New Grub Street: The 1901 Revised Text.
Readers might wonder what Oscar Wilde is doing on the cover of this new version of New Grub Street--indeed, on any edition of George Gissing's novel, which was first published in 1891. The question is not an idle one. Gissing created one of the earliest and still one of the most probing full-length works of fiction to address the issue of how authors can (or cannot) survive, when literature becomes a commodity and when editors and publishers are mainly concerned with how to market it. The producers of the University of Victoria's ELS Editions have made some curious marketing decisions of their own, by wrapping around the covers of this "revised text" a section of W. P. Frith's painting A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, and by placing on the front an enlarged detail that centers an image of Oscar
Wilde directly above the book's title. Gissing's novel never mentions Wilde, and, although it is set in 1882, never alludes to Wilde's widely publicized strategies for marketing himself, at that very moment, through the medium of an important American lecture tour. In fact, New Grub Street has nothing to say on the subject of the English aesthetic movement, on its proponents in general, or on the ridicule they faced in contemporary periodicals (most notoriously in Punch) for their avant-garde practices--only on the conflict that some realist novelists of the 1880s experienced between their desire to emulate the "Zola" school of French naturalism and the British public's hostility toward such tastes. An explanation for reproducing Frith's painting might be the minor role that the Grosvenor Gallery plays in the plot, for we hear in passing that it was the site where Edwin Reardon, the professional writer who is one of Gissing's protagonists, met his future wife around 1879. But, of course, Sir Coutts and Lady Lindsay's Grosvenor Gallery was a very different sort of venue for art from the Royal Academy that Frith depicted.
We must assume, therefore, that the instantly identifiable visage of Oscar Wilde is present because the Wilde connection sells books today, whereas the face of George Gissing does not. (For its own edition of New Grub Street, released in 2008, Canada's Broadview Press made the even more peculiar choice to adorn its cover with a 1907 photograph of the American painter John Sloan.) ELS is shrewd in latching onto Wilde, for this version of the novel needs all the help it can get, in order to attract attention--though not even Frith's striking portrait of him can ensure that the attention will be positive.
It would be an understatement to call the subtitle ("The 1901 Revised Text") a controversial labeling of the contents. In his edition of New Grub Street for Penguin Books, which has remained in print ever since it appeared in 1968, Bernard Bergonzi stated his position unequivocally: "The text of this book reproduces that of the first edition ... issued in three volumes in 1891. It was not revised during Gissing's lifetime" ("The Text" New Grub Street, edited with an introduction by Bernard Bergonzi [1968; rpr., New York: Penguin, 1980], 27). Most Gissing scholars share this view. But Paul Delany, the distinguished scholar and biographer of Gissing who initiated and edited this project, makes a bold counterclaim. He believes that the turn-of-the-century translation of the novel by Gabrielle Fleury--who was, at the time Gissing's lover--into French, which was based on a version of the English text that Gissing himself shortened considerably for her use in 1898, represents the author's later intentions vis-a-vis New Grub Street. Delany has, therefore, looked closely at the 1891 first edition and at the 1901 French translation, then removed from the former everything missing from the latter: long exchanges of dialogue, descriptions of places, passages in which the narrator engages in direct address of the reader, histories of minor characters, and subplots involving the protagonists' dealings with friends and family.
Although much has been cut, almost nothing has been added--nothing, that is, except Delany's own words. Here, Delany makes his most questionable move. As he admits in his "A Note on the Text" Fleury's translation contains short "transitional passages" that replace long sections from Gissing's 1891 version. These new sentences, of course, exist only in French. So Delany has chosen to "translate" her French "back into English" (xviii). Thus, Delany's own words are interwoven with Gissing's, and they appear here as though they were Gissing's, with nothing to mark them as by another author; no brackets, superscript numbers, differences in typography, or notes of any sort alert the reader when this occurs.
So, too, unless one has memorized the first edition of New Grub Street, there is no way--short of sitting down with a copy of Gissing's 1891 version alongside this new version and paging through, line by line--to know where stretches of the original text have been deleted. Surely it would have been possible for Delany to devise a system for indicating this throughout. Even more useful would have been the publication of parallel texts (or the electronic publication of hypertext with cross-referencing), to enable readers to make comparisons and draw conclusions, based on the omissions. As it is, Delany offers no such interpretations or speculations, either in his very brief introduction (a mere seven pages long) or in his equally scanty notes (three pages long).
Why, one might ask, did the shortened text that Gissing created for Gabrielle Fleury remove almost all of Edwin Reardon's expressions of hostility toward his young son--his many references to competing with the baby for his wife's love and to wishing that the child had never been born? Did Gissing think better of these passages, after the birth of his own two sons? They show Reardon in an unpleasant light, yet provide invaluable insight into the emotional neediness and self-absorption that lie at the heart of this novelist's imagination and that also signal its limitations. Their loss is a serious matter. Why, too, did Gissing excise passages about Amy Reardon's intellectual development and about her immersion in scientific and Social Darwinist literature, which make clear that she is more than a pretty face or a social climber, and which help to explain why she was drawn to marry such a cerebral writer? Without them, Reardon's wife is one-dimensional.
Equally problematic is the deletion from New Grub Street of one of its best known images: the description in chapter 3 ("Holiday") of an over worked, broken-down, and doomed horse, with a "grizzled" tail that matches precisely the "grizzled whiskers" of the overworked and prematurely aged man of letters, Alfred Yule. The disappearance of this reminder of exploited labor as the norm in late-Victorian London--a situation so common that it crosses the lines of species--robs the novel of some of its original political bite. Did Gissing, who grew more conservative over time, wish to erase even this small trace of socialist-influenced imagery? Readers would have benefited from Paul Delany's wisdom on this point, as few commentators today know more about Gissing's life and opinions.
But on the implications of this cut, as well as on the possible reasons behind most of the cuts that Gissing made for Gabrielle Fleury's benefit, Delany is silent. The publication of this "revised" New Grub Street is thus as frustrating as it is interesting. As an editorial project meant to rewrite the novel's history, it deserves a more detailed and illuminating critical framework. Without that, unfortunately, it will enter--and exit--the modern literary marketplace unnoticed, no matter who is on the cover.
Margaret D. Stetz
University of Delaware
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|Author:||Stetz, Margaret D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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