Thursday, August 30, 2012
New Grub Street by George Gissing
Writer's block, or at least the ability to write anything he could be proud of, was the beginning of the end for Edwin Reardon. It was a situation George Gissing was familiar with and according to his diary there were seven false starts to what would become New Grub Street. Then in a sudden burst of productivity the book was ready for the publisher in just over two months, hitting the shelves so to speak in 1891.
The view of Marylebone Workhouse haunts Reardon as he turns out what he considers to be bits of fluff to earn enough money for the rent due at Christmas. He yearns to write a stellar novel, one that will bring him fame and security but it's frustratingly beyond his reach. His wife, Amy, is desperate that he should make something of himself so she can hold her head up in society. Things are so bad that the Reardon's refuse dinner invitations from friends as reciprocating isn't an option. Exasperated, Amy resorts to spending ever more time at her mother's home as a way of saving on food. More down-at-heel members of the Grub Street fellowship drop by to commiserate with Edwin, each with a tale of woe about reduced savings and meagre shelter. At the mercy of their publishers they wait anxiously for white envelopes to be slipped under the door of their cheap garret rooms stating that a piece of writing is worth any paltry sum.
Meanwhile on the other side of the coin is Jasper Milvain, 'the clothes he wore were of expensive material, but had seen a good deal of service.' Employed as a journalist he casts his eye toward women with heavy purses and good prospects who will make the climb to a premier position all the easier for him. Alas, the Married Woman's Property Act has recently become law so Jasper won't have an easy time of gaining access to the purse strings of savvy women. His sisters, Maud and Dora, are encouraged to write but let's face it, any success they have will ease Jasper's financial burden for the duration of time they remain unmarried.
As always, the more London porn in a novel the better and New Grub Street has plenty. Many is the mile I've happily strolled around Bloomsbury but poor Reardon and his disillusioned friend, Biffen, have lost any sense of affection for the city...
'It's a huge misfortune, this will-o'-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains. They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness. The type of men capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical. If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be lived worthily.
'And the place where you are most likely to die in squalid wretchedness.'
There is little in the way of sugar-coated niceties about this book but there is plenty of page-turning drama. Which begs the question of why is it that production companies churn out numerous productions of the works of Austen and Dickens when there is such a work, rich in character and plot with story lines still relevant in today's world, found within these pages?
Many people died before the age of 50 during the Victorian era and Gissing succumbed to emphysyma at 46 in 1903 after catching a chill on an ill-advised walk during the winter. Eerily it was a fate he gave one of his own characters in the book. New Grub Street is every bit as wonderful as The Odd Women, one of my favourite books from the past year and I am desperate, yes desperate, to read another of his popular works, The Nether World.