- Public Success, Private Misery
The second volume of Pierre Coustillas's biography of George Gissing ends like the first, with its subject preparing to travel to Italy. The circumstances, however, are very different. Professionally, the Gissing who set off for Italy for the first time in 1888 had finally won, after ten years' effort and endurance punctuated by occasional spells of despair, a succès d'estime with the publication of Demos (1886) but was still relatively unknown. As for his private life, the recent death of his first wife had liberated him from the crippling relationship that had ended his scholarly career and long sapped his finances. By 1897, the terminus ad quem of this volume, Gissing is widely acknowledged as one of England's leading novelists, with achievements such as New Grub Street (1891), Born in Exile (1892), The Odd Women (1893), and The Whirlpool (1897) behind him. He is again newly free, after a fashion, this time of the second Mrs. Gissing, although death is not the cause. He has fled the rented family house, unable any longer to endure the native quarrelsomeness and hair-trigger anger of his wife.
The intervening decade has witnessed the establishment of his reputation. It would take nearly a century for New Grub Street's status as Gissing's masterpiece to be acknowledged; however, even at first publication, reviewers noted "the skill and depth of the author's psychological analysis and his powerful depiction of the literary profession." Born in Exile, lacking a requisite cheerfulness, caused some offense and The Odd Women, its successor, was also damned as "gloomy" and "depressing" but it garnered respectful reviews too and, indeed, was dubbed the most interesting novel of the year by the Pall Mall Gazette. During this period, Gissing wrote one more long and ambitious work, The Whirlpool, [End Page 525] which added to the esteem in which he was held by acute critics and readers.
Coustillas notes that by 1893 his reputation has attained the "stage ... that he had long yearned for—the stage when his name ... would come under the pens of journalists as a matter of course," a tribute to the finally undeniable merits of Gissing's steady production. Other agreeable signs, professional, social, and financial, of the growing solidity of his position make themselves clear. Although Gissing had previously been unlucky with publishers, the firm of Lawrence and Bullen now takes him up. Bullen treats him not merely honestly but with generosity and geniality and becomes a friend. Other publishers approach him with requests and projects. Gissing knows that he is being read in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. He is translated into French and other languages. By late 1894 he can write, "I am beginning to have a literary past; in meeting the young writers of to-day I feel a veteran." To some extent he ventures into literary society, partly to escape his termagant wife, attending dinners, allowing himself to be photographed, and forming friendships with fellow writers such as H. G. Wells and Thomas Hardy. He claims to have met every significant contemporary writer except Kipling. Gissing never did well financially but he begins to do markedly less badly: for example, he earns less than £200 in 1893 but more than £438 the next year.
Revealing of the quandary in which Gissing the writer finds himself are references to the opposing forces of literary ambition and integrity on the one hand and inescapable material conditions on the other: "What I am bent on doing, is to write books which will be read, not only to-day, but some years hence.... I dare not lose the respect of the highest class of readers for the sake of immediate profit." Yet Gissing, a husband, eventually the father of two boys, and the brother of a feckless would-be writer who himself had children, considers he has no choice but to bend to some extent before commercial winds, no matter how reluctantly. Discovering that short stories pay comparatively well he writes more...