Sunday, March 20, 2016

New Grub Street by George Gissing

I'm really trying no read as many as my own books as possible this year, so I picked New Grub Street by George Gissing as my Classic the a Place Name in the Title for my current read. (Also one of the last nine books on my Classics Club list -- a win/win!).

Basically, this is the story of how awful it was to be an unsuccessful or mildly successful writer in late 19th century London. Published in 1891, it follows several families: Jasper Milvain, a somewhat cynical and opportunistic journalist and writer, and his two sisters, Dora and Maud; the bitter Alfred Yule and his wife and grown daughter, Marian; and Marian's cousin Amy Reardon, and her husband Edwin, a semi-successful novelist on a downward spiral.

All three of these families are dealing with the financial difficulties of supporting one's family as a writer, to varying degrees. Alfred married a woman he considered beneath himself, and blames her for his not getting ahead among the society of writers. His daughter Marian is talented and does a lot of her father's research and some writing of her own, but rarely gets the credit for it. Alfred dreams  of editing his own literary journal, but lacks funds or connections. 

Edwin Reardon showed early promise, and after a legacy left him temporarily flush with cash, married the beautiful Amy. Now that they have a small child and money is tight, Amy doesn't want to economize and the subsequent stress over finances is causing Edwin to lose focus on his writing. 

Jasper is attracted to Marian, who seems his intellectual match, but he cynically believes that he needs a wealthy wife to help him get ahead in literary society. His sisters have become friendly with Marian but are also aware of their brother's character and ambition. Also, Alfred Yule is convinced that Jasper wrote an unflattering piece about him, so he is persona non grata. Their lives all intertwine in the literary London of the early 1890s, and the action really picks up after Alfred's brother dies, and his will changes the lives of these three families. 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. George Gissing isn't nearly as popular as Dickens or Hardy or even Trollope -- he wrote 23 novels but as far as I can tell, only three of them are in print anymore. Gissing's writer is quite easy to read, and his characters were really well developed -- I found myself really rooting for some and booing others as the story progressed. Parts of it were quite sad, as these starving writers struggle to churn out enough pages to keep from being thrown into the workhouse and splitting up their families. Gissing makes some really good points about women writers. There were some really dramatic bits and in the end, I wanted to strangle one of the characters (though I wasn't surprised one bit how his story was going to shake out). 

Overall, a very satisfying book, and it's giving me courage to try reading some of the more obscure Victorian writers. 


  1. I really liked this one too, although, as you said, it was very tragic. I would like to read Gissing's Odd Women but I have so many reads going on, so I can't see it happening soon. However, as far as Victorian lit goes, this book was one of the better ones.

    1. I have read The Odd Women, and it was good but tended toward the preachy. However, I give Gissing points for actually writing about the plight of single women in that era. There's another Gissing that's still in print called The Nether World, which sounds rather dire.

  2. I've only read Gissing's The Odd Women, so it's good to know what this book of his is about. I like reading about authors, so I might have to give this one a try. I think it's sad that Gissing is not better known. It sounds like maybe he should be.

  3. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this book. I read a lot of Gissing while working on my masters thesis and enjoyed him. You can find several of his books in cheap Dover editions if you do a little looking. While he's not "one of the greats" I've always found him enjoyable.


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