Volume one of Pierre Coustillas's long-awaited three-volume biography of George Gissing charts the first thirty-one years of Gissing's life, from his childhood and education to rustication from Owens College and self-imposed exile in America, to the painful forging of a literary career in London. The volume ends with the death of his first wife, Nell Harrison, the composition and publication of The Nether World (1889) and with it the completion of his absorption in the world of the London poor as a fictional subject.
There is something altogether reassuring in looking to Coustillas as a guide through Gissing's life. Given his quite remarkable record in Gissing studies—author, editor and bibliographer—we cannot help but be confident that his biography will achieve a comprehensiveness that emanates from a scholar who knows more about Gissing than any man living. But in the light of this fact neither can an attentive reader miss the wholly impressive effort that Coustillas has made to spread his material before us with masterly concision.
Take his synoptic handling of Gissing's brother, Algernon, the "mediocre" novelist. Coustillas produces one paragraph in a wonderful act of compression covering his literary career and the content and significance of his published work. With the assembly of the crucial facts of the writer's career completed, Coustillas then evaluates it. He does not hold back from pointing out that Algernon's "obstinacy in pursuing his career as a mediocre novelist" "condemned his family, not to speak of himself, to permanent semi-starvation." Might we think, after this trenchant critique, that Amy Reardon would have more than a point?
Another example of Coustillas's capacity for deft elaboration is the information he shares about one of Gissing's pupils, Walter Grahame, whom Gissing began to tutor in 1884. He unobtrusively informs us that Grahame's cousins were the writers Kenneth Grahame and Anthony Hope before returning to the pertinent facts of his engagement: "the [End Page 249] child was to receive two hours' teaching each afternoon of five days weekly."
Coustillas is excellent on the young, precocious George, stressing the formative influence on the future writer of his early education in the classics (from age ten) from the Rev. Joseph Harrison, reminding us of the "considerable influence of classical culture on him until his dying day." The extent of Gissing's achievement at Owens College is neatly captured in the enumeration of the prizes Gissing garnered—Greek, Latin, modern history, mathematics and a Junior Classical prize. Then Coustillas adds a final touch: "In terms of avoirdupoids the thirteen volumes must have meant at least 10 kg which he had to take home in a cab." Weight of learning indeed. It is a pun that Coustillas tactfully eschews, but to which he is surely entitled. For there is, here, a very fine account of the groundwork being laid for an outstanding career as a classical scholar, so suddenly obliterated by the notorious act of theft in May 1876.
Two features of Coustillas's narrative of this episode are striking. The first is the extent of Gissing's immersion in the intellectual culture at Owens College, "an upsurge of activities in the humanities in which Gissing played a conspicuous part"—essays on Shakespeare for the Owens College Magazine of which he was coeditor, a paper read to the Shakespeare Society, a play reading of Henry IV, Part II.
Coustillas also paints a vivid picture of the young man who, through a combination of loneliness, naivety and compassion, found himself dismissed and imprisoned (a month, with hard labour) when his fellow students remained free to enjoy the favours of prostitutes, such as Nell Harrison, in that area of Manchester. Gissing's "crime," Coustillas makes clear, was essentially to try and reform Nell by urging respectability on her in the form of a reckless, sacrificial marriage: "pity and love had prompted him to stand by her and help her back to self-respect." In this sense, certainly...