- Last Years and Afterlife
THE FIRST TWO VOLUMES of Pierre Coustillas’s superlative biography of Gissing made up seven hundred pages and four sections, “Hopes Destroyed,” “Hard Times,” “Respite,” and “Work and Torment.” The third volume consists of nearly four hundred pages and an additional two sections, “Port after Stormy Seas” and “Epilogue,” the former dealing with Gissing’s life from September 1897, the beginning of his third journey to Italy, to his death in France in December 1903, the latter with the controversies that immediately followed his demise and the course of his reputation over the succeeding one hundred years.
The opening chapters recount, with characteristic meticulousness, Gissing’s stay in Siena, where he wrote a critical study of Dickens, his weeks in the Italian South, which would produce a travel book, By the Ionian Sea (1901), and his stay in Rome, where he visited the sights with H. G. Wells and his wife. Apparently, over the last half century Coustillas has not only read every word written by and about his subject [End Page 279] but has also visited every place Gissing mentions: of a certain hotel our biographer notes that “Over a hundred years after Gissing’s stay, the building has hardly changed”; the “farmacia Leone” in Catanzaro is now the “farmacia Tambato” but the interior is “essentially unchanged to this day.” Gissing’s Italian sojourn ended in April 1898; he would settle in Dorking the next month.
It was there that he met and fell in love with the woman whose circumstances would help mold his last years, as the personalities of his first and second wives had so catastrophically marred the years of his adolescence and early manhood. Gabrielle Fleury, an upper-middle-class Frenchwoman in her late twenties, wrote to Gissing asking permission to translate New Grub Street into French. They met to discuss the possibility; Gissing afterwards wrote in his diary: “A sweet and intelligent creature, this Mlle Fleury.” Three weeks later they spent the day together, from “11.28 to 8.35,” as Gissing again carefully noted, going on to underline the statement—“with posterity in mind,” as Coustillas says. It seems clear that Gissing could not believe his luck. Chronically lonely and hitherto persuaded that his past meant he could never aspire to the hand of a “lady,” he had now met, in Wells’s slightly astringent if not entirely unfair words, “a woman of the intellectual bourgeoisie … [whose] voice was carefully musical, [and who] was well read,… and consciously refined and intelligent.” Not only had Gissing encountered a woman whose social status would have made her acceptable to the archsnob Godwin Peak of Born in Exile (1892), he had also sincerely fallen for, and aroused a responsive interest in, a woman who represented, and could help bring into being, a literary reputation across the Channel: two important French newspapers were interested in her translation; she knew, amongst others, Alfred de Musset’s sister; whether coincidentally or not, one of her first presents to Gissing was a photograph of the wife of Alphonse Daudet, perhaps Gissing’s favorite French novelist.
There were obstacles: on his side Gissing’s second marriage and the impossibility of divorce, on hers an invalid maman who needed looking after. The solution arrived at was a joint life to be lived in France, beginning with a private ceremony that would be presented to Gabrielle’s relatives, with the single exception of maman, as a legitimate marriage. Coustillas defends this somewhat inglorious subterfuge, which he concedes was to cause Gabrielle endless problems.
[H]e could not quite bring himself to ignore the pettiness of Grundyism.… As for Gissing’s extremely reserved attitude concerning his personal situation, [End Page 280] which he deliberately concealed from his close relatives for over three years, whereas he made no mystery of it to his friends, it can doubtless be viewed—as it was by the Wellses and by Gabrielle herself—as a manifestation of cowardice, but also, as no commentator has ever noted, as a signal proof of...