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Monday, 6 January 2014

Book Review: New Grub Street by George Gissing

New Grub Street is a biting analysis of literary London in the late nineteenth century. First published in 1891, it tells the story of a group of writers and their dependants. Jasper Milvain fashions himself as a 'modern' literary man, someone who will turn his hand to anything and fully expects it to be forgotten as soon as it has been read. He aims for financial success, not literary merit. In sharp opposition to him is his face, Edwin Reardon, a man of considerable talent who has faded under the grip of poverty. He cannot write well and so does not want to write at all. His wife, Amy, despairs of what she sees as his inability to try and a break emerges between them. In addition to this trio, other important characters in the novel include Milvain's sisters, Maud and Dora, who move to London when their mother dies and try to support themselves writing fiction, Harold Biffen, another impoverished writer, and the Yule family. Amy's cousin, Marian, catches Jasper's eye early in the novel but her poverty repels him. Marian has been helping her father, Alfred, research and write for years and dislikes her life. Both Amy and Marian live in the hope of a small legacy from their paternal uncle which would alleviate their stresses.

The main characters in this novel are easily distinguishable, though occasionally the supporting cast of names can get a little confusing. But, for the most part, this novel is about Milvain and Reardon and their differing fortunes. The depiction of Milvain towards the end of the book is very clever: although his star has risen, there's the sense that something is missing from his life. This provides an ambiguous conclusion to a life where everything has been decided on businesslike terms.

For Reardon, life is completely different. Once he and Amy part, there is the sense of inevitability about his fate and perhaps Gissing dwells too much on his poverty. However, as a character, he serves to demonstrate that non-commercial writing, however brilliant, can lead to destitution. It's a stinging indictment of not only the literary world at the time but the public which gobbled up three volume novels of no substance and failed to appreciate the talent of 'real' storytellers. Harold Biffen is another casualty of such a system, putting much effort into a realist novel about a grocer with the full knowledge that the public will not read such a story. The dual fates of Reardon and Biffen are a sad by-product of the 'trade' of literature.

New Grub Street is an excellent, if ultimately depressing book. There are some scenes of humour - including a daring rescue from a burning building which perhaps should not be as amusing as it is - but, for the most part, it is bleak and unrelenting. No character is wholly good, in the same way that no character in wholly bad. Reardon's pride adds to the wounds inflicted by his literary failures and Biffen's sudden affection for a woman assists in his downfall. As I said above, Milvain may prosper but it may not bring him complete happiness. This is a book about fortune and about the 'trade' of literature, something as hotly debated now as it was a century ago. 

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