New Grub Street by George Gissing is a novel that should be read by anyone interested in writing or the lives of writers. It should certainly be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to be a writer. It’s a novel I wish I’d read years ago, since it would have disabused me of some absurd Romantic notions I insisted on entertaining about writing. There are so many shocks of recognition. This is a late-Victorian novel, but – apart from the technology – nothing has changed. The tension between Art and Money remains, the need to make a living versus the desire to do Art. Fifty Shades of Shite triumphed in the market while, no doubt, novels with artistic merit struggled to get representation or recognition. I’ve no idea why this fact of life still rankles with me; you’d think I’d have grown up by now.
In Gissing’s novel, the shadow of poverty is large and looming, particularly for Edwin Reardon, who loathes his need to write for money, but feels guilty about not supplying a certain standard of living for his wife and child. Reardon is, in many ways, his own worst enemy, since he spurns advice and opportunities that would help him prosper. And as his poverty increases, and his inability to write impacts his health, his relationship with his wife, Amy, deteriorates. His friend, Jasper, on the other hand is interested in writing for the market, in furthering a career, and in getting on and becoming prosperous. He is, of course, rightly cynical about the tastes of the average reader.
The sensational and crass triumph with the masses while works of merit go unremarked and unrewarded. True then as now. Reardon rushes out a three volume novel called Margaret Home, which he despises and of which he refuses to speak. Again, opportunities to go out into Society as a writer are spurned because he doesn’t believe in his work.
New Grub Street is populated by men and woman broken by the struggle to make ends meet, and making the ends meet when you want to do art – or Art, upper case A – isn’t easy. It puts a strain on relationships and pollutes every aspect of your life. Just as it does today. Then, as now, the crass and vulgar prosper. Art doesn’t triumph (what an idiot I was); at best it will only ever achieve a modest success in comparison to the crudely populace. Harold Biffen, unlike Reardon, is not embittered by his plight, though he is worn down by it. He has produced a novel of everyday life, Mr. Bailey, Grocer, of which he’s proud (and which he dramatically rescues from a fire), but which has little or no prospect of commercial success.
Alfred Yule is also broken: a man out of sync with his time, tormented and poisoned by unfulfilled ambitions. When his daughter, Marian, inherits five thousand pounds, he becomes uncharacteristically convivial towards her and her mother because he wants Marian to invest her money in a literary magazine, which he proposes to edit. It is (has always been) his dream to be a man of importance in literary circles, something he feels has been denied him by fate and circumstance, those being the prospering of vulgar, less deserving men, such as Fadge. Marian, to whom Jasper proposes (also on the basis of the inheritance), doubts the wisdom of her father’s enterprise, and puts off a decision on the matter. Unfortunately, her inheritance falls through, putting her marriage to Jasper in jeopardy, and ultimately derailing it. Jasper is not a cad. He is not a one-dimensional self-centred character; rather, he’s a man who wants to do and be good, but believes that this will be impossible without a degree of affluence. During their extended engagement, the marriage having been postponed, Jasper proposes unsuccessfully to a wealthy woman, much to the disgust of his sister, Dora.
“We will never go to Greece together, old friend.” Reardon on his deathbed to Biffen. Another shared dream thwarted. Amy is, by this time, living with her mother, having left Reardon when he proposes to get a clerk’s position. She had wanted him to take break by the sea and to approach his writing with renewed vigour. Reconciled when their son becomes ill, the son dies while Reardon himself lies fevered on what will be his death bed. Amy, without ties (and in possession of a ten thousand pound inheritance), marries Jasper Milvain. Jasper subsequently secures the editorship of a leading literary journal, and they live comfortably ever after.
Poverty is the beast that walks abroad in this novel. Everything is done under its shadow, and poisoned by its proximity. Those who prosper in worldly terms, like Whelpdale and Milvain are ultimately unintoxicated by art, and attend to the business of getting on. Those who fail – tragically so – like Reardon and Biffen, are not men of the world, and are not equipped for the business of making a living – indeed, are ground down by the necessity to do so.
The moral seems to be (and it may be ungenerous to draw one) that the desire to do art is a handicap if you’re struggling with the necessities of life. Art is not commercial, art will not bail you out or ennoble you if you are poor. Alfred Yule dies blind and disappointed, leaving Marian to support her mother. They are spoken about sympathetically at one of Milvain’s parties. Prospects for them are, we come away thinking, a little on the bleak side. Reardon and Biffen have fallen. Milvain, despite the odd vacillation, has taken the necessary steps to ensure he prospers.
Quote: Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character that is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man.
No, indeed. I can’t help thinking of a homeless person struggling to capture their precarious existence in a ragged exercise book while E.L. James and James Patterson chortle all the way to the bank and line up the next self-regarding interview at a literary lunch with their agent.
I don’t know how I missed this book for so long.