- Gissing’s Short Stories
George Gissing's status as a subject of scholarly interest in many ways parallels his status as a writer in his lifetime. His popularity is limited, but he has always had a committed following of discriminating readers. Occasionally, Gissing enjoys a surge in popularity, such as the one noted by Barbara Rawlinson near the end of A Man of Many Parts, a veritable "Gissing 'boom'" precipitated by a laudatory article in 1895 by Walter Besant in The Author. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was another "Gissing boom" in the form of a dramatic increase in scholarly interest in the author's life and works that resulted in the [End Page 222] establishment of the Gissing Newsletter (later the Gissing Journal), the reprinting of many of his novels, and the publication of several critical biographies, as well as journal articles. While his prominence waned somewhat in the 1980s, the core of scholars working on Gissing remained active, and arguably the most significant achievement in Gissing studies, the nine-volume Collected Letters of George Gissing (eds. Paul Mattheisen, Arthur Young, and Pierre Coustillas, Ohio University Press) appeared between 1990 and 1997. Gissing criticism is again enjoying something of a "boom," of which Rawlinson's study is a part. Much of the scholarship that is appearing now derives its pedigree from the work done by the first wave of Gissing scholars, spearheaded by Coustillas, who remains the most active and widely published Gissing specialist to date, and who has been a model and an inspiration to those of us who have followed, including Rawlinson, who, in her acknowledgments, thanks Coustillas "for his encouragement and selfless guidance."
Rawlinson's book is a welcome departure from the mainstream of Gissing criticism to date, which has concentrated heavily on his novels. As Rawlinson freely acknowledges, her study is dependent upon the efforts of Coustillas and Robert Selig in unearthing Gissing's numerous uncollected short stories, including a number of early ones published in America during his year of self-exile in 1876–1877, along with several unpublished ones. Indeed, A Man of Many Parts is valuable for its catalogue and chronology of Gissing's more than one hundred short stories alone. Rawlinson's contextualizing of the stories with details of the author's life and intellectual interests at the time he was writing further enhances our understanding of the stories' significance and of their place in Gissing's oeuvre. In his early career especially, Rawlinson contends, Gissing used the short story as a kind of proving ground for the themes and characters that he would later develop more fully in his novels. Rawlinson groups Gissing's short stories according to three temporal "phases" of his writing career, the first being 1877 when Gissing was in America; the second 1879–1884, when he was immersing himself in Continental political and philosophical ideas, most notably positivism and socialism; and the third 1893–1904, when Gissing produced by far the largest number and most accomplished of his stories. Interspersed in the treatment of these phases are discussions of the other dimension of this study, Gissing's essays and other works (most notably Charles Dickens: A Critical Study and the introductions to several [End Page 223] of Dickens's novels for Methuen's Rochester Edition, as well as cultural and political essays).
The wealth of material that Rawlinson outlines in terms of the personal, intellectual, and literary dimensions of Gissing's life presents the opportunity for a rich and multifaceted analysis of his writing. Rawlinson certainly observes and comments on the interplay of the information and ideas she presents in her study, claiming, for example, that under the influence of his developing interest in philosophy, psychology, and sociology, "Gissing's 'short fiction underwent several crucial directional shifts.'" This is a statement that holds the promise of significant insight and analysis, but the promise is not fulfilled. Gissing wrote only ten stories in this "phase," three being "light-hearted pieces" that he completed "in relatively quick succession" on his...