Wednesday, December 14, 2011
456. New Grub Street – George Gissing
History: This book was published in 1891, which is set in the literary and journalistic circles of 1880s London. revised and shortened the novel for a French edition of 1901.
Plot: The story deals with the literary world that Gissing himself had experienced. Its title refers to the London street, Grub Street, which in the 18th century became synonymous with hack literature; by Gissing's time, Grub Street itself no longer existed, though hack-writing certainly did. Its two central characters are a sharply contrasted pair of writers: Edwin Reardon, a novelist of some talent but limited commercial prospects, and a shy, cerebral man; and Jasper Milvain, a young journalist, hard-working and capable of generosity, but cynical and only semi-scrupulous about writing and its purpose in the modern (i.e. late Victorian) world.
New Grub Street opens with Milvain, an “alarmingly modern young man” driven by pure financial ambition in navigating his literary career. He accepts that he will “always despise the people [he] write[s] for,” networks within the appropriate social circle to create opportunity, and authors articles for popular periodicals. Reardon, on the other hand, prefers to write novels of a more literary bent and refuses to pander to contemporary tastes until, as a last-gasp measure against financial ruin, he attempts a popular novel. At this venture, he is of course too good to succeed, and he's driven to separate from his wife, Amy Reardon, née Yule, who cannot accept her husband’s inflexibly high standards--and consequent poverty.
The Yule family includes Amy’s two uncles—John, a wealthy invalid, and Alfred, a species of critic—and Alfred’s daughter, and research assistant, Marian. The friendship that develops between Marian and Milvain’s sisters, who move to London following their mother’s death, provides opportunity for the former to meet and fall in love with Milvain. However much Milvain respects Marian’s intellectual capabilities and strength of personality, the crucial element (according to him) for marriage is missing: money. Marrying a rich woman, after all, is the most convenient way to speed his career.
Life (and death) eventually end the possibility of this union. Milvain’s initial career advancement is a position on The Current, a paper edited by Clement Fadge. Twenty years earlier, Alfred Yule (Marian’s father) was slighted by Fadge in a newspaper article, and the resulting acerbic resentment extends even to Milvain. Alfred refuses to countenance Marian’s marriage; but his objection proves to be an obstacle to Milvain only after Yule’s eyesight fails and Marian’s legacy is reduced to a mere £1500. As a result, Marian must work to provide for her parent, and her inheritance is no longer available to Milvain.
By this time, Milvain already has detected a more desirable target for marriage: Amy Reardon. Reardon’s poverty and natural disposition toward ill-health culminate in his death following a brief reconciliation with his wife. She, besides the receipt of £10,000 upon John Yule’s death, has the natural beauty and grace to benefit a man in the social events beneficial to his career. Eventually Amy and Milvain marry; however, as the narrator reveals, this marriage motivated by circumstances is not lacking in more profound areas. Milvain, it is said, has married the woman he loves, although it should be noted that the narrator never states this as a fact, merely reporting it as something others have said about Milvain. In fact, in a conversation that ends the book, the reader is left to question whether Milvain is in fact haunted by his love for Marian, and his ungentlemanly actions in that regard.
Review: The situations, truths, and lives Gissing portrays are still all too relevant. "New Grub Street" itself points to the timelessness of Gissing's portrayals - as Grub Street was synonymous, even in the eighteenth century with the disrepute of hack writing, and the ignominy of having to make a living by authorship. One of Gissing's primary laments throughout the novel is that the life of the mind is of necessity one which is socially isolating and potentially devastating to any kind of relationships, familial or otherwise. "New Grub Street" gives us a world where friendship is never far from enmity, where love is never far from the most bitter kinds of hatred.
The anti-heroes of "New Grub Street" are presented to us as the novel begins - Jasper Milvain is a young, if somewhat impoverished, but highly ambitious man, eager to be a figure of influence in literary society at whatever cost. His friend, Edwin Reardon, on the other hand, was brought up on the classics, and toils away in obscurity, determined to gain fame and reputation through meaningful, psychological, and strictly literary fiction. Family matters beset the two - Jasper has two younger sisters to look out for, and Edwin has a beautiful and intelligent wife, who has become expectant of Edwin's potential fame. Throw into the mix Miss Marian Yule, daughter of a declining author of criticism, whose own reputation was never fully realized, and who has indentured his daughter to literary servitude, and we have a pretty list of discontented and anxious people struggling in the cut-throat literary marketplace of London.
Money is of supreme importance in "New Grub Street," and it would be pointless to write a review without making note of it. As always, the literary life is one which is not remunerative for the mass of people who engage upon it, and this causes no end of strife in the novel. As Milvain points out, the paradox of making money in the literary world is that one must have a well-known reputation in order to make money from one's labours. At the same time, one must have money in order to move in circles where one's reputation may be made. This is the center of the novel's difficulties - should one or must one sacrifice principles of strictly literary fame and pander to a vulgar audience in order to simply survive? The question is one in which Reardon finds the greatest challenges to his marriage, his self-esteem, and even his very existence. For Jasper Milvain and his sisters, as well as for Alfred and Marian Yule, there is no question that the needs of subsistence outweigh most other considerations.
"New Grub Street" profoundly questions the relevance of classic literature and high culture to the great mass of people, and by proxy, to the nation itself. For England, which propagated its sense of international importance throughout the nineteenth century by encouraging the study of English literature in its colonial holdings, the matter becomes one of great significance. The careers of Miss Dora Milvain and Mr. Whelpdale, easily the novel's two most charming, endearing, and sympathetic characters, attempt to illustrate the ways in which modern literature may be profitable to both the individual who writes it and the audiences towards which they aim. They may be considered the moral centers of the novel, and redeem Gissing's work from being entirely fatalistic.
Opening Line: “As the Milvains sat down to breakfast the clock of Wattleborough parish church struck eight; it was two miles away, but the strokes were borne very distinctly on the west wind this autumn morning.”
Closing Line: “So Amy played and then sang, and Jasper lay back in dreamy bliss.”
Quotes: “People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads — that one mustn't write save at I the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business.”