This first of a projected seven-volume Collected Letters of George Gissing is composed of letters the novelist wrote between 1863 and 1880 (he was born in November 1857, in Wakefield). Almost all of them are to his family, and most of these are addressed to his younger brother Algernon, at the time an aspiring student of the law, subsequently a failed novelist as well as a failed lawyer. Some of the contents of the present volume appeared in 1927 in Letters of George Gissing to Members of His Family. Future students of Gissing will have the advantage and the pleasure of finding all of his letters under one roof instead of, as in the past, in dozens of places—fugitive volumes with incomplete and badly edited (or unedited) material, libraries large and small, private collections in Europe and America, individuals with postcards: such has been the required route of the Gissing scholar in search of the novelist's letters. But no more.
Between the ages of twelve and fifteen Gissing dispatched home from school a series of letters beautifully written and conceived on such subjects as how to sketch, and the landscape and topography of North Wales (where he went walking). From his earliest period as a schoolboy he was compulsive—in everything, but especially in his studies; he was, after all, a poor boy who needed scholarships to make his way in the world. Invited, at 15, by friends to see a production of Twelfth Night, he finds he is too busy: "I am afraid the uneasiness caused by neglect of duty would surpass in degree the pleasure afforded by the spectacle." At 16 he addresses a schoolmate: "Can you inform me of a plan of getting up Geography in a night? I find some is required . . . and longer than two hours I cannot possibly devote. . . . I now limit myself to 5½ hr. sleep, which is not enough." At 17: "Nothing makes one more comfortable than to think that no time has been wasted."
Having won a scholarship to London University, the 18-year-old Gissing lost it, and was disgraced, when he was caught stealing money to help support his alcoholic mistress, Nell Harrison: this is well known, as is his subsequent brief sojourn in America, haven in those days of black sheep. Gissing writes cheerfully enough in November 1876 to Algernon from his Boston lodgings: "We have just had a wonderful invention here called the 'Telephone,' by which people can speak to each other at the distance of several miles." And: "We have a glorious public library here. It is free to all to use, and I can assure you is excellently patronized, for here, you know, everybody reads." Driven by starvation to write, he began his career in fiction in the common room of a seedy Chicago lodging house, an experience later described unforgettably in his greatest novel, New Grub Street.
Gissing returned to London in 1877, married Nell, and commenced to live in a series of rented rooms—for Nell's habits (she continued to drink, and to roam the streets looking for money for drink) made it difficult for the couple to remain anywhere for long. For a time they lived on lentil soup; on the subject of poverty and its accoutrements Gissing became a reluctant expert. In 1878, working [End Page 775] on his first published novel, Workers in the Dawn (1880; it appeared when the novelist was 22), he complains he is "in a fearfully doleful state for clothes. Even should any good position turn up I fear I shall be absolutely debarred from obtaining it by my disreputable appearance. Goodness knows what will become of us." Two months before Workers in the Dawn came out we find him writing to Algernon: "Have you ever been conscious, when so fearfully hungry, of an unusual lucidity of thought, an extreme enthusiasm for work of every description? I have frequently felt this, but of course it only lasts as long as...