George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street (free for Kindle) is an angry, biting, brilliant, but slow-moving novel about writers grappling with a changing literary environment in late 19th-century England, faced with a growing dichotomy between serious literary work and lowbrow work that is more commercially viable. It appears on the Bloomsbury 100 and is an honorable mention in The Novel 100. Its title refers to the defunct Grub Street in London, which had become synonymous with hack writing by the time of this novel’s publication.
The two central characters, friends yet rivals, are Jasper Milvain, the materialistic, ambitious writer who thinks of writing as a trade rather than an art; and Edwin Reardon, a poor, married father who sees himself as an artist but struggles with writer’s block, perhaps brought on by the pressure of having to support a family and live up to his own expectations of himself.
Milvain – I’m assuming the “vain” part of his name is not a coincidence – is naked in his ambition, an English Julien Sorel (but less witless), and talks incessantly about his plans to further his writing career, including tricks like reviewing the same book with different opinions for multiple publications. He also seeks a profitable marriage to a woman with capital and who would make a suitable mate for him in nouveau literary circles, a goal that has him proposing marriage to a new legatee, Marian Yule, only to find him regretting the act when her fortune disappears before she can inherit it. His interest in romantic love is as limited as his concern for literary merit in his output:
“I care very little about titles; what I look to is intellectual distinction.” (Jasper)
“Combined with financial success.” (his sister, Dora)
“Why, that is what distinction means.”
Reardon, on the other hand, is Gissing’s equivalent to the nameless narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, poor (although not quite starving), with two published novels, neither of which sold well, the latter of which was less well-received by critics than the former, now facing reduced circumstances if he can’t complete and sell another work. His wife, Amy, loves him but grows exasperated with his self-defeating attitude; as their money troubles grow, their bickering becomes a quarrel that leads to separation, while Edwin convinces himself that Amy is withholding affection and also finds himself without love for their son, Willie.
Milvain and Reardon’s diverging paths are set against the contrast of two other secondary characters who follow more extreme versions of the same careers. Whelpdale is as ambitious as Milvain, yet far more sentimental, and succeeds in business through hard work and good character; Biffen, on the other hand, is a true starving artist, hard at work on a magnum opus that is, of course, unreadable, the completion of which leaves him without a purpose in life (and with almost no profit for his labors).
Jasper is far from sympathetic, but he’s the book’s most interesting character because he is in constant motion, scheming to push himself forward, making and breaking alliances as needed, playing both ends of an argument for his own gain. He views himself as worldly, yet shows a comical ignorance of the lives of those who lack his advantages:
“I always feel it rather humiliating,” said Jasper, “that I have gone through no very serious hardships. It must be so gratifying to say to young fellows who are just beginning: ‘Ah, I remember when I was within an ace of starving to death,’ and then come out with Grub Street reminiscences of the most appalling kind. Unfortunately, I have always had enough to eat.”
His plotting extends to his two sisters, Maud and Dora, pushing them to earn their livings through writing and to make advantageous matches; Maud is the silly girl, falling for a wealthy cad who is bound to disappoint her, but Dora, Gissing’s best secondary character here, is a very modern, progressive woman for that era; she sees her brother as superficial and isn’t afraid to openly mock him for it. Gissing narrates in the third-person, as he must to track all of these storylines, but Dora would have been an excellent choice for a first-person narrator and serves some of that role on a limited basis when she frames Jasper’s more absurd outbursts.
Gissing was an early proponent of naturalism in literature, using highly detailed, realistic language and settings to criticize the social order of the day, from the declining recognition of literature as art to the constraints of Victorian morality. When Amy and Edwin separate but can’t easily divorce, she raises this criticism of the difficulty of divorce for the lower classes:
“Isn’t it a most ridiculous thing that married people who both wish to separate can’t do so and be quite free again?” (Amy)
“I suppose it would lead to all sorts of troubles – don’t you think?” (Edith)
“So people say about every new step in civilization.”
English society survived, of course, and Amy’s/Gissing’s observation about doomsayers remains relevant today. New Grub Street isn’t a protest novel per se, but the struggles of Reardon (the more autobiographical of the two central characters) offer up a complaint against the rising materialism of the era drawn from Gissing’s own experiences as a starving young writer while foreshadowing Gissing’s own marriage to a woman who didn’t appreciate him as an artist.
Where New Grub Street falls short is in narrative greed. Novels about writers or writing tend to be light on action – will he finish the book? will she have enough to pay the rent? are not the sort of questions to keep the pages turning, and only Gissing’s heavy use of dialogue kept the pacing up. I’ve read a handful of novels about writers, the best of which was probably Dawn Powell’s The Wicked Pavilion, an ensemble novel that sends up all manner of artists and the rich philistines who fund them.
Next up: Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, an alternate-history work about the rise of a American fascist politician leading up to the 1936 election.