flights up, in which “gentlefolk” live, and their flat is composed of a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen (which doubles and triples as a dining room and a parlour). The rent of 50 pounds a year is paid on the quarter. Impractical Amy makes economies but still bemoans the family’s inability to go on holiday. She’s disappointed and cold about Edwin’s failure when he finally sells his novel for 75 pounds; after all at this rate writing and selling a novel a year is going to pay the rent with not enough to live on left over.

One character lands a job that pays 150 pounds a year, housing included, so a life of relative worry-free existence is anticipated. We are told at one point that Marian Yule is expected to be able to earn only 50 pounds a year through her writing, and yet we know that a pound a week is poverty for these “gentlefolk” or “gentry” as the Russians would say. A position on the literary magazine Chit Chat pays 250 pounds a year, and the character who gets the job sees the pay as a “glorious competence.” Clearly, somewhere between 150-250 pounds income a year, life begins to look a lot rosier.

Then there’s the matter of inheritance. One person inherits 5,000 pounds and another 10,000. Numbers are bandied about, but it seems that 4% interest is the going rate, so the person who inherits 10,000 will have 400 pounds a year to live on, while the person who inherits 5,000 will have about 200 pounds a year. The wealthier woman lands into the heiress category while the one with the lesser inheritance is seen as a tolerable match.

Then there’s Mrs Edmund Yule, Amy’s mother:

Like the majority of London people, she occupied a house of which the rent absurdly exceeded the due proportion of her income, a pleasant foible turned to good account by London landlords. Whereas she might have lived with a good deal of modest comfort, her existence was a perpetual effort to conceal the squalid background of what was meant for the eyes of her friends and neighbours. She kept only two servants, who were so ill paid and so relentlessly overworked that it was seldom they remained with her for more than three months. In dealings with other people whom she perforce employed she was often guilty of incredible meanness; as, for instance, when she obliged her half-starved dressmaker to purchase material for her, and then postponed payment alike for that and for the work itself to the last possible moment. This was not heartlessness in the strict sense of the word; the woman not only knew her behaviour was shameful, she was in truth ashamed of it and sorry for her victims. But life is a battle. She must either crush or be crushed. With sufficient means, she would have defrauded no one, and would have behaved generously to many; with barely enough for her needs, she set her face and defied her feelings, inasmuch as she believed there was no choice.

With a mother such as Mrs. Edmund Yule, it’s easy to see why Amy has difficulties understanding why she and Edmund Reardon can’t afford a holiday. What’s so interesting here is we see the financially challenged Milvains pooling their resources in solidarity whereas Mrs. Edmund Yule and her children pull apart, and when Amy goes to her mother for help, the knives are drawn against Edmund.

Next up: the triple decker.

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21 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gissing George

21 responses to “The Cost of Living in Gissing’s New Grub Street

  1. Brian Joseph

    Guy – One thing that I thought about while reading your post, is how little things have changed since the 1890s! One runs into people of all sorts of means and spending habits. Ability and hard work play a part but so does chance. Some have no trouble making do with little, some go bankrupt with seemingly high incomes. There are still lots of struggling writers. I think that it was likely the same 3000 years ago. There are some constants in the world!

    • The biggest difference that hit me here was the lack of social programmes. In one scene a character who is going blind and facing a bleak future meets a dr who is unemployed and starving. The novel makes it clear that there is no safety net. If you have relatives to help, then you won’t starve, but otherwise you are screwed.

  2. When Emma and Tom read Washington Square he wrote a post about how much money the sums mentioned would be nowadays and that made me understand for the first time how rich the rich in Victorian or other older novels really was. Considerable. Without this information a lot of what is at stake isn’t all that palpable for a reader today.

    • After comparing what people lived on in Gising’s book, it gave me a whole new appreciation for Darcy’s fortune–even though he existed, fictionally, a good deal earlier. Gissing characters marvel over 150-250 a year and there’s Darcy w/10,000

  3. Of the Victorians, I think Gissing stands out for his attention to financial details. They are mentioned and discussed by others, of course, but I think Gissing is the one you can turn to to really plan out a Victorian budget. The thing is, I never found this sort of detail boring or dry. Gissing made it a vital point of the story.

    • Good point, CB, Gissing gets those details into very natural conversations and ruminations, and I agree, it was not boring or dry.

      I’ve tried leaving comments but get caught in an endless loop of clearance.

  4. Trollope is full of money, and good with it, but I have not read a novel of his with as much nuts and bolts information as in New Grub Street. Like CB says, another level of detail. Why is is all so interesting?

    Are Gissing’s other novels similar? I have just read this one.

  5. I don’t know about the money details, but I found The Nether World an excellent read also. The third Gissing I’ve read is The Odd Women. It was good, but didn’t seem to pack the punch that the other two did.

    • Tom & Madame V: I can’t say as this is my first Gissing, but since Madame V has replied (thanks) we have a couple of pointers. I have The Odd Women and The Nether World on my shelf so I’ll be getting back to Gissing very soon. I also have a kindle collected works.

  6. Now I want to read this novel even more. I remember that Jane Austen earnt 30 pounds for one of her novels (P&P perhaps) and that it was a fortune for her. It seems things haven’t changed that much between the early 1800s and the end of the century. We are in the same range of income.
    In Sense and Sensibility, there’s also this masterpiece scene of pettiness and greed where Fanny convinces her husband he doesn’t need to give too much income to Mrs Dashwood.

    I’m also very interested in these matters and I found your entry fascinating.
    You can notice that they mention the price of rents, of food, of clothes but NEVER tell how much taxes they pay. And according to that book about Victorian England I read a few months ago, they paid taxes on lots of daily commodities. I suppose it wasn’t wise to complain about such things.

    I suppose the 4% of interests come from investments in “government bonds”, they were popular at the time, I think.

    PS: Balzac is excellent for informations about money, don’t you think?

    To all: if you haven’t read Tom’s post about money in Washington Square, it’s worth reading.

    • You have Zola’s Money lined up, don’t you?
      I remember that scene in S&S–marvellous stuff and very very real.

      I was fascinated by all the specifics here as I was able to really grasp just how much people needed to even exist. There’s one wonderful scene in the book in which Alfred Yule meets up with a starving doctor.

      I think you would really love this as there’s a great deal going on with all the relationships. I found myself, at several points, thinking how would Trollope handle this or that character, and I think Trollope would have been much more generous to Amy, as just one example. Even the introduction says that Gissing was a bit hard on Amy.

      The 3 and the 4% also comes up in Thackeray’s The Great Hoggarty Diamond which is all about greed, the hope of inheritance and a ponzi scheme of sorts. It’s relatively short too and you’d love it.

  7. I’m glad I went back to this post, as it’s absolutely fascinating. Depressingly contemporary too, with the current dissolution of the safety nets we’d built up in the UK after the second world war (which were never fully there in the US, but which little there was seems to be passing too). It’s a reminder, at risk of being political, of why our predecessors introduced the systems we’re now throwing away.

    Caroline, you mentioned a post regarding how much these sums would be today, do you recall where that was? It would be interesting to see it.

  8. You need a pound inflation calculator, like this one from the Bank of England. It features an adorable piggy bank animation!

    So: £1 in 1891 is more or less £104 today.

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