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New Grub Street by George Gissing

“A year after I have published my last book, I shall be practically forgotten; ten years later, I shall be as absolutely forgotten as one of those novelists of the early part of this century, whose names one doesn’t even recognise. What fatuous posing!”

George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street, published in 1891, is essentially the story of two young men, Jasper Milvain and George Reardon who take vastly different approaches to their literary careers. George Orwell was a great admirer of George Gissing and called New Grub Street, one of the few Gissing novels still in print,  Gissing’s masterpiece. Orwell defined New Grub Street as a “protest against the form of self-torture that goes by the name of respectability.” Orwell argues that Gissing showed the “horrors” of late Victorian London for those who teetered on the fringes of ‘good’ society.

The grime, the stupidity, the ugliness, the sex-starvation, the furtive debauchery, the vulgarity, the bad manners, the censoriousness — these things were unnecessary, since the puritanism of which they were a relic no longer upheld the structure of society. People who might, without becoming less efficient, have been reasonably happy chose instead to be miserable, inventing senseless taboos with which to terrify themselves. Money was a nuisance not merely because without it you starved; what was more important was that unless you had quite a lot of it — £300 a year, say — society would not allow you to live gracefully or even peacefully. Women were a nuisance because even more than men they were the believers in taboos, still enslaved to respectability even when they had offended against it. Money and women were therefore the two instruments through which society avenged itself on the courageous and the intelligent.

That marvellous quote from Orwell should give you a good idea about the book–this is a serious, sometimes depressing critique of late Victorian society–a society in which talent is crushed by need, deprivation, and the desire to keep up ‘appearances.’

 In New Grub Street, writing has been reduced to a commodity, and this is exemplified by the two main male characters, Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon. We are introduced first to Jasper, an intense, vital young man who lives in London but is visiting his mother and two sisters, Maud and Dora in the town of Wattleborough. Jasper is busy making connections in the London literary world, and in order to keep up appearances and maintain the necessary social contacts, he siphons off money from his widowed mother’s tiny annuity. Anything given to Jasper necessitates sacrifices on the part of his mother and sisters. While his sisters despair of Jasper ever earning a living, for his part, he sees the money as an investment in all their futures.

The novel opens with a scene over the Milvain breakfast table and Jasper regaling his country sisters with the insider’s view of the London literary world. He holds up his friend, Edwin Reardon, a writer who’s managed to publish a few excellent novels that have sunk without a trace, as a prime example of how not to do things and predicts that “he is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself.”

Jasper lacks the talent to write novels, but if he could he admits that he “would produce novels out-trashing the trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies.”  Instead his aim is to become a figure in the literary world through one of London’s influential literary review magazines that are effectively the gatekeepers of fame and fortune for writers, so his time is spent in London cultivating the right people and making the connections that will pay off for his future career.

While New Grub Street is ostensibly about the rise and fall of the two main characters, Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon set against the backdrop of the London literary world, in true Victorian fashion, the novel includes a host of other characters and various sub-plots-all of which are connected to the literary world in one form or another. We are introduced to the various branches of the Yule family: John Yule, in poor health who has a sizeable estate and has nothing to do with his brothers or their families, writer Alfred Yule and his daughter, Marian, and the widow and two children of the youngest brother Edmund Yule. Although John Yule does not make an appearance in these pages, his estate and the promise of possible inheritance for his relatives is a sizeable concern and plays a tremendous role in the drama that unfolds.

One of the most interesting aspects of this hugely enjoyable novel is the depiction of working life for the various characters. Edwin Reardon, after scoring a few modest publication successes and selling a novel for 100 pounds has made the mistake of marrying a girl of good family, Amy Yule, the daughter of the late Edmund Yule. Amy has certain expectations, and these expectations have resulted in the Reardons living beyond their means. Jasper predicts disaster and says that Edwin should have married “either a work-girl or an heiress.”   Indeed, as the book develops, just who a writer should marry becomes one of the book’s major themes. If a writer marries a lower class woman, then it’s likely that he will have a wife that accepts living in poverty, while a wife from a middle-class or an upper class background will have expectations that her husband will not be able to provide. This is most certainly the case with the Reardons. Amy cannot cope with poverty and rather than make stringent economies, she pushes her husband to write a novel as speedily as possible, and heavily influenced by Milvain, she agrees that “art  must be practised as a trade.” Meanwhile, Edwin, who would rather be writing obscure scholarly articles, is having difficulty writing a three-volume novel (a popular format of the day) he hopes will sell but it’s a work that he despises. Amy has no sympathy whatsoever, and she sees his inability to write a bestseller as a character flaw, a weakness:

But don’t you feel it’s rather unmanly, this state of things? You say you love me, and I try to believe it. But whilst you are saying so, you let me get nearer and nearer to miserable, hateful poverty. What is to become of me–of us? Shall you sit here day after day until our last shilling is spent?

With the rent due and the money running out, Amy becomes more and more frustrated while Reardon becomes less and less capable of completing his novel. The introduction to my edition, written by Bernard Bergonzi, makes the point that the situation between Reardon and his wife Amy reflects Gissing’s beliefs and experiences with marriage, the writing life and poverty, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that the theme of just who writers can marry pops up repeatedly in the novel. Gissing shows that there’s no easy answer, and the men who marry ‘beneath’ them live to regret it and make their wives pay for their discontent–Alfred Rule, for example, married a shop girl  who was willing to share the garret he lived in, and he treats her little better than an unpaid servant. One chapter begins with the discussion of the marital states of a number of writers  and how the lowly social positions of these spouses have supposedly ruined any chance for success in the literary world. Then again, couldn’t a poor marriage and an inability to move in prominent social circles also act as a smokescreen for a writer of mediocre talent?

Of the acquaintances Yule had retained from his earlier years several were in the well-defined category of men with unpresentable wives. There was Hinks, for instance, whom, though in anger he spoke of him as a bore, Alfred held in some genuine regard.  Hinks made perhaps a hundred a year out of a kind of writing which only certain publishers can get rid of, and of this income he spent about a third on books. His wife was the daughter of a laundress, in whose house he had lodged thirty years ago, when new to London but already long-acquainted with hunger; they lived in complete harmony, but Mrs Hinks, who was four years the elder, still spoke the laundress tongue, unmitigated and unmitigable.

Hinks is just one of the writers in Alfred Yule’s circle of friends. There’s also Christopherson who “worked casually at irresponsible journalism.” Mrs Christopherson is the daughter of a butcher and “disagreeable stories were whispered” about her past. The writers in Yule’s circle do not include their wives in their literary evenings.

These men were capable of better things than they had done or would ever do; in each case their failure to fulfil youthful promise was largely explained by the unpresentable wife. They should have waited; they might have married a social equal at something between fifty and sixty.

Jasper Milvain would agree–a literary man needs a wife who can hold her own in soirées and it’s even better if she can pay for them! Amongst these married men who regret their alliances there are also a number of desperate bachelors–including Whelpdale who proposes to every woman he meets and the immortal, tragic Biffen (no wonder Orwell loved this novel) who longs for the sort of wife that Edwin Reardon has but can’t afford to keep.

The introduction makes the point that while New Grub Street criticises late Victorian society, it offers no solutions. Jasper Milvain is not as great a scoundrel as Maupassant’s Georges Duroy, but there’s a link there, nonetheless. He states early in this 500 page plus novel : “ All my plans and efforts will have money in view–all. I shan’t allow anything to come in the way of my material advancement.” Jasper’s pledge is sorely tested when he finds himself attracted to Marian Yule, a very sincere and talented young woman who works as a ghost writer for her father.

In  spite of the fact that New Grub Street is a critique of late Victorian society, some of the book is surprisingly prescient. Good novels sink and rubbishy ones get rave reviews in all the right literary magazines in the London Circle Jerk of Critical Praise. As the very intelligent and principled Marian observes:

When  already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here she was exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market

New Grub Street is available FREE for the kindle.

Part II: Running the numbers and the triple-decker book ….

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