- Juvenilia, Money-Makers, & Masterpieces
It is the Stuff of literary legend that George Gissing began his career as a writer of short stories. Finding himself penniless in Chicago, whither he had been transplanted after his expulsion from Owens College, Manchester, for stealing to keep his mistress off the streets, he approached the editor of the Chicago Tribune and asked for work. “The Sins of the Fathers” would appear in March 1877, to be followed by another twenty-two stories published in half a dozen Chicago newspapers before Gissing left the city five months later and the U.S.A. a couple of months after that.
In England he tried to place short stories again but was this time much less successful: of the eleven he wrote between 1877 and 1884 only three, “The Artist’s Child,” a rewritten version of a Chicago story, “Phoebe,” and “Letty Coe,” were published more or less contemporaneously. [End Page 556] One story had to wait until 1923, the others until the 1960s and 1970s. But a resurgence of Gissing’s career as a writer of short stories began in 1893: he had visited Glastonbury in July 1891 and was inspired to write “A Victim of Circumstances” in November. After various delays, all detailed in the quite admirable introductory notes by Coustillas, which precede this story as they do the other 114, “A Victim of Circumstances” saw the light of day in January 1893 in Blackwood’s Magazine, earning its author a very welcome £20. Between then and his death in 1903 another seventy-nine stories would appear, as Gissing responded to the demise of the three-decker novel in mid-1894 and experimented with different literary forms even as he struggled to meet financial obligations imposed by the birth of two sons, separation from his second wife, the hopeless failure of his brother’s literary career, and, eventually, the liaison with his French common-law “wife” and consequent expatriation.
Markus Neacey, in the Gissing Journal of April 2009, writes of the partial collections of Gissing’s short stories that have appeared over the years. Seventy-four stories were published again in four important collections between 1897 and 1939; the Chicago efforts have had a second lease on life in three collections published between 1924 and 1992; seven stories have appeared again here, a couple there, and another seven elsewhere. Neacey reports that individual volumes of these partial collections can be bought for sums ranging from £4 to £70; all twelve volumes would set the purchaser back about £350. One hesitates to say that whoever, or whatever, could produce a uniform, welledited, and relatively cheap collection of all the short stories of George Gissing would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation; but clearly he would deserve the hearty thanks not merely of Gissingites but of all students of Victorian literature, and, indeed, the thanks of general readers too.
Enter the Grayswood Press, which has already won the gratitude of these groups by publishing in three volumes Gissing’s collected writings on Dickens. We now have a reliable, handsomely produced, threevolume set of all Gissing’s short stories, from the one valiantly written by a disgraced nineteen-year-old in the common room of a cheap Chicago lodging house in 1877, the only heated room to which he had access, to “Miss Rodney’s Leisure,” composed in March–April 1902, when the valetudinarian Gissing had acquired international respect but now saw clearly that he would not make old bones. [End Page 557]
Gissing’s primary fame is as a novelist: he came to be acknowledged as one of the three best of his day, along with Hardy and Meredith, and of all the Victorians currently only Dickens and Hardy elicit more critical attention. However, some attempt, necessarily brief, must be made to evaluate his achievement...