George Gissing


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George Gissing (1857-1903) English author considered one of the most valuable contributors to late Victorian era literature, author of New Grub Street (1891).

George Robert Gissing was born on 22 November 1857 at Thompson's Yard, Westgate, Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. His father, who died when he was thirteen, Thomas Waller Gissing (1829–1870), was a chemist from a family of Suffolk shoemakers and his mother was Margaret Bedford (1832–1913). Gissing had four siblings; William, Algernon, Margaret, and Ellen.

Young George was an avid reader and took advantage of the extensive family library. Though genial and bookish he was well-liked and had many friends while attending Back Lane School, Wakefield. Early on he won prizes for his poetry. He had a relatively stable childhood until his father died in 1870; he lost his main guiding force in his intellectual development. This, the first of a number of unfortunate circumstances, would have a profound and negative effect on George and his outlook on life.

In the first of his many achievements to come, 1872 saw Gissing place twelfth in the kingdom in the Oxford local examinations. He won a scholarship to Owens College (now the University of Manchester). In 1874 he took his BA exam at the University of London where he placed first in England for both English and Latin and graduated in 1876.

Gissing was destined for further scholarly success but met with disgrace when, whether naïve, lonely or both, in 1875 he fell in love with a woman of ill-repute, Marianne Helen Harrison, "Nell". (1858–1888) He embarked on what some say was a self-defeating pattern, trying to support her financially though he could ill-afford to do so and was caught stealing money from other students for this purpose. The sentence for him was one month hard labour at Bellevue Prison in Manchester. Expelled from Owens and humiliated, his confidence in himself and hopes in ever achieving happiness were dashed. With letters of recommendation in hand Gissing's mother sent him to the United States to start anew. It was a difficult period of adjustment, one of impoverishment, hard work and misery, so often reflected in his novels. In Chicago, Gissing was barely able to support himself with his writing. His first fiction The Sins of the Fathers was published in the Chicago Tribune in 1877.

In 1877 Gissing was back in England and again met Nell whereupon they married on 27 October 1879. They would only stay together for five years while his private tutoring provided a meagre income. Gissing usually spent Sundays with one of the few long time friends he'd made, Morley Roberts, whom he'd met at Owens. In 1880 Gissing's brother William died of consumption. Gissing's first published novel, Workers in the Dawn (1880) described lower-class London life as seen by a young déclassé idealist. The Unclassed was published in 1884. Gissing achieved some success with Demos: A Story of English Socialism (1886). Isabel Clarendon (1886) and A Life's Morning (1888) followed. Though Workers in the Dawn and Thyrza were published in 1887 and his darkest work The Nether World came out in 1889, these were grim and lonely days for Gissing, who had so little confidence in himself. "On my way home at night an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home." In his often sordid depictions of the social issues of the day including poverty and industrialisation, Gissing belonged to the school of naturalism. New Grub Street predicted that the commercialisation of culture would produce charlatans. In 1884 he met Miss Gaussen and tutored her son.

On 29 February 1888 Nell Harrison met her early demise in a Lambeth slum whereupon Gissing was summoned to identify her body. Soon after this Gissing travelled to Italy, then France, Naples and Greece. On 25 February 1891 he married another uneducated young woman, Edith Alice Underwood, (1867–1917) a stonemason's daughter. They had a son, Walter, on 10 December. Gissing would write of the social and political problems of England in The Emancipated. (1890) Born in Exile was published in 1892 and The Odd Women in 1893. A Victim of Circumstances, Lou and Liz, and The Day of Silence were all published in 1893. In the Year of Jubilee and Comrades in Arms in 1894. Following up were The Paying Guest (1895) and The Whirlpool (1897). Gissing would become acquainted with Clara Collet who would become a dear friend and supporter for many years.

In 1896 George and Edith had another son, Alfred, born 20 January 1896. Gissing had again either made a poor judgement of character, trying to be a father figure or had more bad luck as Edith descended into madness. A year after their son was born Gissing suffered a serious bout of lung illness and he left his wife for a six-month trip to Italy for a cure. It was inspiration for his travel book By the Ionian Sea. (1901) While in Rome he wrote Veranilda. (1904). Gissing wrote some prefaces for Charles Dickens’s works including The Pickwick Papers, Bleak House and Oliver Twist and also wrote his own work Charles Dickens: a Critical Study. Gissing's semi-fictional memoirs Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft were published in 1903.

In 1898 Gissing met the young author Gabrielle Marie Edith Fleury (1868–1954) who wanted to translate his New Grub Street. Gissing's friend Roberts provided a model for the character Whelpdale. Having been estranged from Edith, who was committed to an insane asylum in 1902, Gissing moved to France with Gabrielle. The Crown of Life (1899) is partly inspired by his love for Gabrielle. In 1901, on the advice of a doctor in England, he had a stay of six weeks in the new East Anglian Sanatorium at Nayland, Suffolk. While that was the last time he would visit England, his personal correspondence attests to his nostalgia for his native country. Gissing's semi-auto-biographical The Private Papers Of Henry Ryecroft was published first in 1903.

George Gissing died at his villa in Ispoure, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France on 3 December 1903. His friend H.G. Wells had visited him just prior. Like his father, a consistent agnostic to the end, there was still some speculation as to whether he had undergone conversion on the eve of his death. Out of respect to Gissing's remaining family an Anglican funeral service was held at the church in St. Jean-de-Luz on the Bay of Biscay. He was finally laid to rest on 30 December. In 1912, a controversial semi-biography of Gissing was published, The Private Life of Henry Maitland, by Morley Roberts.

"Gissing was not a writer of picaresque tales, or burlesques, or comedies, or political tracts: he was interested in individual human beings, and the fact that he can deal sympathetically with several different sets of motives, and makes a credible story out of the collision between them, makes him exceptional among English writers."--George Orwell in his essay "George Gissing" (1948)

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Recent Forum Posts on George Gissing

Gissing's interesting life

I was reading a bit about George Gissing last night. He idolized his father who died when he was thirteen, but did not get on so well with his mother. His father was intellectual; his mother was a hard-working, rather moralistic housewife. After his father died, he was sent away to school where he worked extremely hard and won a whole series of scholarly prizes, enabling him to attend Owens College, now Manchester University. He seems to have been a sensitive lad, but not entirely so. He discovered girls in a big way at Manchester. In particular he discovered young prostitutes, and he was not the only one of his friends to do that. I read a letter one wrote to him, joking about the symptoms of gonorhea, or syphilis. Then he started stealing quite large sums of money from other students' coats in the cloakroom. The police set a trap for him: they put some marked money in someone's coat and laid in wait. Gissing had to do a month's hard labour, was stripped of his scholarship prizes and expelled from the college. The college authorities seem to have been more upset that the students were seeing prostitutes than anything else. Other students were forced to hand over letters and to testify against Gissing, although maybe they were also upset about having money stolen. The author of the biography said the story that Gissing was stealing the money to save a prostitute had to be treated with caution, because it came from another student under a cloud, an acquaintance of Gissing's, who later wrote an unauthorised and possibly unreliable biography of Gissing after he had died. After his explusion, Gissing's relatives seemed to have sent Gissing to make a new start in America. He stayed a while in Boston, and went to Chicago. He wrote articles for local newspapers, and he got quite a well paid job as a teacher ($800 a year), but that suddenly came to an end. The writer of the biography speculates the school authorities discovered what Gissing had been expelled from Owen College for. After a year in the US he came back to England. It often surprises me the ease with which people crossed the Atlantic in those days.


Gissing from a sociological point of view

George Gissing, who lived in London in the late 1800s, appears to be a stunningly interesting writer from a sociological point of view. I sometimes regret that there have never been many working class authors. Most authors were middle class who wrote for middle class readers. Even today, I don't think you get many working class views in fiction. The only working class author I can think of off the top of my head is Andy McNab, who writes war stories. Most of Dickens' heroes are actually lower middle class, although they certainly rub shoulders with the working class. Thomas Hardy seems to have specialised in the rural poor, but I wondered if anyone wrote about factory workers and the city poor. I think Mrs Gaskell may have done to some degree. Gissing was not working class, but he lived with them. He had to do a month's hard labour as a young man when he got in trouble with the law, married a prostitute, then later married another working class woman. His first five books were about the working classes. Interestingly, he does not seem to have been any great, left-wing radical. The articles I read say he was deeply conservative, and became disillusioned with working class folk. He is also sometimes described as a proto-feminist, yet at other times as misogynistic. He does not seem very misogynistic from what I have read so far. It is no great surprise that George Orwell was a fan. Something they have in common was that they were both fans of Dickens and they both wrote famous essays on him. Gissings' best books appear to be The Nether World, New Grub Street and The Odd Women, although Orwell substituted Demos for The Nether World. The Whirlpool tends to be mentioned in articles about him as well. The Nether World was his first book that was well received by the reading public, and the last to deal with working class life. New Grub Street is about the literary world in the late Victorian period. The Odd Women is about a pair of women who try to live independent lives. It's a pity, however, that from what I have read so far, his books seem a little chilly. They are low on love and laughs.


Logos - Seen "My Old Penholder"?

I've spent quite a bit of time sitting on the floor of the library searching for an Essay that Blp recomended. I was unable to find it, and needed to turn to the internet for the text, but in my search I came across George Gissings - My Old Penholder. I still get a giggle when I pick up My Blue Papermate Pen, and know that i'm not alone in the oddness of appreciating the devine texture it provides. Having a cherished Penholder of my own, I came to the realization that had I been born in a simpler time (as I'd often wished), My hair would never be it's true color. ________________________________________________________ ~MY OLD PENHOLDER~ For more than a week my pen has lain untouched. I have written nothing for seven whole days, not even a letter. Except during one or two bouts of illness, such a thing never happened in my life before. In my life; the life, that is, which had to be supported by anxious toil; the life which was not lived for living's sake, as all life should be, but under the goad of fear. The earning of money should be a means to an end; for more than thirty years--I began to support myself at sixteen--I had to regard it as the end itself. I could imagine that my old penholder feels reproachfully towards me. Has it not served me well? Why do I, in my happiness, let it lie there neglected, gathering dust? The same penholder that has lain against my forefinger day after day, for--how many years? Twenty, at least; I remember buying it at a shop in Tottenham Court Road. By the same token I bought that day a paper-weight, which cost me a whole shilling--an extravagance which made me tremble. The penholder shone with its new varnish, now it is plain brown wood from end to end. On my forefinger it has made a callosity. Old companion, yet old enemy! How many a time have I taken it up, loathing the necessity, heavy in head and heart, my hand shaking, my eyes sick-dazzled! How I dreaded the white page I had to foul with ink! Above all, on days such as this, when the blue eyes of Spring laughed from between rosy clouds, when the sunlight shimmered upon my table and made me long, long all but to madness, for the scent of the flowering earth, for the green of hillside larches, for the singing of the skylark above the downs. There was a time--it seems further away than childhood--when I took up my pen with eagerness; if my hand trembled it was with hope. But a hope that fooled me, for never a page of my writing deserved to live. I can say that now without bitterness. It was youthful error, and only the force of circumstance prolonged it. The world has done me no injustice; thank Heaven I have grown wise enough not to rail at it for this! And why should any man who writes, even if he write things immortal, nurse anger at the world's neglect? Who asked him to publish? Who promised him a hearing? Who has broken faith with him? If my shoemaker turn me out an excellent pair of boots, and I, in somemood of cantankerous unreason, throw them back upon his hands, the man has just cause of complaint. But your poem, your novel, who bargained with you for it? If it is honest journeywork, yet lacks purchasers, at most you may call yourself a hapless tradesman. If it come from on high, with what decency do you fret and fume because it is not paid for in heavy cash? For the work of man's mind there is one test, and one alone, the judgment of generations yet unborn. If you have written a great book, the world to come will know of it. But you don't care for posthumous glory. You want to enjoy fame in a comfortable armchair. Ah, that is quite another thing. Have the courage of your desire. Admit yourself a merchant, and protest to gods and men that the merchandise you offer is of better quality than much which sells for a high price. You may be right, and indeed it is hard upon you that Fashion does not turn to your stall.


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