The Collected Letters of George Gissing, Volume 5, 1892-1895.
Volume 5 of the Collected Latters continues the record of a life of great accomplishment and considerable hardship. By 1892 Gissing had achieved a measure of literary recognition, but he still continued to live in virtual isolation and to struggle to support his wife and young son. The three and one-half years covered by this volume mark the continued growth of his reputation; they mark as well the partial lifting of his burden of isolation.
Many of the letters here address such long-familiar correspondents as Gissing's sister Ellen, his brother Algernon, and his friend Eduard Bertz. Toward the latter two (both novelists of limited ability and success), Gissing takes the stance of a supportive counselor: He prods Bertz to begin his endlessly delayed new novel and provides Algernon with advice and praise. With neither is he open about the domestic difficulties that often dominated his daily life and interfered with his work and peace of mind. Bertz did not even know of his marriage in 1891 to Edith Underwood, a lower-class woman who could neither manage a household nor share in her husband's intellectual life. Gissing's diary extensively records the distractions provided by an ill-tempered wife and a succession of slovenly servants, but his letters in contrast are relatively circumspect in their references to his household.
Gissing must have felt an additional constraint on his communications with his struggling younger brother. While George was receiving increasingly favorable mention in the press, Algernon experienced some difficulty even finding a publisher for The Sport of Stars. In 1893 we find Gissing telling Ellen and Bertz, but not Algernon, of the letter from his publisher A.H. Bullen that had elated him: "We count it a privilege to publish your books. If we lose money in bringing out cheap editions of your earlier works, it will not trouble us. The pleasure of seeing them collected will atone for any loss."
In Lawrence & Bullen Gissing had indeed found a publisher that valued his fiction and compensated him fairly for it. In this period Gissing was to publish with them two novels (The Odd Women and In the Year of Jubilee) and one novella (Eve's Ransom) that would add lustre to his reputation. Yet these years also saw him embrace the opportunities for remuneration afforded by the short story form. He took on as his literary agent William Morris Colles, who proved invaluable in disposing of Gissing's stories at a price that sometimes surprised the impecunious author. While accepting the necessity for some business acumen in placing his work, Gissing retained his distaste for the commodification of art, ambivalently observing to Clara Collet that "literature is now on all fours with the butter-trade, & one must be glad that one's goods are sought in the market."
Gissing's reputation as a poor businessman may be partly deserved, but the letters in this volume underscore as well the essential decency with which he approached business matters. Approached for work by both Methuen and Smith, Elder (his old publisher), Gissing insisted to Colles that he would keep the smaller Lawrence & Bullen as his regular publisher: "it would be too bad to go elsewhere with [Eve's Ransom] after their standing by me through the evil days." A dignified letter to Clement Shorter in another context dismisses Shorter's notion that Gissing would behave dishonorably in matters of publication.
This volume covers the beginnings of new friendships as well as new business relationships. As the book ends in mid-1895, Gissing has just enjoyed a brief holiday at Edward Clodd's home along with a number of other distinguished men. His enthusiastic reports of the gathering show a Gissing stimulated by just the sort of social event that he commonly avoided out of personal diffidence and fear of Edith's incapacity to offer reciprocal hospitality.
Of greater consequence for these years is the start of his friendship with Clara Collet, a university-trained economist who had worked with Charles Booth. Collet sought to befriend both Gissing and his wife and even offered to provide financial support to Walter should Gissing die young. In letters to her Gissing reveals more of his worries and discomforts than he does to any other correspondent. His explanation of this candor suggests the responsibility he felt to keep his troubles from such people as Algernon and Bertz: "A strange thing that, but for our having come to know each other, these struggles & gaspings of mine would have been unspoken of to anyone. I suppose my reason for telling you of such miseries is the assurance I have that you cannot be depressed by them; you are the sole and single person of my acquaintance who is living a healthy, active life, of large intercourse with men & women." The letters to Collet, almost all of which have remained unpublished until now, constitute one of the significant contributions of this book.
The Gissing of these letters is dedicated to his work and devoted to his son (who suffered from a series of unpleasant respiratory infections). He is courteous to all his correspondents but clearly somewhat irascible, especially whenever he encounters vulgarity among ordinary English people. He offers gloomily self-deprecating remarks about his work that one would be mistaken to take too seriously. Despite his reticence in many personal matters, these letters are notable for their straightforwardness: They are vehicles for communication rather than self-consciously literary efforts to create a dazzling effect. Yet along the way Gissing offers a number of revealing and memorable observations about his own literary practice.
The editors should be commended for their fine work in bringing together these letters, many of which have never before been published. They have written a comprehensive introduction to this volume and provided a useful chronology of Gissing's life. For their annotations they have tracked down much helpful information about obscure references. Their notes have evidently been designed for the browser or occasional reader, since there is a good deal of repetition that the careful reader does not need.
All in all, this volume in conjunction with the rest of the series makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of George Gissing and literary life at the end of the last century. Anyone seriously interested in the literature of the fin de siecle would be well advised to take up these letters of a major author struggling through personal difficulty and a changing literary climate to pursue his vocation.
Constance D. Harsh
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|Author:||Harsh, Constance D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
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