“That is one of the bitter curses of poverty; it leaves no right to be generous.”
George Gissing was a young man on his way. He had impressive scores at the Oxford Local Examinations, and all was going well until he fell in lust with a young orphaned prostitute named Marianne Helen Harrison or Nell. He gave her money to keep her from plying her trade and when he ran out of money he stole from his fellow students. He was caught, expelled, and convicted serving a month of hard labor at Belle Vue Gaol. What a promising start for a young novelist. I'd probably have twenty books written and published if I'd been so foolish to get hooked up with a woman of questionable morals and went to jail because of it. When Gissing got out he married Nell and their relationship became the basis for his first novel.
Gissing was very bitter about having to make a living teaching and tutoring to support his writing. "According to his pupil Austin Harrison, from 1882 Gissing made a decent living by teaching, and tales of his fight with poverty, including some of his own remembrances, were untrue. The issue of his supposed poverty may be explained by Gissing's attitude to teaching, which he felt robbed him of valuable writing time which he limited as much as possible and by poor management of his finances."George Gissing
I see from other reviews that people were making comparisons of Gissing with Dickens, but to me the book was more modern than a Dickens more like reading Henry James. I knew as I read the book that the chance for a happy ending was beyond impossible. I would have been disappointed if Gissing had decided to manufacture a happy ever after conclusion. It would have rang untrue, like a bell with a crack, and certainly would have made unsound all the wonderful work he does in this book to show the devastating mental effects of uncertain income and the fickle chance of fate. Grub Street, London
The setting of the novel is Grub Street. It was a street close to London's impoverished Moorfields district that ran from Fore Street east of St Giles-without-Cripplegate north to Chiswell Street. Famous for its concentration of impoverished 'hack writers', aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers, Grub Street existed on the margins of London's journalistic and literary scene. It was pierced along its length with narrow entrances to alleys and courts, many of which retained the names of early signboards. Its bohemian society was set among the impoverished neighbourhood's low-rent flophouses, brothels, and coffeehouses.
Now as long as a young writer could keep a couple of coppers in his pocket imagine the quick, all inclusive education of the world he could obtain spending a few months on Grub Street.
This book is about writing and the battle with poverty in 1880s London. There are really two main characters Edwin Reardon and Jasper Milvain. Edwin writes serious novels and views any sensational writing, to make money, as something he is incapable of. He has a wife and child and as the novel progresses we see him slide farther and farther into the grip of poverty. Jasper Milvain sees writing as a means to an end. His reputation is only of concern to him as that it provides him more opportunities to make more money. He is always scheming and trying to position himself to achieve a better position. He really is the exact opposite of Reardon. I didn't despise Milvain, although I never liked him and certainly would never feel comfortable trusting him. I was equally as frustrated with Reardon's inability to make changes that would have at least insured that he could keep his wife loyal to him and his life above the poverty line. Interesting enough Gissing did make the decision to do what was necessary to stay out of poverty, so one wonders if he wished he'd taken a perceived artistically more honorable route of sticking with just writing and enduring the poverty.
Reardon is afraid of poverty and yet ends up feeling more secure falling back into it than he does fighting to stay above it. "The difference," he went on, "between the man with money and the man without is simply this: the one thinks, 'How shall I use my life?' and the other, 'How shall I keep myself alive?' A physiologist ought to be able to discover some curious distinction between the brain of a person who has never given a thought to the means of subsistence, and that of one who has never know a day free from such cares. There must be some special cerebral development representing the mental anguish kept up by poverty."
Milvain is always working the angles. He is clever and wants everyone to like him, but is always looking for a way to elevate himself in the esteem of others sometimes at the cost of his friends. "Jasper, whose misrepresentation was willful, though not maliciously so, also fell into silence; he did not believe that his conversations with Amy Reardon had seriously affected the course of events, but he knew that he had often said things to her in private which would scarcely have fallen from his lips if her husband had been present---little deprecatory phrases, wrong rather in tone than in terms, which came of his irresistible desire to assume superiority whenever it was possible. He, too, was weak, but with quite another kind of weakness than Reardon's. His was the weakness of vanity, which sometimes leads a man to commit treacheries of which he would believe himself incapable. Self-accused, he took refuge in the pretense of misconception, which again was a betrayal of littleness."
There is a side theme working in the novel about the emancipation of women. A new law allows women to inherit, and over the course of the novel we see the importance of that law at work. Women are suddenly in a position to make different decisions and do not have to spend the rest of their life under the thumb of a father, brother or son if they are lucky enough to be bequeathed money and means of their own. after Gissing's second marriage ended with his wife committed to an insane asylum he became good friends with Clara Collet. Miss Collet seems to have been in love with Gissing, but there is no evidence of the feelings being reciprocated. Clara was an outspoken advocate of advancing the pay of women and I feel she influenced those sections of the novel regarding the emancipation of women. Clara Collet, a woman who made a difference.
The characters in this novel with a change of clothes, an iPhone, and a brush up on modern language are the same people populating our lives today. People, regardless of the time period, exhibit the same foibles and strengths. They have the same desires, the same troubles, and the same insecurities. There are no lazy people in this book. Everyone is striving the best they can to be successful, but pride plays a big hand during the course of this book and opportunities are lost and irrevocable things are said. Deception, misinterpretation and debilitating anxiety are the worms that wiggle through the plot of this novel. It will have such an influence on you, as the reader, that you will find yourself squirming with thoughts of your own personal defects and failings.