Book Review: New Grub Street by George Gissing
(Hint: if you read Victorian novels for the romance and happy endings, and don’t like it when they don’t have a traditional happy ending, you might want to avoid this novel.)
Let me see if I can describe this thing I like about both of the Gissing novels I’ve read (this one and The Odd Women). It starts with the fact that there are no real heroes or villains in the story, just real, complicated characters up against a set of obstacles and needing to make difficult decisions about their lives. (In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint a protagonist; both books are more ensemble pieces.) But what is really Gissing-ish is the way he sucks you into various stories about people who are in love, or who think they are in love, but never backs away from the seriousness of their situations or the idea that maybe they really shouldn’t be together. But here’s the thing: Gissing knows the marriage/love/romance plot inside and out, and he knows how to use the moves that get you (or, maybe I should only apply this to myself) to want something that you know – because he’s already showing you – will not work out. So the whole time I’m reading his books, I can’t help but kinda want characters to get together, even as I’m consciously thinking, “this will never work out.” So at the end, when things don’t go the expected marriage/romance plot direction, you are somehow both surprised and not at all surprised at the same time, as well as chuckling over the cynical marriages that actually do come to pass. This Gissing has some clever, clever moves.
Of course, this novel is not usually thought to be about love or romance; it’s about writing and publishing and trying to make a living as a writer. It’s an age-old but nevertheless deeply compelling question: do you take the chance of working full time on your writing, only to find yourself at the point of starvation as your talent goes unnoticed, try to piece together a living by working at some soul-sucking day job to pay the bills as you write at night, or “sell out” and write solely with a shrewd eye on the market? Gissing knew that only a select few will get rich from writing great novels (in fact, I found out in my Bedford edition that George Eliot was paid 10,000 pounds for Middlemarch! But even with that amazing amount, which was at the top of the pay scale—compare it to the fact that 10 years later, Gissing only received 150 pounds for New Grub Street—consider how much time Eliot must have spent writing her masterpiece!) and that it takes dedicated time and a freedom from the concerns of where the rent money was coming from to really throw yourself into a work of art. It’s a startlingly modern and stark look at the publishing industry and market. (When one character gets rich by re-designing a journal so that no story is longer than 2 inches, so that people can read it on buses and trains, I thought, we really are New Victorians.)
On a final, rather unrelated note, according to my Bedford edition, Gissing’s favorite novelist was Charlotte Bronte, and his favorite novel not Jane Eyre, but Villette. Also, he writes amazing female characters. How can I not like him?