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Reviewed by:
  • John Halperin
Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young, and Pierre Coustillas, eds. The Collected Letters of George Gissing, Vol III: 1886-1888. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992. 352 pp. $55.00.

During these years of Gissing's life (he was born in 1857), he published four novels of varying quality: Demos (1886), one of his greatest books, and a mini-best-seller; Isabel Clarendon (1886), a "flat failure," as its author predicted, though not a particularly bad novel; Thyrza (1887), a mediocre work which nonetheless significantly broadened Gissing's reputation—Gladstone praised it publicly; and A Life's Morning (1888), described by its author as "trash," surely one of the weakest among his twenty-three published novels. In these years too he wrote another of his greatest tales, The Nether World (1889); became the subject of speculative critical articles in the press; and, for the first time, visited the Continent, traveling to Paris briefly in 1886 ("I went & stood before Daudet's house"), and making an eagerly awaited pilgrimage to Italy in the autumn of 1888 and winter of 1889.

It has sometimes been said that Gissing's European travels, coming as they did around the time of his earliest commercial and critical successes in fiction, helped to take his mind off the horrors of his past—poverty, solitude, failure to reach university, a destructive sexual liaison—and impelled him, in his novels of the 1890s, to move away from the lowlife subjects of his novels of the 1880s (of which The Nether World is perhaps the prime example), and, in the later novels, to deal with more gentle, more genteel, subjects. The Emancipated (1890) and New Grub Street (1891), his next published works, while they also examine the degrading effects of poverty on sensitive natures, are focused more on middle-class than working-class characters, and to some extent bear out this view of Gissing's thematic migration. But perhaps it needs to be said that while the drawing-rooms of his later books are often more respectably furnished, the same threats always lurk in a corner somewhere: poverty, the ephemerality of married love, loss of caste and class, the generally precarious existence of anyone who depends on others for his or her livelihood, material or social well being. When one of his sisters complained to Gissing that his books were too gloomy, the novelist replied: "I have no ambition to dance jigs before the public. You would wish for a more sanguine tone of writing, but that kind of thing cannot be affected."

Gissing's letters are always personal and sometimes passionate, and it is unfortunate that so little may be quoted from them here. But their flavor may be tasted. He often complains about the "laws which govern literature in England": "Alas, alas, if one had been born a Frenchman!" He declares that "the writers who help me most are French & Russian [the reference is to Balzac and Turgenev]; I have not much sympathy with English points of view." He adds: "My whole view of life is at variance with that usually accepted." Gissing read Ibsen in a [End Page 956] German translation, and extravagantly praised the fiction of Charlotte Brontë, of George Sand, of Hawthorne, and the poetry of both Brownings. Trollope, on the other hand, is pronounced "a terrible Philistine," and George Eliot "miserable in comparison" with Charlotte Brontë; Thackeray, Hardy (whom Gissing met in 1886), and Rhoda Broughton receive modulated praise.

The letters of these years are also full of complaints about the small prices his books commanded; one three-volume novel, he says, brings him only "a little more bread and cheese." He was compelled to sell outright, for cash, the copyrights of his books; his precarious financial situation did not enable him to depend on the more lucrative but leisurely royalty system which was coming into vogue around this time. When The Nether World was bought by Smith, Elder for £150, Gissing, finding himself with a little spare money in his pockets for the first time in his life (Smith, Elder paid just £100 for Demos, despite its obvious topicality; Gissing remarks: "I am quite incapable of bargaining; they must always...


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