New Grub Street by George Gissing

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Reviewed by Karen Langley

I suppose I’m not alone amongst readers and book bloggers in having a rather romantic view of the author, picturing them sitting in a beautiful study, pen in hand, waiting to be visited by the muse and then pour out wonderful words to enchant us. Or at least to type them onto the computer for the same effect. However, that’s rather naive of me really, as writing has always been a business, and a lovely new edition of George Gissing’s New Grub Street from OUP really hammers that home!

George Gissing (1857 – 1903) was an English writer who produced quite a number of novels and short stories, a surprising amount of which appear to have been published posthumously. It’s clear from a quick glance at his biography that he struggled to make a living from his writing, supplementing his income with teaching, and so I approached this book expecting it to come from the heart.

Published in 1891, the title of the book refers back to Grub Street, an area in London previously known as the home of hack writers, poets and minor publishers; it was referred to by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary and the term came to denote writers and writings of no literary value. Gissing takes that concept and brings it into his modern world, telling us the story of a pair of writers who are diametrically opposed in their character and outlook.

Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets.

We first meet Jasper Milvain, a somewhat cynical young man trying to make his way as a journalist and regarding writing as simply a career and the way to make money (although he isn’t doing that very successfully at the moment…). His friend Edwin Reardon is a novelist with talent; however, his books are not selling and he’s made an unsuitable marriage so things are not going well for him.

Circling these two are the extended friends and family: Milvain’s two sisters, as dependent on his widowed mother as Jasper is himself; and the Yule clan, including Amy (who has become Reardon’s wife), her cousin Marian, and their respective fathers. Jasper becomes entranced by Marian; Amy is regretting her marriage to Edwin. Alfred Yule, Marian’s father, is a writer of sorts himself, with a little influence in literary circles and with many ongoing feuds; his brother John, uncle to both girls, is completely anti-intellectual, preferring instead to rabidly promote sport and healthy outlets. Ironically, his love of the outdoors has rendered him an invalid.

So we watch the Milvains and the Yules attempt to navigate the world, the real one as well as the literary one; the action moves from the country to London, where the Milvain girls befriend Marian. Characters fall in and out of love, marriages break up and new alliances form, all against a background of literature in its highest and lowest forms. Money is seen to be the motivating factor in most of the relationships and though certain characters end up together, it’s never quite clear whether this is because of emotion or necessity.

New Grub Street was a fascinating read, if a little unsettling at times! I found myself quite shocked at the cynical attitude of many of the characters, particularly Jasper, who coldly discusses the selling of words for money, or the necessity of marrying a rich wife. In fact, Jasper wasn’t likeable in many respects, sponging off his mother’s small legacy and diminishing the amount she and his sisters had to live on to support his literary endeavours.

The book also catches women at a kind of cusp – as the author points out, the Milvain girls would have had much less education 20 years before and would have been satisfied with a simple life. As it is, they had been educated, which put them in a slightly different class from those with whom they were mixing , and they hadn’t yet reached the time of full emancipation. Despite their education, marriage ends up being the only long-term solution to their problems.

But the recurring theme of money *is* an important one, particularly for the struggling writer (and it’s one that Orwell picked up on later when he praised Gissing). To take that step into writing is to give up all chance of a regular income and any kind of living wage, unless you become a bestseller with all the compromises that implies. It’s a dichotomy that probably hasn’t changed since Gissing’s time, particularly in our modern era when publishing has become so much easier, but the flooded market means that picking out the good from the bad is increasingly complex.

New Grub Street made fascinating reading. Gissing’s style is eminently readable, and as usual with Oxford Classics the book is beautifully presented, with copious notes, an excellent introduction and supporting material. As the notes flag up, many of the experiences that Milvain and Reardon have reflect the issues that beset Gissing during his writing life, and it’s fascinating to consider whether either author (or maybe both!) is something of a pen self-portrait.

I’ve intended to read Gissing for some time, as his book “The Odd Women” has been lurking with the Viragos on Mount TBR for goodness knows how long. However, it took the push of this nice new edition to get me picking up his work and a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read it was – so hopefully it won’t be too long before I pick up another one of his works!

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Karen blogs at where this review first appeared.

George Gissing, New Grub Street (Oxford University Press, 2016). 978-0198729181, 528pp., paperback.

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