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  • The Collected Letters of George Gissing, Vol. 2: 1881-1885
  • John Halperin
George Gissing. The Collected Letters of George Gissing, Vol. 2: 1881-1885. Ed. Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young, and Pierre Coustillas. Athens: Ohio UP, 1991. 393 pp. No price given.

During the five years (1881-1885) covered by this second volume of a projected nine, George Gissing (1857-1903) wrote four novels—The Unclassed, Isabel Clarendon, A Life's Morning, and "Mrs. Grundy's Enemies," never published, though much revised—and began a fifth, Demos. Of these, only The Unclassed actually appeared in these years, which may say something about Gissing's difficulties with publishers. The Unclassed is one of his most interesting novels, telling as it does so much about his life in London during the early 1880s; Demos is one of his finest novels. We can see him in these years edging toward his most successful vein as a novelist ("just now is the climax of the struggle," he told his brother in November 1885). When A Life's Morning was serialized in the Cornhill in 1888 he would become known to an audience even larger than that which made his acquaintance through Demos —the latter a dire account of contemporary English socialism published, fortuitously, in the wake of the Trafalgar Square riots of 1886; Gissing himself characterized it as "a savage satire on working-class aims and capacities. . . . It will deal with Socialism & the working classes, & from a very Conservative point of view." Isabel Clarendon, a sentimental novel which departed from Gissing's usual low-life milieu, brought him only £15 and failed altogether.

During the early 1880s he lived largely on the fees collected from students he was tutoring, complaining all the while about the time expended in this way. Also during this period Gissing finally separated, in December 1882, from his alcoholic first wife, Helen ("Nell") Harrison; began, very gradually indeed, to earn some money from his writings, and was thus able to effect dramatic improvements in his living conditions; and embarked in earnest on the literary life that was to sustain him for the next two decades and to place his name, in the 1890s, next to those of Hardy and Meredith in the realm of contemporary English fiction.

In the letters of Dickens and of Conrad, also appearing now a volume at a time, we encounter the authentic voice of the novelist—that is, the voice we encounter in the novels. In the letters of Trollope and of Hardy, to take two examples from sets of letters recently published in full, we hear not the novelist's voice but rather one resembling that of his man of business. Gissing's letters are pure Gissing—never pretentious, never dishonest, full of complaints deeply felt, imprecations, and dark broodings on the determined badness of things. The editors of these letters are not the first to surmise that Gissing wrote his letters to be published—that is, to be found, and in being made known to a wide audience to explain and exculpate the oddness of his déclassé life. As these letters show, Gissing was a decent, scholarly, fastidious, neurasthenic man who was forced by the circumstances of his early life to grapple with terrible poverty and some of its most familiar attendants—hunger, squalor, noise, dirt, depression, desperation.

Only a few of these letters can be quoted here, or even summarized. A large majority of them were written to the novelist's younger brother Algernon, then embarking on an ill-fated legal career. Most of the rest were dispatched to his [End Page 504] two younger sisters, who were frequently lectured by Gissing, in words reminiscent of those used by Jasper Milvain in New Grub Street when addressing his sisters, on the subjects of culture and learning, and how to acquire them.

Some of the most striking passages express the pain and isolation of Gissing's life during his years of struggle and hope. In August 1881 he tells Algernon:

I am doomed to do everything under the most harassing difficulties, in nothing is my path ever lightened, but rather forever more & more encumbered. I struggle with absolute anguish...


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