Tuesday, 11 August 2009

New Grub Street by George Gissing

New Grub Street details the lives of those attempting to earn a living from writing during the 1880s. A group of writers, journalists and scholars, linked together by professional and family connections, are at work in London: we have Jasper Milvain, who looks on the production of literature entirely as a trade, and at the other extreme is Mr Biffen, quietly starving in his garret as he works at his realist novel Mr Bailey, Grocer. If the novel has a main protagonist it is probably Edwin Reardon, whose view of culture is placed somewhere between these two points. A published author, he is struggling to produce another novel; with a wife and child to support, he is finally persuaded, in part by his wife Amy, to compromise his aesthetic principles to produce something sensational that will sell. However, the money he is able to earn from his work continues to dwindle, and he returns to his former work as a clerk, causing a major rift in his marriage. Unacknowledged in print, but working daily as a researcher for her father is Marian Yule, Amy’s cousin, who contributes to the support of her small family through her efforts at the British Library.

The novel’s main interests are the effects of the business of writing. Is it possible to make a decent living from writing culturally valuable work? Or is it only possible if artistic integrity is compromised? Based on the fates of the various characters, the latter is true – only Jasper Milvain achieves any sort of financial success. The novel also criticises the constraints of the publishing industry and the tyranny imposed on the writer required to produce a three-volume novel by the circulating libraries. Reardon in particular is tormented by the need to stretch a story out to three volumes, and there’s a certain amount of evidence of Gissing’s own torment in this respect. The novel is definitely padded in places, and makes use of cliched plot devices, although this gives insight into the validity of Reardon’s complaint. The book is also interesting on matters of class. Marian Yule’s parents have married across the class boundary, to the everlasting regret of her father; Amy and Edwin separate when his move to clerkdom threatens to declass Amy. Lack or loss of social status results in social isolation and degradation, and limits opportunities for advancement and connection. The Reardons are increasingly isolated when their increasing poverty makes it impossible for them to accept the hospitality of others, since they cannot return it; the threat of compounding this isolation through crossing a class boundary is too much for Amy. Unmarried men may attempt to challenge that social status: Mr Biffen lives like a pauper in a garret, in a poor (and, it turns out, dangerous) area; but women and married men cannot transgress class boundaries without serious consequences. Those serious consequences are played out in the tensions of Marian Yule's home and the lack of opportunity in her life. While the book celebrates, to an extent, the joys of bachelor life in a dingy garret, it also reinforces rigid social stratification.

Like the other Gissing novel I've read (In the Year of Jubilee), the book deals ambiguously with its female characters and with attitudes to women. Some misogyny might be detected in the way wives are presented as a curb to literary and creative ambition, millstones around the neck of writers who might otherwise create works of genius. Although Amy is not entirely sympathetic to her husband's desire to create better-quality work, focusing more on what will sell and support her and her child, she is portrayed as strong and enduring, helpful to her husband and struggling to manage on the little money they have until they separate. This view of Amy is, however, undercut by her (probably unwitting) contribution to Mr Biffen's final decline, and her marriage to Jasper Milvain at the end of the novel. Hard-working Marian Yule might be a proto-feminist character: at first undertaking scholarship to support her father's work, she progresses to writing published under her own name. But her self-sacrifice in order to support her family, and her passivity in the face of Jasper Milvain's reluctant and reduntant courtship, undermine her agency. She is whisked off to run a library in the provinces, solving her family's financial hardship and Gissing's problem of how to end her story at one stroke.

This fascinating book foregrounds the labour of literature and locates writers, socially, as workers - but workers continually attempting to balance society's demands and their own aesthetic principles. This reminds me of the continual tightrope walk performed by members of the lower middle/upper working classes, attempting both to preserve their gentility and make enough money to live on. Throw artistic aspirations into that mix and you have a triangle that is impossible to reconcile.

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