Wednesday, August 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: New Grub Street by George Gissing

Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming walking into a bookstore to browse or wandering the library when I pop in to pick up a book. There is SO MUCH to read. So when I happen upon a reference to a great writer from long ago whose works have dropped off the radar, I have mixed emotions. Can I really squeeze in a book published in 1891 by a writer I’ve never heard of?

The answer, of course, is yes!

George Gissing was a prolific English novelist of the late nineteenth century, who was mentioned a few times in The Age of Decadence. One of his best works is thought to be New Grub Street, which follows the lives of several literary men and women of modest to moderate talent and scant means trying to make their names in the 1880s. 

It’s not a pretty tale. The men with the most talent (Edwin Reardon and possibly Harold Biffen) are destroyed by poverty, as is an intelligent but horribly selfish literary critic, Alfred Yule. The most successful of the bunch is a hack writer, Jasper Milvain, a shallow fellow who pursues money at all cost, seeking the ultimate jackpot of a wealthy wife. The women (Amy Yule Reardon, Marian Yule, and Maud and Dora Milvain) are mainly downtrodden creatures whose happiness and well-being are dependent on whether or not they have men who can provide for them or inheritances that can be used to secure husbands. The theme appears to be that contentment is not possible without money. Although it’s a crass view of the world, the point is well demonstrated. As the novel drew to a close, I kept waiting for a reversal that would be somehow redemptive. Instead, it became apparent that the good people would be crushed and the not-very-good people would succeed by becoming truly awful people. It was agonizingly realistic. The lack of a pat, emotionally satisfying ending is what made the book so powerful.

Despite being written over a hundred years ago, the novel resonates with today’s issues around what constitutes “good” vs. popular literature, the reliability of journalism, and the dumbing-down effect of “mass media.” The explorations of the psyches of the main characters are fascinating. The story pulls the reader in slowly, but the plot builds and interweaves until it is hard to put down. There are startling flashes of wit and numerous clever passages that I wanted to read out loud to whoever was nearby (no doubt annoying my family.) 

I love books about writers. This one reminded me of Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac, though that was based in France in the early nineteenth century. They are both superb classics.

The novel is still in print in various “classics editions” and I was able to get an ebook copy from my library. If this is your sort of thing, it isn’t hard to find!

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