Saturday, December 28, 2013

An anguish of suffering

‘On my way home at night an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home.’ This is George Gissing, a British novelist, a purveyor of unrepentant gloom according to some, who died 110 years ago today. As a young man he became disastrously involved with a prostitute, and, later, he married a woman who went mad. His diaries were published in 1978, and are said to shed light on his extraordinary life. However, Gissing’s gloomy novels are very much out of fashion at present, and the diaries have long been out of print.

Gissing was born in Wakefield in 1857, where his father was a chemist. Although apparently destined for a brilliant academic career, he failed to complete his education at Owens College, Manchester, because of a disastrous involvement with a prostitute, for whom he stole money. He was caught and imprisoned for a month. After his release, he went to the US for a year where he undertook some literature and philosophy studies.

On returning to England in 1878, Gissing worked both as a tutor and a journalist while also writing and publishing novels such as Workers in the Dawn, The Unclassed, and Demos, which focused on the degrading effects of poverty. He was married twice, once to the prostitute and once to a servant girl, Edith Alice Underwood, but neither marriage brought him happiness. Edith gave him two children, but she was eventually certified insane.

In total, Gissing wrote over 20 novels (New Grub Street and The Odd Women being among the most well known), some of which, with a writer as the main character, were quite autobiographical. He also also wrote more than a hundred short stories, literary criticism, essays, and many letters. Commentators say there is an unrepentant gloom about much of his writing. He travelled abroad several times; and, on one journey to Italy, was accompanied by H. G. Wells.

In the last decade of his life, Gissing became involved with Clara Collet, who helped take care of him and his two children, but who was then disappointed when Gissing fell in love with Gabrielle Fleury, a French woman. Unable to get a divorce from Edith, he moved to France to live with Gabrielle. He died from emphysema aged only 46 on 28 December 1903 after catching a chill during a winter walk. Further biographical information on Gissing can be found at Wikipedia, The George Rylands Library (University of Manchester), The Victorian Web, Victorian Secrets, or Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka’s extensive Gissing pages; in a 1948 article by George Orwell; or in reviews of a recent biography, George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delany, in The Telegraph or The Guardian.

More than 70 years after Gissing’s death, in 1978, The Harvester Press Limited (UK) and Bucknell University Press (US) published London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England - The Diary of George Gissing as edited by Pierre Coustillas. At the time of publication, the publishers stated: ‘Very few major novelists have left personal diaries. Where these exist they are a record of great interest, to the student of society, of literature and to the psychologist. George Gissing’s diary is probably the only one covering the late-Victorian period that has so far remained unpublished.’

There is also this from the publishers: ‘Professor Pierre Coustillas, perhaps the best known of all Gissing scholars, has edited and introduced the diary and placed it in its general social and literary context while also relating it to Gissing’s life and work. The editorial apparatus, including a ‘Who’s Who’ in the diary throws light on several hundred people contemporary with Gissing, and on many events which played a significant part in the writer’s extraordinary life. Professor Coustillas relates the diary to the themes and spirit of Gissing’s work.’


There is very little information online about Gissing’s diaries, nor indeed are there many extracts to be found, but here are a few: the first from London Fictions; the second and fourth from George Gissing: Voices of the Unclassed at Googlebooks; the third from a site on Clara Collet.

1888
‘Linen she had none; the very covering of the bed had gone save one sheet and one blanket. I found a number of pawn tickets, showing that she had pledged these things during last summer, - when it was warm, poor creature! All the money she received went in drink …

She lay on the bed covered with a sheet. I looked long, long at her face, but could not recognize it. It is more than three years, I think, since I saw her. And she had changed horribly. …

Came home to a bad, wretched night. In nothing am I to blame; I did my utmost; again and again I had her back to me. Fate was too strong. But as I stood beside that bed, I felt that my life henceforth had a firmer purpose. Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind. I feel that she will help me more in her death than she balked me during her life. Poor, poor thing!’

10 December 1891
‘4:15 am. Have been up all night. A furious gale blowing. E in long miserable pain; the doctor has just given her chloroform, and says that the blackguard business draws to an end.

5:15. Went to the study door, and heard the cry of the child. Nurse, speedily coming down, tells me it is a boy. Wind howling savagely. So, the poor girl’s misery is over, and she has what she earnestly desired.’

24 January 1893
‘On my way home at night an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home. Condemned for ever to associate with inferiors - and so crassly unintelligent. Never a word exchanged on anything but the paltry everyday life of the household. Never a word to me, from anyone, of understanding, sympathy or of encouragement.’

1896
‘[Walter] knows there is no harmony between his mother and me, and he begins to play upon the situation - carrying tales from one to the other, etc. The poor child is ill-tempered, untruthful, precociously insolent, surprisingly selfish. I can see that Wakefield [where Gissing’s mother and sisters lived] may have a good influence, but only the merest beginnings show as yet. I should like to know how the really wise and strong father would act in this position. But no wise and strong man could have got into it. Talk of morals! What a terrible lesson is the existence of this child, born of a loveless and utterly unsuitable marriage.’


The Diary Junction

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