- The Heroic Life of George Gissing by Pierre Coustillas
George Gissing has not always been as fortunate in his biographers as he deserves. For a novelist whose work has only relatively recently received the critical attention that it merits, his life has been revisited a surprising number of times over the last hundred years. Perhaps such an imbalance in attention is a consequence of the narrative of Gissing’s life, which yields to a conventional reading more easily than his novels. His plots are thorny, difficult, often unorthodox, sometimes unforgiving, extremely rewarding to interpret, yet sometimes difficult to love—as sincere a representation of Victorian reality as any literary critic or cultural historian could look for, yet resolutely un-Victorian in their habitual lack of sentiment, consolation, or even, with a few exceptions, humour. At the same time, the story of Gissing’s life is an instantly compelling one: the brilliant scholar ruined by youthful folly; the literary artist condemned to early poverty by the tyranny of the three-decker format and the limits of what Victorian propriety would permit to be represented; the ardent lover cruelly robbed of life only a few years after finally reaching happiness.
From the earliest, thinly fictionalised biography in 1912, Morley Roberts’s affectionate but culpably misleading The Private Life of Henry Maitland, to his twenty-first-century chroniclers, Gissing’s story has been too often understood as one of dramatic self-sabotage. The novels are taken as successive expressions of thinly veiled autobiographical, if authentic, ressentiment (the term used by Fredric Jameson in his influential account of the 1880s novels in The Political Unconscious ), as if the riddle posed by their problematic, rebarbative aesthetic can be resolved with the key of the author’s supposedly self-destructive life. Virginia Woolf’s dreary judgment in her essay, “George Gissing” (1927), is characteristic of the twentieth century’s received, and limited, view: “Gissing is one of those imperfect novelists through whose books one sees the life of the author faintly covered by the lives of fictitious people. With such writers we establish a personal rather than an artistic relationship. We approach them through their lives as much as through their work, and when we take up Gissing’s letters, which [End Page 559] have character, but little wit and no brilliance to illumine them, we feel that we are filling in a design which we began to trace out when we read Demos and New Grub Street and The Nether World” (Collected Essays, vol. 1 [Hogarth, 1966], 297).
It would be no exaggeration to say that Gissing studies have been waiting for half a century for Pierre Coustillas’s biography. Nor would it be exaggeration to claim that every scholar who has worked on Gissing over that period of time is in Coustillas’s debt. He has edited or co-edited Gissing’s letters, diary, and commonplace book; the short stories, almost all of the novels, travel writing, and (with myself) Gissing’s criticism of Charles Dickens; prepared a meticulous and monumental bibliography; edited The Gissing Journal from its inception until the present year; translated; and provided generous personal assistance to many fellow workers in the dawn of Gissing’s critical revival. While Coustillas rightly draws attention to his own work on George Moore and Rudyard Kipling as well, The Heroic Life of George Gissing is the result, literally, of a life’s work on this most misunderstood of fin-de-siècle novelists.
With the benefit of Coustillas’s exhaustive knowledge of and affection for his subject, a different Gissing emerges from these pages. While admitting that gaiety was never Gissing’s forte—his “obstinacy [was] combined with masochism” (v. 2, 101), and he was possessed of a “strange genius for self-punishment” (v. 2, 113) — Coustillas is keen to stress Gissing’s abundant zest for life, for which there is ample textual support, such as the judgment of his holiday companion, the young American Brian Ború Dunne, of Gissing as “one...