Gissing, George Robert (DNB12)

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GISSING, GEORGE ROBERT (1857–1903), novelist, born in the Market Place, Wakefield, on 22 Nov. 1857, was eldest child in a family of three sons and two daughters of Thomas Waller Gissing (1829-1870), a Suffolk man of literary and scientific attainments, who settled at Wakefield as a pharmaceutical chemist, was author of a 'Wakefield Flora,' and corresponded on botanical subjects with Hooker, Bentham, and other botanists. The novelist's mother (still living) was Margaret, daughter of George Bedford of Dodderhill, a well-known solicitor in Droitwich. A younger brother, Algernon, enjoys some reputation as a novelist. George, who was profoundly influenced by his father, passed from private day schools in Wakefield to Lindow Grove, a Quaker boarding-school at Alderley Edge, where his unsociability and intellectual arrogance asserted itself at times unpleasantly, but where he shone on speech-days (see Born in Exile, chap, i.). In 1872 he came out first in the kingdom in the Oxford local examination, and obtained an exhibition at Owens College, Manchester. At the end of his first session he won Dr. Ward's English poem prize; he also gained a special prize for classics and the Shakespeare scholarship, and took a high place with honours in the London intermediate arts (see Owens Coll. Union Mag. Jan. 1904, p. 80). Unhappily, at this critical period, as at other times of his life, amorous propensities led him into serious trouble. His career at Owens broke off in disgrace, and his pride cut him adrift and made a temporary pariah of him; his health, too, was temporarily impaired by 'insane' overwork at college.

For eight or nine years after his disappearance from Manchester his resources were extremely precarious, and he was dogged by many hardships. After a brief period of clerkship at Liverpool he crossed as a steerage passenger to America, and was for a short time a classical tutor and then a gas-fitter at Boston. At Niagara he contemplated suicide; in Chicago he came near to absolute starvation. His experiences as a penniless rover in American cities are described with little deviation in 'New Grub Street' and elsewhere. Although he was neither morose nor eccentric in motive or bearing, he showed a curious inability to do the sane, secure thing in the ordinary affairs of life. An ill-considered marriage increased his embarrassment. He lacked social nerve, and the everyday conflicts of social intercourse bewildered and confounded him. Early attempts to obtain remunerative employment in the American press failed. In 1877, however, he managed to return to Europe, and then in the quiet atmosphere of Jena studied Goethe, Haeckel, and Schopenhauer, to be followed by Comte and Shelley. He became an adept in religious and metaphysical discussion, and boxed the compass of opinion like his own Godfrey Peak (in Born in Exile). His correspondence at this time with a friend in Berlin, Herr Edward Bertz, author of 'Philosophie des Fahrrads' (1900) and other works, forms an autobiographical document of extraordinary impressiveness and candour.

On his return to England about the close of 1878 he illustrated his debt to Germany in a crude but powerful novel entitled 'Workers in the Dawn' (Athenæum, 12 June 1880), in which the Wertherian hero is, of course, the author, while Casti is his Teutonic confidante. Gissing, who risked the greater part of his ready money upon this book, confidently anticipated large profits. But the book was read by few save the critics, who denounced its 'dangerous' tendencies, and Gissing was once more faced by hunger and destitution. Copies, however, were sent to Mr. John Morley and to Mr. Frederic Harrison, both of whom recognised its power and interest. In 1882 the author became tutor to Mr. Harrison's sons; he obtained other pupils and an opening for occasional articles (such as a sketch 'On Battersea Bridge') in the 'Pall Mall Gazette.' His means were still small, but ho was no longer destitute; yet his unpractical contempt for journalism, his idealism as an artist, no less than the necessity of providing an allowance, however small, for the wife from whom he was separated, involved him often in pecuniary difficulties. Devoted to classical literature, he read assiduously in the British Museum, neglecting the chance of obtaining further pupils and of contributing to the 'Fortnightly,' and cultivating the conception of himself as a social outlaw. His next books, 'The Unclassed' (1884; new edit. 1895), dedicated to his lifelong friend, Mr. Morley Roberts, 'Isabel Oarendon' (1886), 'Demos* (1886), and 'Thyrza' (1887), were all written from this point of view, and illustrated the degrading effects of poverty on character.

'Demos,' which was the first of his books to attract any popular attention, brought him 100l., and with this sum he carried out a long cherished ambition of visiting the classic sites upon which he lived in imagination. He sailed on a collier to Naples, where he began 'The Emancipated' (published in 1890), described Ms first sight of Vesuvius as 'the proudest moment of his life,' and proceeded thence to Rome and Athens. On his return he put 'The Emancipated' for a time aside and wrote for serial publication in the 'Cornhill ' 'A Life's Morning' (1888), the most vernal in atmosphere of any of his novels; but it was followed by the gloomy 'The Nether World' (1889), a full-length study of the animal conditions of semi-starvation, which goes far to justify Gissing's title as the 'spokesman of despair.' This and 'New Grub Street' (1891), a realistic study of the ruin by pecuniary care and overwork of an author's powers of imagination, for which he received 150l., are the most closely observed and vigorously characterised of all his fuller developed novels.

Gissing's first wife was now dead, and in 1890 he married again, with unfortunate results. Comparative success enabled him to live away from London. At Exeter he wrote the disquieting and introspective 'Born in Exile' (1892) and began 'Denzil Quarrier' (1892; new edit. 1907), which he completed at Dorking, where he met George Meredith, one of his earliest appreciators. Li 1892-3 he wrote at Clevedon 'The Odd Women' (new edit. 1907), an artistic study of three luckless and moneyless women. His novels henceforth, with the partial exception of 'In the Year of Jubilee' (1894), 'Eve's Ransom' (1895), and 'The Whirlpool' (1897), in which there is a recurrence of his old semi-autobiographical manner, show an inferior artistic sincerity. His critical study of 'Charles Dickens' (1898; illustr. edit. 1902) is a masterly vindication of Dickens, whom he had worshipped from youth.

During the last ten years of his life he re-visited Wakefield several times, and spent much time in southern England, at Budleigh, and at Epsom. His love of the countryside, of English living, and English manners he described in papers in the 'Fortnightly Review ' under the title of 'An Author at Grass'; they were reprinted as 'Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft' in 1903. The autobiographical value with which they were credited is a testimony to their artistic success, but they faithfully reflect his lonely temper and his impatience of control. In the autumn of 1897 he revisited Italy with Mr. H. G. Wells, and his experiences in the Calabrian portion of his tour were recorded in the graphic pages of 'By the Ionian Sea' (1901). At Rome, too, fresh material was accumulated for 'Veranilda,' the most deliberate of his works, an historical romance of the city in the fifth century — the time of Theodoric the Goth. When in England again he contributed short stories to the weekly illustrated papers and wrote 'The Town Traveller' (1898) and 'Our Friend the Charlatan' (1901), inferior novels, refashioning some old material. The state of his lungs rendered it desirable for him to go south at the close of 1901. Moving from Paris to Arcachon, and thence to St. Jean Pied-du-Port, he there completed for bread and butter an easy-going romance of real life, 'Will Warburton' (1905), and in June began for fame his historical romance 'Veranilda.' He was not destined to finish the romance. In Nov. he moved to St. Jean de Luz, contracted a slight chill, and died of pneumonia on 28 Dec. 1903, at the age of forty-six. By his second wife, from whom he was long separated, he left issue two sons, Walter Leonard and Alfred Charles Gissing, to whom a joint pension of 74l. was in 1904 allotted during their minority from the civil fist. The unfinished 'Veranilda' was published in 1904 (with a foreword by Mr. Frederic Harrison). Gissing carried his classical learning easily and lightly, but his classical romance will not rank with the novels of his early manhood. The intellectual beauty and sincere friendliness of Gissing's nature were obscured by a peculiar pride or sensitiveness. His idiosyncrasies wore down as he grew older, but he lost also his extraordinary power of intensifying the misery of the world's finer spirits who are thrown among 'the herd that feed and breed' and are stupidly contented. His prose style is scholarly, suave, subtle, and plastic. Critics have deemed him a classicist who missed his vocation, but few classicists have written so much or so well. His imperfect understanding of the joie de vivre reduced his public while he lived; but there are signs that his work is obtaining a better co-ordinated appreciation since his death.

In addition to the works already enumerated Gissing wrote : 1. 'The Paying Guest,' 1895. 2. 'Sleeping Fires,' 1895. 3. 'Human Odds and Ends' (stories), 1898. 4. 'The Crown of Life' (early chapters semi-autobiog.), 1899. 5. 'The House of Cobwebs, and other Stories' (with an introductory survey of Gissing's books by the present writer), 1906.

A portrait appears in William Rothenstein's 'English Portraits' (1898), reduced in later (pocket) editions of the popular 'Ryecroft Papers.' A drawing by Mr. H. G. Wells is reproduced in the 'New York Critic' The MSS. of Gissing's novels passed to his brother Algernon.

[The Times, 29 Dec. 1903; Guardian, 6 Jan. 1904; Outlook, 2 Jan. 1904; Sphere, 9 Jan. 1904 (portrait); Athenæum, 2 and 16 Jan. 1904, 7 July 1906; Academy, 9 and 16 Jan. 1904; New York Nation, 11 June 1903; Independent Rev., Feb. 1904; New York Critic, June 1902; Bookman, July 1906; Albany, Christmas No., 1904; Monthly Rev. vol. xvi.; Murray's Mag. iii. 506–18; National Rev., Oct. 1897, Nov. 1904, Nov. 1906; Saturday Rev., 19 Jan. 1895 and 13 April 1896; Gent. Mag., Feb. 1906; C. F. G. Masterman's In Peril of Change, 1905, pp. 68-73; Atlantic Monthly, xciii. 280; Upton Letters, 1905, p. 206; English Illustrated Rev., Nov. 1903; Nineteenth Cent., Sept. 1906; Fortnightly Rev., Feb. 1904; Manchester Guardian, 23 May 1906; Evening News, 18 June 1906; Manchester University Mag., May 1910; George Gissing, an Impression, by H. G. Wells, originally written as introduction to Veranilda; private information.]

T. S.