As with many Victorian writers, George Gissing’s life (1857-1903) reads rather like one of his novels. In some spooky cases, his life actually imitated his art, the fates suffered by some of his characters later befalling the author. Born in Wakefield in 1857, George Gissing’s existence was one of eternal struggle. Although a gifted scholar, the early death of his pharmacist father left Gissing perennially short of money. His extraordinary talent won him a prestigious scholarship to Owen College (now the University of Manchester) and it looked as though his troubles were over, with a distinguished academic career virtually guaranteed. However, his weakness for a prostitute called Nell was to be his undoing. Initially her client, they soon became lovers, but she still demanded increasing sums of money from him to fund her alcohol addiction. With very limited means, he was forced to steal on her behalf and was eventually caught when the suspicious college authorities laid a trap for him. He was expelled in disgrace and his family wanted nothing more to do with their black sheep.
Although he tried to put this ignominy behind him, Nell’s continual reappearances threatened both his mental equilibrium and his precarious financial situation. Despite these considerable challenges, in 1879 Gissing manged to complete his first novel – Workers in the Dawn. Although it showed great promise, Gissing further marred his fortunes by marrying Nell. His belief that marriage would provide a moral framework which would help Nell improve herself was entirely misplaced, and he was forced to separate from her in order to retain his sanity and nascent career. With fewer distractions, the quality of his writing improved, and novels such as The Unclassed, Demos, Thyrza and A Life’s Morning received some favourable reviews. There was to be scant financial reward, however; his perpetual impecunious state forced him to accept trifling one-off payments, rather than a potentially more lucrative royalty. When success came, it was the publishers, rather than Gissing, who benefited.
The feelings of liberation and grief that Gissing felt after Nell’s tragic death spurred him on to new literary heights, beginning with his masterly account of urban decay, The Nether World. Although this work graphically depicted the plight of London’s poor, Gissing’s agenda was not one of reform, rather a Social Darwinist argument that the very lowest classes were irredeemably hopeless, and that any intervention in their miserable lives would be entirely pointless. Gissing believed that class was an indelible mark, and that any attempt to rise above one’s station in life would end in disappointment, or worse.
Although Nell’s death meant freedom for Gissing, he struggled with solitude and soon lurched into another imprudent marriage. This major life event coincided with the publication of perhaps his greatest novel, New Grub Street. The novel describes the collision between the creative impulse and material circumstances, a situation with which Gissing was only too familiar. His second marriage was no more successful than his first, and again he separated from his wife, claiming that she had “behaved like a maniac”. When he met Gabrielle Fleury, the first woman with whom he declared himself to be compatible, he was thwarted by his wife’s refusal to grant him a divorce. His egregious solution was simply to move to France and marry Gabrielle anyway, keeping the news secret from those back home. Divine retribution came in the form of an infuriating mother-in-law, who made his life a misery and practically starved him. Although he was finally happy in a relationship, his continuing impecuniosity forced him to endure yet another unsatisfactory domestic situation.
His health deteriorated and he decamped to the home of his friend, H G Wells, for some much-need peace and nourishment. His struggle finally ended in 1903, with his friend and wife squabbling over his deathbed. Although loyal to Gissing during his life, Wells became positively vituperative after his death. He embarked upon a campaign to undermine Gissing’s reputation, which had risen to the end of his career with the successes of Born in Exile, The Whirlpool, In the Year of Jubilee, and the largely autobiographical The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. In his obituary, The Times remarked that his “purity and solidity may win him a better chance of being read a hundred years hence than many writers of greater grace and more deliberately sought charm.”
One critic has said that Gissing’s name is “apt to frighten nineteen out of twenty publishers.” We at Victorian Secrets are fearless and have published three of Gissing’s novels: Workers in the Dawn, Demos, and Thyrza.