Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Birthday: George Gissing and the end of the three-decker novel


George Robert Gissing (1857-1903)

Of the author, Allen Massie has written:

George Gissing has never been a popular writer, and never will be. He gets no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, though few novelists have been more literary or better read than Gissing. This wouldn’t have surprised him. Though eager to have intelligent readers, he despised popularity and had a low opinion of the popular writers of his own day, even Robert Louis Stevenson. I would guess that you could assemble a group of a hundred tolerably well-read people and find nobody who had read any of Gissing’s twenty-odd novels. Acquaintanceship with Gissing might be limited to George Orwell’s admiring essay, but, even though Orwell thought him perhaps the best of English novelists, he doesn’t make him alluring. The novels Orwell himself wrote in the 1930s are evidently indebted to Gissing; he might indeed be called Orwell’s master. But then novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are themselves dogged pieces of work, kept in print on account of Orwell’s reputation rather than their own qualities.
Gissing himself was in no doubt as to the reasons for his unpopularity:
“It is my misfortune as a writer of fiction that English readers have so long been taught to look for the moral of such works, and especially in the case of stories which deal with the poor. To say that I am out of sympathy with that view is saying little. My own masters are the novelists of France and Russia; in comparison I have given small study to those of England . . . . It is mere accident that I choose for my artistic material a sphere of life which just now is so attractive to the philanthropic world . . . . What attracts me is the striking juxtaposition of barbarism and civilization in our strange time. I hold that there is the artist’s opportunity now a-days, the greatest of many opportunities.”
George Gissing was the son of a Yorkshire druggist who kept a large personal library and encouraged his children to use it. The Gissing children were called to literature, it seemed; his younger brother, Algernon (1860-1937), published 25 novels; George wrote nearly two dozen novels, twelve of them in the popular, three-volume model of 19th century England.
The triple-decker novel was a curiosity of Victorian England. The form was kicked off by Walter Scott’s Waverley in 1814 and became a fixture in publishing for eighty years. Several factors contributed to this. One was that authors, especially in the pre-copyright days, made their best money serializing their stories in magazines and newspapers. Long tales took longer to publish, and, therefore, sold more papers.
The Victorian sensibility also adored the impressive and monumental in everything, including books. Big sets, in giant, glass-fronted bookcases, did a lot to make a room.
The rise of private lending libraries cemented the three volume novel. Mudie’s and W.H. Smith- the Amazon.com of the 19th century- set the terms of  what they would buy. The three-volume novel was more profitable than a single volume work: with three books that could be in constant circulation, the return on purchase cost was higher. And since long, slow stories took longer to read, the libraries also profited by keeping fewer titles in stock. Under their fixed-rate subscription fees, encouraging fast reading, single volume members would have required keeping a much larger inventory.
Gissing’s was a promising life; he did well in school and studied at the University of Manchester. He won prizes and published some early work, but fell in love- he thought- with a girl of the streets called Nell Harrison. Seized of the now odd-seeming Pygmalion complex that seized many a respectable Victorian man, Gissing undertook to raise Nell up, starting with financial support that soon outstripped his personal means and prize money. He took to stealing from other students, got caught, was expelled, and did a month in hard labor.
With a conviction on his record, Gissing’s roads to academia or middle-class professions were closed. Friends raised the money for him to spend a year in America, where he did some poorly-paid journalism and worked as the demonstrator of products for a traveling salesman.
Back in England in 1877, Gissing set up house with Nell, marrying her in 1879. He made a decent living as an exam tutor, and spent lots of time in the British Museum’s Reading Room, broadening his broken-off education. He walked the streets of London, gathering material for his writing in the poorest neighborhoods.
His first novel, Workers of the Dawn, found no publisher, so Gissing placed it with a vanity press, which- as they do to this day- kept most of his money and sold almost none of the books.
His next work found a publisher, who then got cold feet and shelved it. Gissing and Nell separated in 1884. She had proved unimprovable; she drank and consorted with low sorts and began to suffer from signs of TB or venereal disease. Gissing tired of her and the time her care took from his writing, but gave her some financial help until she died in 1888.
Lonely, he determined one day to speak to the next woman he met on the street. That led to his second marriage, to another woman from the lower classes. Gissing felt no respectable woman of his class would have him, which gave his amours a combustible mix of love, lust and anger. He married the second time in 1891; they had two children. No pushover, Edythe Gissing resented the way he kept her and the children isolated in the London suburbs while he moved in increasingly elevated literary company in the city: in the early 1890s the likes of Edmund Gosse, J.M. Barrie, George Meredith and Henry James took him in and promoted his merits.
George and Edith split up in 1897, and in 1902 she was declared insane and institutionalized. Unable to divorce her, he entered into a common law marriage with the woman who translated his works into French. They spent his last years in France, where the climate suited his fragile health and his past did not loom so oppressively.
Though Gissing wrote like a machine- producing 23 novels, comprising fifty volumes- in as many years, and leaving enough posthumous material for twelve more, Gissing made poor business decisions dealing with his publishers and so only enjoyed a comfortable living the last few years of his file. His 1891 three-volume novel, New Grub Street, chronicled the lives of independent writers struggling to make a living in an increasingly industrialized world of business and mass-publishing. When Mudie’s and Smith’s announced a new business model for their circulating libraries in 1894, the death knell tolled for the three-deckers. Oscar Wilde, who had written in 1890, “Anybody can write a three-volume novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature,” mocked them as passe’ in his 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest. There, the plot turned on a nurse, Miss Prism- “in a moment of mental abstraction” who, taking her infant charge for a walk, put the baby in a capacious handbag and the manuscript of her novel in the pram, then checked the baby as a parcel at Victoria Station. Twenty-eight years later, a governess, Miss Prism delivers lines like, “Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about us.
Cecily: Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened. I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.”

Later, Wilde mocks the genre again:
Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.  
Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don't like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.  
Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
Gissing quickly adapted to the new trend. Tastes were also changing, and the stranglehold the circulating libraries long held on what got published (Mudie’s and Smith’s disliked, and often banned, more controversial, socially-conscious works like those of Gissing and his contemporaries), he produced a series of one-volume novels. In his work, Gissing was able to overcome some of the conflict he could not in real life. One commentator has said Gissing’s world view was not so much that of the Victorian poor, but of impoverished aesthetes like himself, whose sympathy for the poor was complicated by disgust at their manners and morals. The overarching theme of his work, Henry James considered, was “not enough money.”
Another critic notes,
Gissing is given prominent space in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. Gissing's conservatism was rooted in his aristocratic sensibility. After a brief flirtation with socialism in his youth, Gissing lost faith in the labour movements and scorned the popular enthusiasms of his day.In 1892, he wrote to his sister Ellen, "I fear we shall live through great troubles yet ... We cannot resist it, but I throw what weight I may have on the side of those who believe in an aristocracy of brains, as against the brute domination of the quarter-educated mob." In The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Gissing reflected: "To think I once called myself a socialist, communist, anything you like of the revolutionary kind! Not for long, to be sure, and I suspect there was always something in me that scoffed when my lips uttered such things." In his fictionalised biography of Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland, his friend Morley Roberts commented: "He had once, as he owned, been touched by Socialism, probably of a purely academic kind; and yet, when he was afterwards withdrawn from such stimuli as had influenced him to think for once in terms of sociology, he went back to his more natural despairing conservative frame of mind. He lived in the past, and was conscious every day that something in the past that he loved was dying and must vanish. No form of future civilisation, whatever it might be, which was gained by means implying the destruction of what he chiefly loved, could ever appeal to him. He was not even able to believe that the gross and partial education of the populace was better than no education at all, in that it must some day inevitably lead to better education and a finer type of society. It was for that reason that he was a Conservative. But he was the kind of Conservative who would now be repudiated by those who call themselves such, except perhaps in some belated and befogged country house."

His last years were enlivened by friendship with the socialist writer H.G. Wells, who came to tend Gissing on his deathbed in 1903. Gissing found a small but devoted following in death; in 2014 The Guardian newspaper's list of the 100 Greatest English Novels ranked New Grub Street at 28. George Orwell championed Gissing as the greatest of English novelists in a 1943 essay.

Gissing’s children were raised on a pension granted by the British government in recognition of his literary merits. His son Alfred (1896-1975) became his literary executor and an author in his own right, spending the post-World War II years as head of a school, then proprietor of a hotel, in Switzerland.

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