31 March 2014

Better Than His Books

Edith Lister, "Some Recollections of George Gissing," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 300 (February 1906), pp. 11-18:
The book and the author are so much a part of one another that it has become a habit of mind with the lettered public to demand, almost as a right, the privilege of learning every detail, however insignificant, of the lives of their favourite writers. The features of a man's face; the clothes he wears; the food he eats; the wife he has married, and the children he has begotten, are all seemingly matters of vital interest to the readers of his books; and so vulgar curiosity satisfies itself with illustrated interviews, having neither the patience to wait until his death, nor the good-breeding to respect his very natural desire for privacy. In no author was this same desire for privacy more marked than in George Gissing, while possibly few stood more mentally aloof from their books than he did; even though the earlier works are, in a large measure, autobiographical, and it is by these earlier works, and these alone, that he claims remembrance. It is too early, as yet, to decide what place he will finally take among the writers of the late Victorian school, but, though prophecy is both thankless and unprofitable, it is safe to say that, never a popular author, he will be remembered when the men who outran him in public favour are wholly, and deservedly, forgotten. He wrote, in all, some five and twenty books, and, of these, six touch the high-water mark of excellence in the style that is peculiarly his own — repressed, yet full of power, vivid, though sombre in colouring.

I knew his books long before I knew the man who wrote them; they impressed me deeply, and have influenced me ever since, so that now, in thinking of certain types of character, as in walking down certain London streets, I find it almost impossible to form an independent judgment; but see both men and things through George Gissing's eyes rather than my own. I met him first in Surrey, and for one long summer it was my good fortune to see him nearly every day, to know him in varying moods, and to become his close friend. He spoke to me intimately of the subjects that lay nearest his heart, and I may, without vanity, say I learned to know a side of his character that has never expressed itself in print and was even unknown — if the wholly misleading obituary notices are any guide — to his oldest friends. He was essentially a loving man; a lover of the ideal and the beautiful; a lover of nature; a lover of animals — the old collie now lying by my side was his faithful friend, and remembered by him even in his last illness. The Gissing of the Surrey lanes, and the Gissing of the series of novels that have, with singular inappropriateness, been described as an English Comédie Humaine, were two persons distinct and apart, and it is of the man, rather than the books, that I would now speak. In those long lazy summer afternoons spent in a dreambound garden, or in the clear starlight nights when we walked through silent woods, or across a heather-scented common, he would talk by the hour, in that golden voice of his : could he but have written as he talked in those rare hours of expansion, his books would have been masterpieces.

He spoke much of himself; not with any hint of egoism, but as friend speaks to friend. He spoke of the early struggles that had bitten and eaten into his soul as a corrosive fluid leaving sores no after-draught of happiness was ever able to erase, for no one resented the insults and humiliations of more bitterly than George Gissing. Shortly before his death, he, perhaps unwisely, broke through the iron reserve and spoke continuously of himself — with garrulity that showed the weakening of mental power so painfully evident in his later works; and the story of the library that was bought at the price of his dinners, of the tutorship that nearly was lost for lack of a decent coat, and the London cellar where he wrote by the light of a grating continually darkened by the shadows of passers-by, all became public property. But when I knew him he was still proudly reticent, and would have resented any suggestion of an interview as an unnecessary prying into his private affairs.

His horror of poverty seems to have had birth in the disastrous visit to America (made when a very young man), of which he always spoke with almost painful emotion. A short story of his had been pirated in an American newspaper, and thinking he might find a market in the New World, he went to the States, only to be told that editors could "get as much of such stuff as they wanted without paying for it." Then followed a nightmare of poverty. He travelled for a time with an agent for gas-fittings; the agent did the necessary booming, and Gissing the practical demonstration, going to out-of-the-way country places and seeing an America few English people know. The gas-fitting partnership came suddenly to an end — I forget the exact reason, but believe Gissing was not smart enough for the business — and after came weeks of misery, when he kept body and soul together on dough-nuts, and learned to know all the hardness of human hearts towards poverty and misfortune. Only once did he meet with sympathy and kindness, and, strange to say, this was in a lawyer's office, where he found an old clerk, in shabby black, reading the Bible during the dinner-hour. The old man did his best to help him, and Gissing never forgot this strange friend, and often spoke of the incident as the one bright spot of colour in his drab-grey memories of America; but it is characteristic of his peculiar sensitiveness with reference to any personal experience that he never attempted to turn it into copy. He realised its value, however, suggesting that I might work it into a book. "Why not use it yourself?" was my somewhat natural question. "Because I never care to put my deepest feelings in print. Do you suppose I have ever drawn my ideal woman for one of my heroines ? She is for me, and not for the public."

Another time we were speaking, in desultory fashion, of the arguments for and against individual consciousness in a future state of existence, when I said, "But this does not interest you ?" "No," he answered, with almost exaggerated emphasis, " but I am well aware what a loss my lack of interest is to me. It means there is a whole side of human nature I do not understand, and this is why I so often fail to touch my readers' hearts. If I could write a book that recognised the spiritual side of man, where I now appeal to one reader I should then speak to thousands." If he had only been able to make the appeal he would have compared favourably with some of the great writers of the modern Russian school, who paint in quite as sombre colours as Gissing, but relieve the gloom by the hint of a soul hidden away somewhere in their human animals even when they are wallowing in the gutter. Gissing's characters wallow as convincingly as the Russians' — the mud is real, the people are real; but they have no poetry of melancholy, no spiritual aspirations, no suggestion of the soul buried in the flesh.

 His chief strength lies in his power of portrayal of a certain type of character to be found in the top mud of the submerged tenth, and not — as is often erroneously stated — in depicting the small vices and lesser virtues of the lower middle class. He draws a cruel character with delicate skill and deliberate finish, and his Clem Peckover in the "Nether World," is a very effective English rendering of Balzac's Madame Cibot in "Cousin Pons" : the Englishwoman is coarser in her wickedness and less of an artist in vice than her French prototype, but otherwise the two are identical. Clem Peckover was taken from the life, and was rather under- than overdrawn."She was a mercilessly cruel woman," he said once, "or rather she was not a woman but a fiend. And yet she is more true to life than an idealised heroine would be." Thyrza — the sweetest and possibly the most convincing of all his women characters — he affected to despise as "a piece of boyish idealism," but I have my own opinion on this point, and believe it was the only time he ever allowed himself to put in print a sketch, in half-tones, of his ideal woman; the book was one of his favourites, and I noticed that he was always pleased at any allusion to this study of two sisters where poverty, for once, is rainbow-tinted by love. "Demos" was another book he rated highly, and here the realism is more of the Russian than the French School. The description of the girl brought up in semi-refinement, married to the workman who has unexpectedly inherited a fortune and as unexpectedly loses it; the horrors of the vie intime in two small rooms, and of the man's brutal pleasure in humiliating, at every turn, the supposed fine-ladyism of his wife, are drawn by a master hand: Gissing spares us no details, but makes us realise the truth of the picture without disgusting us. In the "Odd Women," he discusses the problem of the surplus half-educated woman — unloved, undesired, a prey at last to drink through sheer misery — with a force and directness that almost robs it of our sympathy. He was an artist who painted an absolutely true picture (in the sense in which Hogarth's pictures are true) of London life in the late Seventies and the Eighties. Himself a Northcountryman, he was by adoption a son of the great city; he loved her, hated her, and knew her through and through. His descriptive powers are best when he is depicting atmospheric effects in London streets — as the flood of golden sunshine in "The Day of Silence" ("Human Odds and Ends") or the rainy night in the opening chapter of "The Unclassed." And yet he loved the country, and the scent of a Surrey lane or the shadow of Devon Goods was dearer to him ihan to many a man who has made a fortune by writing about them.

The influence of his early life never left him, and I often wonder what would have been the effect on Gissing the writer, if Gissing the man had served a less cruel apprenticeship when learning the trade of letters. Poverty had been his mistress: she had sat on his knee until he knew every line of her ugly face; to the day of his death, the horror of her never left him. He has been accused of a want of idealism, but it was in the poverty of the ideal, and not in the lack of it, that his real weakness lay. His grim mistress had taught him that a man's ambition should be limited to a modest income, an abundance of good food, and an easy life. On this modest income he insists until we weary of it, and feel, by the side of this grey-toned gospel of moderation, that the rank poverty of the "Nether World" seems bright-hued in comparison, with its primitive human passion; and its handsome Clem Peckover. As he himself said, the wider interests, the longing of the spirit for the unattainable he did not understand —
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
 Or what's a heaven for?"
— Gissing's reach and grasp were identical, and he knew this far better than did his critics, great or small. I well remember when he made a bid for popularity with the "Town Traveller," he asked me, as a personal favour, not to read it, giving as his reason, "You like my books." I disobeyed him — and understood. It was then the old Gissing died, and a new man took his place who does not come into these recollections except in reference to the series of papers, "By the Ionian Sea." Those sketches he told in wonderful fashion, sitting in a little hedged-in Surrey garden on windless starbright nights, and holding a small audience of three spell-bound with the charm of his voice. I know they made a good book, but have preferred to keep the memory of them as something distinct and apart, and so have never read it. As a conversationalist, Gissing was a delightful surprise to those who only hew him from his books. Given the right setting and the right audience, he would astonish by his brilliancy and the absence of the note of reasoned despair that makes itself heard in all his serious writing. It is as a serious writer that he will be remembered; as the man who knew the life of the London poor in all its bitterness, and wrote with a depth of knowledge many an earnest philanthropist struggling to grasp the social problem might well envy.

His best work was done in the days of his youth- "The Nether World," "New Grub Street," "Demos," "The Unclassed," "The Odd Women," and that very remarkable collection of short stories, "Human Odds and Ends"; a wonderful output for a young man, but yet not one of them recalls the man himself, to those who knew and loved him. He was better than his books — tender where they are hard, bright where they are sombre; a very gentle spirit in a big body. I can remember so many acts of kindness to a young author; so many sage suggestions, so much ripe advice, and kindly painstaking criticism. Of all the men I ever met he was the most generous in his praise of his brother authors, and his delight at the heavy royalties some of them earned seemed a trifle pathetic to those of us who knew that he never achieved more than the modest income of which he used to write in his 'prentice days of hope and starvation. He was still a young man when he died, but his life had been over-full of cruel experiences, and his constitution was weakened by those early privations that are supposed, by comfortable arm-chair philosophers, to make such excellent training for budding talent.

George Gissing stands, a somewhat solitary figure, grey-toned against the brightly coloured background of his fellows of the pen — the popular authors of the many editions, and the luxurious ways of living; but it is a noble figure, and one not easily to be forgotten, either as the man or the writer. To me those long lazy summer days are a memory with which I would not willingly part, and even as I write, I can recall the kindly smile and the kindly voice of the man who was my friend; for whom I have a reverent admiration mingled with regret for those golden, unforgotten hours, when we
 "Tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky."
Alas! we shall tire the sun no more.
See also: Who Was E. M. Martin?