Thursday, December 28, 2023

An anguish of suffering

‘On 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 120 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 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 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. She helped take care of him and his two children, but was then disappointed when Gissing fell in love with a French woman, Gabrielle Fleury. Unable to get a divorce from Edith, he moved to France to live with Gabrielle. He died from emphysema - after catching a chill during a winter walk - aged only 46 on 28 December 1903. Further biographical information on Gissing can be found at Wikipedia, The George Rylands Library (University of Manchester), The Victorian Web, Victorian Secrets, and also in a 1948 article by George Orwell and 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.’ The published diary can be freely borrowed digitally from Internet Archive (log-in required).

1 March 1888
‘Let me describe this room. It was the first floor back; so small that the bed left little room to move. She [his mother] took it unfurnished, for 2/9 a week; the furniture she brought was: the bed. one chair, a chest of drawers, and a broken deal table. On some shelves were a few plates, cups, etc. Over the mantelpiece hung several pictures, which she had preserved from old days. There were three engravings: a landscape, a piece by l.andseer, and a Madonna of Raphael. There was a portrait of Byron, and one of Tennyson. There was a photograph of myself, taken 12 years ago - to which, the landlady tells me, she attached special value, strangely enough. Then there were several cards with Biblical texts, and three cards such as are signed by those who “take the pledge” - all bearing date during the last six months.

On the door hung a poor miserable dress and a worn out ulster; under the bed was a pair of boots, 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 used to spend my weekly 15/- the first day or two that she had it. Her associates were women of so low a kind that even Mrs. Sherlock did not consider them respectable enough to visit her house.

I drew out the drawers. In one I found a little bit of butter and a crust of bread, - most pitiful sight my eyes ever looked upon. There was no other food anywhere. The other drawers contained a disorderly lot of papers: there I found all my letters, away back to the American time. In a cupboard were several heaps of dirty rags; at the bottom there had been coals, but none were left. Lying about here and there were medicine bottles, and hospital prescriptions.

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. Her teeth all remained, white and perfect as formerly.

I took away very few things, just a little parcel: my letters, my portrait, her rent-book, a certificate of life-assurance which had lapsed, a copy of my Father’s “Margaret” which she had preserved, and a little workbox, the only thing that contained traces of womanly occupation.

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!’

26 September 1891
‘Clouded. Read Robertson’s life. Letter from Lawrence & Bullen, the new publishers, saying that Roberts had told them that I am engaged on a 1-vol. story, and offering to publish it for me at 6/ -, giving me 1/- on each copy; also willing to pay £100 on account. Note from Roberts, who is near Corfe Castle. The Illustd London News of to-day, in an article called “London in Fiction”, has this passage: “In such a book no inconsiderable part would be played by the Temple, which has been the happy hunting ground of so many of our novelists, from Sir Walter Scott to Mr. George Gissing”. The mention is good, but I have never made use of the Temple.’

6 October 1891
‘Reply from Watt. Longman won’t make an offer; MS sent on to Bentley. Wrote answer, saying I couldn’t wait after October, but on second thoughts decided not to send it, as I still possess £27. From Willersey came a basket of fine pears, addressed to Edith. Last night a furious gale, with heavy rain, and rain all to-day. In evening got the first page of new novel written.’

24 January 1893
‘Dull, warm. Wrote 4pp. of story. On 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. Few men, I am sure, have led so bitter a life.- Read half Bk III St Augustine, and some pages of [Cicero’s] “De Oratore”.’

7 February 1895
‘Terrible weather. Reports of 35° of frost from the Midlands. Worked well, though against terrible odds - hands frozen and feet like stones. Did 4pp. Got from lib. “Children of the Ghetto”[by Israel Zangwill]. Received Crabbe. Present of parkin from Mother. New servant seems satisfactory.’

9 February 1895
‘Frost harder than ever. Wrote only 1/2 p. Article of 2 cols, in Spectator to-day, an attack on me for my “perverse idealism”. Roberts writes to ask if he may write a critical article on me for the Fortnightly.’

9 August 1896
‘Nothing could be more difficult than my position as regards the boy Walter. All but every statement made to him he answers with a blunt contradiction; to all but every bidding he replies “I shan’t”. As I sit in the room, where the nurse-girl is present, he calls me all manner of abusive names. I said to him this afternoon, that, as it was too windy to go out, he had better rest an hour. “Not in your bedroom”, was his harsh reply. “I’ll rest in mother’s room, but not in yours.” And to-morrow, on some trifling provocation, he would make precisely the opposite reply. He knows there is no harmonv 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 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.’

20 December 1898
‘Fine, frosty. Did 3pp. Eczema greatly better, George Whale advises me to send the sheriff a doctor’s certificate as excuse for non-attendance at Kingston. Wrote to Childcott for one. Reed circular from a Committee getting up fund for Harold Frederic’s widow and four legitimate children. As the youngest of these children is 10, and the eldest 20, I wrote to the Sec[retary, John Stokes,] asking whether anything is to be done to help the other family of young children, whose position is in every way much harder.’

10 December 1899
‘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.

Sent notes to E.’s people in London, and one to Mother. Got through day without going to bed. Corrected some proofs. The wind, after lulling at mid-day, grew furious again towards night.

The baby has a very ugly dark patch over right eye. Don’t know the meaning of it.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 28 December 2013.

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