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41 "AN AUTHOR AT GRASS": IRONIC INTENT IN GISSING*S THE PRIVATE PAPERS OF HENRY RYECROFT Lowell T. Frye (Northeastern University) Near the end of his life George Gissing pondered The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft in the context of his career: "On the whole I suspect it is the best thing I have done, or am likely to do; and the thing most likely to last when all my other futile work has followed my futile life." A harsh piece of self-criticism by the author of The Nether World, New Grub Street, and The Odd Women. Yet for many years the continued popularity and numerous reprints of Henry Ryecroft seemed to bear out Gissing*s prediction ; as Jacob Korg has noted, Henry Ryecroft achieved the status of a minor classic while most of Gissing's work languished unread.2 In the past twenty years the balance has shifted: the prestige of Henry Ryecroft has diminished as critics have accorded deserved and overdue attention to Gissing's novels. The years of uncritical popularity, extending from the publication of Henry Ryecroft in I903 (it first appeared as a serial in The Fortnightly Review, May, August, November 1902, February I903) through the Second World War, in large part determined the book's present, equally uncritical neglect and disparagement. Some early reviews praised Gissing*s happy escape from the sordid lives and circumstances depicted in his novels; many criticized the book as an irresponsible dream of an escape never realized; nearly all classified it as a collection of reflective essays, the beauty of its sentiments mirrored by the austerity of its prose.3 with very few exceptions, early reviewers did not read Henry Ryecroft as what it manifestly is: a work of fiction. Instead, despite a gross lack of external biographical evidence, they considered Henry Ryecroft the spiritual autobiography - or at least the autobiographical fantasia - of George Gissing, frustrated scholar. Similar misreadings and unfounded assumptions of direct or slightly veiled autobiography had plagued Gissing throughout his career: convinced that few readers understood his work, he repeatedly defended the autonomy of his fictions. In response to his family's disapproval of ideas expressed in The Unclassed (1884), Gissing insisted that "Waymark is a study of character, and he alone is responsible for his sentiments. ... I cannot be responsible for what [my characters] say^ ... I have not for a moment advocated any theory in the book."5 Such disclaimers, however, did not prevent his readers from identifying Gissing with one or another of his characters, at times with ludicrous results. After reading The Whirlpool (I897), H. G. Wells welcomed Gissing into the ranks of English imperialists on the basis of a speech by Harvey Rolfe - a character Gissing employed to satirize Kiplingesque enthusiams ." A few years later Morley Roberts expressed irritation with The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, because in it Gissing prolessea iaeas he did not holdT' More recent critics in the main 42 have followed the lead and language of Gissing's contemporaries. As a result, Henry Ryecroft has rarely been read or studied as a work of fiction, critics of the book preferring to discuss the presence or absence of autobiographical accuracy. The subordination of literary analysis to an interest in autobiography has enabled critics of Henry Ryecroft to dismiss the work rather more easily than insightfully. Gillian Tindall in her biography of Gissing criticizes Henry Ryecroft as "not a novel but a piece of bogus autobiography and blatant wish-fulfillment," claiming that the book displays less real perception, common sense, and sophistication of thought than are present even in his less good novels. Not the writer but the man speaks in Henry Ryecroft, she contends - and the man only on his off days. Adrian Poole considers the Utopian calm and "self-indulgent, self-caressing sentimentality" of Henry Ryecroft a "deplorable but logical capitulation " on Gissing's part; nonetheless, Henry Ryecroft has its value: it illumines in retrospect the courage and passion with which Gissing in his finest writing resisted the deep temptation toward indulged withdrawal.9 in other words, despite disclaimers of direct and complete autobiographical correlation between Gissing and his character Ryecroft, critics in practice consider them one and...


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