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Archived Group Reads 2015 > New Grub Street Part 2 - Chapters VIII-XV

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message 1: by Pip (new)

Pip | 817 comments We're into our second week. I'm massively behind, but hope to catch up before the next section opens....

message 2: by Dee (new)

Dee | 129 comments I'm a bit ahead... Stayed up until 3am reading and just couldn't put this book down. It's been awhile since anything had me that hooked.

message 3: by Janice (new)

Janice | 37 comments Me too! Loving this book so far

message 4: by Peter (new)

Peter The marriage of Amy and Reardon sinks lower and lower. I wonder if the marriage can last under the strain. While Reardon' seems almost philosophical about his constant slippage into writer's block and despair, Amy seems to be exhibiting some frustration and embarrassment concerning their present circumstances and future prospects.

message 5: by Peter (new)

Peter In Chapter 14 Jasper says of his own writing "It's rubbish, but rubbish of a very special kind, of fine quality." I can't help but wonder on how many levels and to what degree of seriousness and reflection to reality I should take this comment.

To what extent is Gissing actually commenting on his own writing in general, and specifically of this book? I read that New Grub Street was written at a pace of 4000 words a day over a span of two months.

message 6: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments From what I have read, it is Edwin who is closer to Gissing's own impoverished life, not Jasper. Some of his writing was clearly rubbish but some was the work of genius. Indeed, can writing 4000 words a day produce genius? I rather think not and I see this work as far inferior to The Woman in White and The Moonstone.

message 7: by Janice (new)

Janice | 37 comments Madge wrote: "Indeed, can writing 4000 words a day produce genius?...."

Perhaps not genius but this book is enjoyable enough. One of the better Victoriana novels I've read, so far.

Writing 4000 words a day, of this quality, is admirable!

message 8: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Which Victorian novels have you read? Writing a novel and getting it published is admirable sure enough but quantity can drive out quality.

message 9: by Dee (last edited Jan 22, 2015 02:34AM) (new)

Dee | 129 comments Genius often had to toil away under difficult circumstances and managed to create masterpieces out of works pounded out to get the daily bread... I think Gissing's sympathies are with Edwin here, who may not be a genius but writes for the love of it and not the money. When it comes to Jasper, he's not portrayed as a dark character that's to be entirely hated, which makes me wonder if Gissing didn't have some sort of a dark admiration for Jasper's kind.

message 10: by Janice (new)

Janice | 37 comments Madge wrote: "Which Victorian novels have you read? Writing a novel and getting it published is admirable sure enough but quantity can drive out quality."

Quite a few. You can check out my Victoriana shelf. There are neo-Victorian novels in there too though.

I agree with that statement, but I don't think that NGS is lacking in quality.

message 11: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Domiika: I think Gissing would envy a Jasper more than admire him, because he aspired to greater things.

message 12: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments Janice wrote: "Perhaps not genius but this book is enjoyable enough. One of the better Victoriana novels I've read, so far.

Writing 4000 words a day, of this quality, is admirable! "

I'm not sure where that 4,000 words a day came from; he may have written that much some days, but according to the introduction to the Everyman edition, the novel is roughly 170,000 words, started on October 1 and finished on December 6, which is 67 days, or an average of about 2,500 words a day, closer to half of the 4,000 contention.

But irrelevant of the pace, I agree with you that it is quite acceptable, and in places very good, writing.

Other Victorian authors were also capable of quite fast writing. Dickens, when under deadline for a serial episode, was known to write very quickly. (He learned to write quickly when he was a Parliamentary reporter having to record the full text of speeches as they were being delivered.)

Trollope reports in his autobiography that he wrote for three hours each morning (from 5:30 to 8:30), and required himself to write 250 words every fifteen minutes; that's a rate of 1,000 words per hour, so that in his three hours of writing he produced more work than Gissing had to on an average day at the rate he wrote New Grub Street.

There have been plenty of prolific writers. Dame Barbara Cartland, in 80 years as a novelist, released one book every 40 days over that career. Given that she must have taken some time off for weddings, illness, vacations, or whatever, her average book probably took her not much more than a month. (She holds the Guiness Book of Records record for most novels written in a single year at 23.) Victorian age (but American) Colonel Prentiss Ingraham wrote over 600 novels over a 35 year writing career.

At the pace some of these writers wrote, Gissing was, if not a slowpoke, at least no speed demon.

But as I said, you're right that his writing was not only rapid, but often quite good.

message 13: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments In the art world, there is a clear distinction drawn (certainly by art critics and teachers if not by artists themselves) between fine art and commercial art. Gissing seems to be making the same distinction between literary writers and commercial writers, with a considerable emphasis, at least so far in the novel, on the commercial. I have to wonder whether at any point in the book we'll see a successful literary author, unless the unnamed apparently financially successful novelist who gave Reardon his signature for a readers ticket (Chapter 5) counts.

message 14: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments I loved the description, at the start of Chapter 8, of the various unsuitable marriages. Mr. Gorbutt, who "deemed himself a poet" (how many people did I know in my youth who fit that description perfectly!) and spent his money self-publishing an annual volume of poetry (I didn't have the sort of friends who could afford to do that, so they remained in the deemed but unpublished category). Mrs. Gorbutt thinking that she shouldn't have married a "man of letters," but should have held out for a tradesman. Mr. Christopherson, who reminded me of no one so much as Mr. Casaubon, working endlessly at a huge and profound book whch would eventually bring him fame.

And then that delightfully cynical "They had had three children; all were happily buried." Did Wilkie Collins ever write a sentence to match that?

message 15: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments I found myself nodding endlessly in agreement with Marian's musing on the futility of her life:

"One day at the end of the month she sat with books open before her, but by no effort could fix her attention upon them. ... Such profound discouragement possessed her that she could not even maintain the pretence of study; ... She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day's market. What unspeakable folly! "

How much writing today is exactly that. When there is far more -- I would say not just good but excellent -- literature in the world than any mortal could cope with, why do writers keep churning out thousands more books a year which lack any legitimate pretense to being as good as the existing excellent books already written?

"all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of theirs? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print—how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit!"

I could not have stated my view of the vast majority of contemporary literature any better.

Remarkable writing.

message 16: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 22, 2015 10:03PM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments The 4000 words a day, mentioned in several accounts of Gissing's writing, many of which would have been edited out before final publication, were necessary for the 'triple headed monster' criticised by Milvain in Chapter XV. Here is something about the three volume system which authors of that time laboured under (possible spoiler):


This system was thought by authors to lead to 'cultural degeneracy' and poor writing and by 1894 they had prevailed upon the publishers to end it. Although Gissing used it because he had to, as Edwin explains in Chapter XV, he disliked it and found it 'cumbersome'.

Comment in an article by the University of Iowa: 'Edwin Reardon's problems are in part ascribed to the circulating library system of novel distribution. By the mid-nineteenth century, the three volume novel had become dominant for economic reasons. A three volume novel cost 31s. 6d., far above the price an ordinary middle-class person could pay. Mudie's Circulating Library charged an annual fee for each volume borrowed at one time, so purchase of three subscriptions would have been needed to borrow an entire novel at once. Since many people could only afford to read one volume before exchanging it for another, the divisions between and within separate volumes had to be designed to take advantage of this tri-partite structure. This mode of publication encouraged padding and repetition, the adding of subplots, artificial conclusions to each volume, sensational plot elements, and relatively empty romance and adventure plots. When New Grub Street was translated into French in 1898 Gissing cut what he believed were superfluous conversations.'

message 17: by Tommi (new)

Tommi | 96 comments I wonder how much shorter and different many of our valued Victorian classics would be if they weren't set to the cumbersome format that even many authors didn't like!

On a related note, I'm finally getting my copy of the novel today, so I will be catching up with you. I tried an ebook with no success after three pages.

message 18: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 23, 2015 04:32PM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments The UoI piece said that after 1894 novels were much shorter, not surprisingly! Here is something about the economics of the three volume novel:

(Edited to correct link.)

message 19: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments Personally, I enjoy the longer novels which, when well written, have more space for plot and character development, complex multiple plots, and authorial interjections.

message 20: by Jana (new)

Jana Eichhorn | 26 comments My heart is just breaking over the way poverty is destroying Edwin and Amy's marriage. I would imagine that most of us have been there at one time or another, and, for me at least, it's painfully familiar. This is one of those moments when Victorian literature isn't so distant from current times, and a modern reader gets the sense of how people are always so similar, even over such reaches of time. We love, we fight, we struggle, we wonder if it's all worth it or if we should just give up. The amazing power of literature.

message 21: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments Jana wrote: "My heart is just breaking over the way poverty is destroying Edwin and Amy's marriage.... This is one of those moments when Victorian literature isn't so distant from current times,..."

There is a lot in this book that is very contemporary. You are right, that poverty is an incredible strain on marriage. This is particularly true for Edwin and Amy, as for many couples today, since they see friends and others of their class who are doing much better, and feel unable to socialize with their peers because of the inequality of resources.

I think Gissing's comments on the world of literature are also highly relevant to today, where it seems to me there are also a number of people who write not primarily for art's sake but primarily for the money they hope they will make by it.

message 22: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments I thought of you, Madge, when we're told of Reardon (in Chapter 9) "Description of locality, deliberate analysis of character or motive, demanded far too great an effort for his present condition. He kept as much as possible to dialogue; the space is filled so much more quickly, and at a pinch one can make people talk about the paltriest incidents of life."

(For those who don't know, Madge is not a fan of dialogue!)

But I'm not sure I agree with Gissing in this. I think it's easy to go off on scenery, settings, historical events, and the like and harder to write good dialogue, where if you do it well you have to make each character speak in their own voice and make what they say realistic and interesting.

message 23: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments Jana wrote: "This is one of those moments when Victorian literature isn't so distant from current times, "

Another aspect of their marriage in which this is true is inChnapter 9, when Reardon thinks "Their evenings together had never been the same since the birth of the child; Willie was always an excuse—valid enough—for Amy's feeling tired. The little boy had come between him and the mother, as must always be the case in poor homes, most of all where the poverty is relative....She grudged no trouble on behalf of the child. That was love; whereas—But then maternal love was a mere matter of course."

It isn't only in poor homes, though, I think where a young child supplants, to a sometimes lesser and sometimes greater degree, the husband in the mother's attention.

What is interesting is that the Reardons, poor as they are, still maintain a servant. I realize that servants were paid very minimally in those times, but still, they weren't free, and had to be fed and housed.

message 24: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments I love that phrase, at the start of Chapter 10, "teacup entertainment." It may be common in England, but I've never encountered it here in the States.

I take it to mean that they didn't have enough money to have friends over for a full meal, but could entertain the with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Have other people used the term before? Is there a different meaning to the phrase than that?

message 25: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments The saddest event so far, for me at least, is when Reardon had to sell some of his books, including ones obviously important to him because he had made notes in them. And then to have to confess to his friend that he had sold his better copy of Sophocles. (The Wunder Sophocles was, as near as I can tell, a translation into Latin, whereas the oxford Pocket Classics was presumably a translation into English.)

message 26: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 25, 2015 01:52AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Everyman wrote: "I thought of you, Madge, when we're told of Reardon (in Chapter 9) "Description of locality, deliberate analysis of character or motive, demanded far too great an effort for his present condition. ..."

Yes, dialogue can be realistic but as Gissing notes, much of it was used for padding in the 3 volume system and was trivial, just as many ordinary conversations are. This is a good example of Gissing's descriptive writing which I think conveys more than any conversation:

'For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration.  A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings. .....His excessive meagreness would all but have qualified him to enter an exhibition in the capacity of living skeleton, and the garments which hung upon this framework would perhaps have sold for three-and-sixpence at an old-clothes dealer's. '

I just prefer the narrative of a good storyteller like, say, Homer, to 'he said she said'. I prefer a storyteller in the living room of my mind to a group of people engaged in conversation. Also, I find too many quotation marks on the page untidy and distracting, it jars. For me good narrative is meatier and flows better. But it is horses for courses, as ever.

message 27: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 25, 2015 01:32AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments At the beginning of Chapter 10 I think Gissing was making a distinction between dinner parties and tea parties, both of which were very popular in Victorian times but the former were mixed gatherings and the latter for women only. Taking tea with friends ('tea-cup entertainment') was quite a formal occasion which varied in expense depending on the time of day and what was eaten with the tea but the most usual was afternoon tea at around 4pm. Only simple refreshments were served at an afternoon tea.  Thin slices of bread and butter, small sandwiches (cucumber sandwiches were a favourite), fancy biscuits or cake, were offered.  Punch and lemonade (but no wine of any kind) might be added, and also salted almonds, sweets (candies), and other dainties.

The china used was also a mark of both class and wealth. You could impress with good tea served in expensive elaborate china without serving food and this may have been how Amy's mother entertained.

It was also common for girls to be given a china tea set (I still have mine!) with which to entertain their dolls, like this:

Alas, afternoon tea in the home is now out of fashion but several London hotels (the Ritz, Claridges, Langhams) serve it in Victorian style and it is popular for celebrating special occasions. My children took me to Claridges for my 80th and I took my mother to the Ritz for hers:)

message 28: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Amy's snobbery was revealed at the beginning of Chap 10:

' of her strongest motives in marrying him was the belief that he would achieve distinction. At the time she doubtless thought of his coming fame only – or principally – as it concerned their relations to each other; her pride in him was to be one phase of her love. Now she was well aware that no degree of distinction in her husband would be of much value to her unless she had the pleasure of witnessing its effect upon others; she must shine with reflected light before an admiring assembly.'

She was perhaps thinking of an admiring assembly at a dinner party rather than at an afternoon tea table!

message 29: by Dee (new)

Dee | 129 comments Jana wrote: "My heart is just breaking over the way poverty is destroying Edwin and Amy's marriage

The part where Edwin had nightmares, and Amy heard him talking in his sleep and asking for money like a beggar, absolutely killed me.

This novel, and its descriptions of turning out writing for money, reminded me of a few websites for freelancers these days and how they offer really pathetic payments for articles meant only to generate more traffic to their websites.

Not a lot of description in this book, but the dialoque doesn't make it any less realistic for me. A few times I felt I was eavesdropping on very private conversations that I shouldn't have heard.

message 30: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments Dominika wrote: " A few times I felt I was eavesdropping on very private conversations that I shouldn't have heard. "

Which is one mark of a good novelist, isn't it?

message 31: by Helen_in_the_uk (new)

Helen_in_the_uk | 109 comments I am really enjoying this novel even though the characters all have a sad and difficult existence. The Yules are victims of circumstance and Mr Yule's temper and bullying nature; the Reardon's are victims of Edwin's seeming inability to write anything commercial and the resultant poverty; the Milvain sisters are stuggling to survive without resorting to governessing and their brother Jasper, who seems to be the most hopeful character, although he now has the pressure of being the sole provider for himself and (to some extent) supporting his sisters.

Edwin blames much of his inability to write well upon the weight of responsibility in providing for his family. With Jasper's change of circumstances how will his experience contrast with Edwin's? It will be interesting to see how the characters progress :)

message 32: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments Helen_in_the_uk wrote: "I am really enjoying this novel even though the characters all have a sad and difficult existence. "

Difficult, definitely, except perhaps for the unnamed novelist. I'm not sure I would agree with sad in all cases, though in many certainly (do you consider Jasper sad, or his existence sad?).

What is interesting is seeing how differently they all deal with their situations, which ones are weighted down by it, which ones just endure lives of quiet desperation, which ones take arms against a sea of troubles.

message 33: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 29, 2015 12:31AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments In the 1948 essay referred to elsewhere by Everyman, Orwell has some interesting things to say about Gissing and NGS (which is well worth reading but contains spoilers). It begins:

'In the shadow of the atomic bomb it is not easy to talk confidently about progress. However, if it can be assumed that we are not going to be blown to pieces in about ten years' time, there are many reasons, and George Gissing's novels are among them, for thinking that the present age is a good deal better than the last one....already the London of which he wrote seems almost as distant as that of Dickens. It is the fog-bound, gas-lit London of the ‘eighties, a city of drunken puritans, where clothes, architecture and furniture had reached their rock-bottom of ugliness, and where it was almost normal for a working-class family of ten persons to inhabit a single room. On the whole Gissing does not write of the worst depths of poverty, but one can hardly read his descriptions of lower-middle-class life, so obviously truthful in their dreariness, without feeling that we have improved perceptibly on that black-coated, money-ruled world of only sixty years ago.'

Later he writes that Reardon's wife is a 'silly snob' and that : 'Women of refinement and sensibility [would] not face poverty. And here one notices again the deep difference between that day and our own. Doubtless Gissing is right in implying all through his books that intelligent women are very rare animals, and if one wants to marry a women who is intelligent and pretty, then the choice is still further restricted, according to a well-known arithmetical rule. It is like being allowed to choose only among albinos, and left-handed albinos at that. But what comes out in Gissing's treatment of his odious heroine, and of certain others among his women, is that at that date the idea of delicacy, refinement, even intelligence, in the case of a woman, was hardly separable from the idea of superior social status and expensive physical surroundings. The sort of woman whom a writer would want to marry was also the sort of woman who would shrink from living in an attic. When Gissing wrote New Grub Street that was probably true, and it could, I think, be justly claimed that it is not true today.'

I don't think I agree with Orwell here, I think women will always shrink from living in poverty because it is likely to mean that their children will suffer poverty too. Social surveys show that women instinctively look for healthy 'good providers'. Also, were intelligent women rare then or was it that their lack of education did not allow them to flourish? Were many of them lights hiding under bushels? It seems to me that it could take as much intelligence to survive in poverty as to live in comfort. Those women who brought up large families successfully in the slums of London surely exhibited as much, if not more, intelligence than those living in middle class homes with one or two children. Perhaps Amy's middle class upbringing did not give her the intelligence to survive well in poverty.

message 34: by Dee (last edited Jan 29, 2015 01:46AM) (new)

Dee | 129 comments Just to throw it out there, I've seen studies that show how the countries with the lowest average IQs are also some of the world's poorest. This doesn't of course mean that poor people are stupid, but it shows how things like childhood nutrition have a profound effect on development. Malnourished children are more likely to have lower IQs, and if we're talking about Gissing's London then the women raising large families in the slums probably grew up malnourished, couldn't attend school... They were damned from the start, so to speak, and while they had "street smarts" and could run the house, they weren't likely to be as "intellectual" as middle class women could be, if they had such ambitions. Or, they just had to fight a lot harder if they wanted to be.

message 35: by Renee, Moderator (new)

Renee M | 1861 comments Mod
I enjoyed this section much more than the first, due to the way Gissing has portrayed Reardon and his struggles to make a living at writing. The frustrating, demoralizing, emasculating effects of his failure rang very true. As did the scenes between Reardon and his writer buddies.

But I'm unimpressed by Gissing's portrayal of the female characters. And even of Milvain. They are without depth and seem to reflect a narrow scope on the part of their creator. Perhaps even a self-indulgent scope, if Reardon is based on Gissing himself.

message 36: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Is IQ a good measure though? Other tests now take cultural differences into account because it has been found that ethnic minorities could not answer some of the western biased questions in IQ tests. Not attending school does not mean you are less intelligent just that you may not know all of the things taught at school. Surviving in a difficult environment is probably just as good a test of intelligence as, say, passing examinations. Knowing the names and uses of all the plants and herbs around you may need as much intelligence as a botany exam for instance. Knowing how to cook requires more intelligence than buying food from a shop.

message 37: by Renee, Moderator (new)

Renee M | 1861 comments Mod
And, yes, to both Madge and Dominika. Both Gissing and Orwell seem guilty of making bold judgement without looking beyond the surface. How easy to accept that the undernourished and undereducated are somehow weaker/ stupider/less valuable than those who have better advantage.

message 38: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 29, 2015 04:23AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Some interesting comments on IQ testing here:

One of the problems of living in a culture which assumed God 'ordered your estate' was that not much thought was given to the manmade causes of poverty or lack of intelligence. Women in particular were thought to be of less worth and both Gissing and Orwell reflect this view, which women in the West have only recently been able to overcome. The glass ceilings which Victorian and Edwardian women laboured under were much thicker than ours:(

message 39: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments I must say that I'm getting a bit annoyed with Amy. Maybe she thought she was getting a successful man, but what ever happened to "for better for worse"? Just because he isn't so far, financially successful, is that any reason to put him down the way she does?

message 40: by Renee, Moderator (new)

Renee M | 1861 comments Mod
Heheh. My theory is that Gissing just got dumped.

message 41: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 30, 2015 02:46AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Gissing's life and prospects collapsed in ruins when he was imprisoned for stealing money from the students' cloakroom at his college. The money was for Nell Harrison, a young prostitute with whom he was infatuated and whom he married.

Gissing's marriage was desperately unhappy. His wife was a drunkard and intermittently returned to prostitution. Eventually he paid her to live apart from him. She died, of drink and syphilis, early in 1888 and the account in his diary of being called to identify her body in a room in a Lambeth slum is said to be one of Gissing's most moving passages.

The 'secret' of his imprisonment affected his relations with women. Although he was attractive to and attracted by women, he believed no woman of his own kind could possibly be content to share his impoverished life and shame.

Therefore in portraying Amy as a girl from a wealthy, middle class background unable to put up with Edwin's failure, Gissing is writing about something he believed would be the case for a struggling writer.

Amy was fortunate in that she and Willie could go back to her wealthy mother. How far should 'for better or for worse' be taken if the health and welfare of your child is affected? Starving in a garret to uphold your marriage vows may be OK for a wife but should it be inflicted upon a child/children?


message 42: by Bharathi (new)

Bharathi (bharathi14) | 158 comments This is my two cents. Amy was I think, looking for a successful man to marry. That Reardon was an author whose books were better than the ordinary ones, made her think that he was that man and so married him. But if she really wanted to raise herself, she could have done so. She was educated, and could have done what Marian did, help write scholarly articles or have done what Milvain's sisters did, write something for the mass public.
Again this is assuming that these options were available.
I also think she had no big understanding of her husband's situation or necessities. She could have done a thousand tiny things, gone to the Carter's party for example, It could have provided conversation and color to their somewhat dreary life. These would have been support to Reardon. Maybe his inspiration would not have dried up then.

message 43: by Dee (new)

Dee | 129 comments I don't think Amy's main concern, when faced with a move to Islington, was ever her child's welfare. Words like "humiliation" were repeated over and over again, and she most of all feared what her friends and social circle would think... I don't see her at all as a concerned mother, rather as a gold-digger and social climber. I doubt she even valued literature. She was one of those who reads to look smart at dinner parties. I really hated her.

If she was allegedly so concerned about her child, she could have worked herself to help provide for the family. But that, again, would have been "humiliating."

message 44: by Renee, Moderator (new)

Renee M | 1861 comments Mod
Of course, that is according to the writer, George Gissing, projecting his poor opinion of women onto his character.

message 45: by Dee (last edited Jan 31, 2015 04:48AM) (new)

Dee | 129 comments That may be true... I know Gissing has been criticized for his misogyny, but then again I take books as they are at face value and analyse them myself. I don't often consider the author's personal biases when reading them. If I did, I would have never picked up Dostoyevsky, who hated Polish people. But he's my favourite writer anyways.

When it comes to Gissing, don't you think there are positive female characters who are portrayed in a good light, like Marian or Jasper's sister?

Here's an interesting article about how Gissing has a "mixed record" when it comes to the topic of women:


message 46: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 31, 2015 05:05AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Gissing was a Social Darwinist when it came to women and the lower classes. The Social Darwinist argument was that the very lowest classes were irredeemably hopeless, and that any intervention in their miserable lives would be entirely pointless.  Gissing believed that class was an indelible mark, and that any attempt to rise above one’s station in life would end in disappointment, or worse.

Darwin wrote that 'the chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man's attaining to a higher eminence in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, merely the use of the senses of the hands'. On the other hand Alfred Wallace, the codiscoverer of the theory of evolution, argued that if women were freed from financial dependence on men, their mental potentials would soon become fully realized. They would be 'regenerators of the entire race'. This was also the view of the early 18C feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft who believed that women were too dependent upon men and that education would liberate them.

These conflicting views about women were prevalent in Victorian society and it seems as if Gissing's acceptance of Darwin's ideas were in conflict with the way in which in his personal life he tried to rescue two 'fallen women' by marrying and trying to educate them. He wrote that 'More than half the misery of life is due to the ignorance and childishness of women. The average woman pretty closely resembles, in all intellectual considerations, the average male idiot – I speak medically. That state of things is traceable to the lack of education, in all senses of the word', so he at least tried to practice what he preached.

message 47: by Dee (last edited Jan 31, 2015 05:51AM) (new)

Dee | 129 comments It's interesting how Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Revolution and was hardly an enemy of the working class, absolutely adored Gissing. A bit of an apologist:

"Having been obliged to live among them, [Gissing] regarded the working class as savages, and in saying so he was merely being intellectually honest; he did not see that they were capable of becoming civilised if given slightly better opportunities. But, after all, what one demands from a novelist is not prophecy, and part of the charm of Gissing is that he belongs so unmistakably to his own time, although his time treated him badly."

I never once thought "what a disgusting mysogynist" while reading this novel. If Amy was a greedy social climber, then so was Jasper. I thought what I took as the novel's assault on capitalism was much juicier. Was it Marx who said that the bourgeoisie destroy art? The middle classes, like Jasper, reduce everything to money, and it's the artists that create anything of artistic value who suffer - because if the public isn't pleased enough to fork out money for it, then society deems it useless. And what does society value? Those little collections of tidbits and trivia that one of the characters writes and puts together to be read on train journeys. Gissing wrote about all of that in a brilliant and very sarcastic tone, which I loved.

message 48: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 2531 comments Dominika wrote: "It's interesting how Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Revolution and was hardly an enemy of the working class, absolutely adored Gissing. A bit of an apologist:

"Having been obliged to live among..."

Nice comment. While Gissing may indeed have been a social Darwinist (though I'm wary of labels like that because it's too easy to use them pigeonhole people into narrow slots that are almost always too simplistic to contain complex people), I didn't see that in this book, just as you didn't think of him as a disgusting misogynist.

Like you, I like to take a book of face value and not try to restrain or restrict its message by labels that some people would like to put on it based on what they know, or think they know, about the author. Some of the most disgusting people wrote some of the best books, poetry, and music in the world; some of the nicest wrote some of the worst. It's the art that matters to me more than the biography of the artist.

message 49: by Madge UK (last edited Jan 31, 2015 11:59PM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 140 comments Social Darwinism can be seen in most Victorian novels if you know anything about it it therefore know what you are looking for. I do not think you can divorce the life experiences and opinions of a writer from what he/she writes. None of us are a blank slate and writers bring their life experiences to their art either consciously or subconsciously. Gissing has been praised for his depictions of lower class life at its sleazier end but he could not have written about that so convincingly had he not also lived it. We would be foolish to believe the descriptions of, say, prostitution written by someone who had neither experienced nor investigated that life, so we cannot say that biography does not affect art. Whether or not they are nice or nasty people may be irrelevant but an artist's life experiences are not.

Gissing's experience of poverty make his words 'ring true', more so than with an author from a wealthy background and critics have pointed this out. Gissing's stated views on class and women must have inevitably informed his writing. Indeed 'The Woman Question' is something which affects all Victorian writing and we cannot properly understand the writing of the period without taking this into consideration. This is not labelling, it is enlightening and knowing about such things enhances not restricts our understanding of any writing.

The same goes for other forms of art. Could 'Mr Turner' have painted those wonderful seascapes without spending hours looking at the sea, even going to the length of having himself tied to the mast of a ship during a storm? Do we not 'believe' his seas more than we would those of an artist who spent more of his time in the countryside? Could a Constable paint better seascapes than a Turner or a Turner paint better hay wains than a Constable?

message 50: by Dee (new)

Dee | 129 comments I suppose the best way to read Gissing and all Victorians is to find the golden mean: novels can't be read in an absolute vacuum, because in many ways they reflect the societies and ideas of their time and should be judged accordingly. But we can't let labels, a few unsavory quotes and the author's personal life and his failings cloud our judgment, either. Gissing, and his views on women, should be judged according to his time, and not ours. How many Victorians can really be called "feminists" by today's standards, anyways? This was a time when suffragettes were attacked by men and women alike, imprisoned and force-fed, and if you want a real flesh-and-blood feminist who believed in the rights most of us hold as obvious today, like the women's right to birth control, then you'd have to look towards the far-left and figures like Emma Goldman.

I can't approach Gissing as simply a "woman hater," but as an author whose novels reflect the dilemmas and questions of his time. How did the Victorian feminists see Gissing? I've been reading about him, and the more I've been reading the more of a complex figure he's turning out to be. To pigeonhole him as a mysogynist who depicted women in a bad light because of his own failed marriage with a prostitute is to oversimplify his long career as a novelist and his often contradictory views on feminist issues. He was engaged in the feminist dialogue of his time, not simply anti-feminist. Gissing was friends with Colette and the feminists of his day, attended their meetings and in his novel Odd Women focused on the plight of single women and their struggles in a patriarchal society. And ultimately, their inability to overcome male dominance. A review of the novel, from Gissing's time, says:

"His book represents the Woman question made flesh; his people live it instead of talking it. His method is to take types that represent the question, or rather the fact, in all its divagations – the old love marriage, the marriage of convenience, the womanly old-maid, the emancipated woman and all the rest; then to make them in a purely natural way develop that side of themselves that bears on the position of women in the society of to-day."

Can he be blamed for simply telling us how it was? If Victorian women were childish and idiotic because a patriarchal society and a failed education system made them so, then isn't Gissing pointing out what women themselves of that day have said? How could women possibly have demanded equality in the public sphere without demanding an equal right to the opportunities and education that males received as a matter of course?

"Bizarre though it may seem, he was a feminist, despising women as they were, certain that emancipation and education would make them the equal of men." (source:

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