"The first time I read an excellent work, it is to me just as if I gained a new friend; and when I read over a book I have perused before, it resembles the meeting of an old one." -- George Gissing
George Robert Gissing ( — the g in his surname is hard; 22 November 1857 — 28 December 1903) was an English novelist who wrote twenty-three novels between 1880 and 1903. From his early naturalistic works, he developed into one of the most accomplished realists of the late-Victorian era.
"Flippancy, the most hopeless form of intellectual vice.""For the man sound of body and serene of mind there is no such thing as bad weather; every day has its beauty, and storms which whip the blood do but make it pulse more vigorously.""Have the courage of your desire.""It is because nations tend towards stupidity and baseness that mankind moves so slowly; it is because individuals have a capacity for better things that it moves at all.""It is the mind which creates the world around us, and even though we stand side by side in the same meadow, my eyes will never see what is beheld by yours, my heart will never stir to the emotions with which yours is touched.""Money is time. With money I buy for cheerful use the hours which otherwise would not in any sense be mine; nay, which would make me their miserable bondsman.""Persistent prophecy is a familiar way of assuring the event.""That is one of the bitter curses of poverty; it leaves no right to be generous.""Time is money says the proverb, but turn it around and you get a precious truth. Money is time."
Gissing was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, to lower-middle class parents. A brilliant student, he won a scholarship to Owens College, the present day University of Manchester. He excelled at university, winning many coveted prizes, including the Shakespeare prize in 1875, but his academic career ended in disgrace when he fell in love with a young prostitute, Marianne Helen Harrison. In an attempt to keep her from the streets he gave her money, and when his own funds ran short he began to steal from his fellow students. Eventually he was caught, expelled from the university, and prosecuted for theft; he was sentenced to one month's hard labour in prison.
In October 1876, thanks largely to a few local sympathisers, he was shipped off to the United States, where, when close to starvation, he managed to earn a precarious living by writing short stories for the Chicago Tribune.
On returning to England in the autumn of 1877, Gissing married Marianne, and settled down in London to write novels. His first book, Workers in the Dawn, was published at his own expense in 1880; it was a complete failure, and Gissing took up private tutoring to support himself and his wife, who by now had become an alcoholic. In 1883 the couple separated, but he gave her a weekly income on what little money he had until her death from drink in 1888.
In 1884 his second novel, The Unclassed, which saw a marked improvement in style and characterisation, met with moderate critical acclaim. After this Gissing published new novels almost every year, but for several years more would earn very little money from his writing (he was notoriously exploited by his publishers, seldom making money from each book beyond a flat fee paid for the copyright). Most of his early novels — among them Demos (1886), Thyrza (1887) and The Nether World (1889) — dealt with poverty and the working classes, as seen at first hand by Gissing in his life with Nell. In 1888—89 he spent several months in Italy; his next novel, The Emancipated, was a story of free-thinking English expatriates.
Between 1891 and 1897 Gissing produced his most notable works, which include New Grub Street, Born in Exile, The Odd Women, In the Year of Jubilee, and The Whirlpool. In advance of their time, they variously deal with the growing commercialism of the literary market, religious charlatanism, and the situation of emancipated women in a male-dominated society. During this period he also produced almost seventy short stories, having become aware of the financial rewards of writing short fiction for the press. As a result he was able to give up teaching.
In February 1891 he had married another working-class woman, Edith Underwood, and moved with her to Exeter. They had two children together (Walter Leonard and Alfred Charles Gissing), but the marriage was far from successful. Edith understood nothing of her husband's work and was prone to fits of temper and violence. After several more moves, Gissing separated from her in 1897, leaving his two sons with his sisters in Wakefield; in 1902, Edith was certified insane. During this difficult period of his life he met and befriended Clara Collet. She was quite probably in love with him, although it is unclear whether he reciprocated. They remained friends for the rest of his life and after his death she helped to support both Edith and the children.
The middle years of the decade saw Gissing's reputation reach new heights: by some critics he is counted alongside George Meredith and Thomas Hardy as one of the best three novelists of his day. He also enjoyed new friendships with fellow writers such as Henry James, and H.G. Wells, and came into contact with many other up and coming writers such as Joseph Conrad and Stephen Crane. He made a second trip to Italy in 1897—1898, and also visited Greece. Towards the end of the nineties his health declined — he was eventually diagnosed with emphysema — so that he had to stay at a sanatorium from time to time. In 1898 he met Gabrielle Fleury, a Frenchwoman who had sought his permission to translate New Grub Street, and fell in love with her. The following year they took part in a private marriage ceremony in Rouen, even though Gissing had been unable to obtain a divorce from Edith, and from then on they lived in France as a couple.
In 1903 Gissing published The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, which brought him much acclaim. This is his most autobiographical work. It is the memoir of the last happy years of a writer who had struggled much like Gissing, but thanks to a late legacy had been able to give up writing to retire to the countryside.
Gissing died from the effects of emphysema at the age of forty-six on 28 December 1903 after having caught a chill on an ill-advised winter walk. At his death he left one unfinished novel, Veranilda, which is set in Rome during the sixth century. Gissing is buried in the English cemetery at Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Gissing is given prominent space in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. Gissing's conservatism was rooted in his aristocratic sensibility. After a brief flirtation with socialism in his youth, Gissing quickly lost faith in the labour movements and scorned the popular enthusiasms of his day. In 1892, he wrote to his sister Ellen, "I fear we shall live through great troubles yet...We cannot resist it, but I throw what weight I may have on the side of those who believe in an aristocracy of brains, as against the brute domination of the quarter-educated mob." In The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Gissing reflected: "To think I once called myself a socialist, communist, anything you like of the revolutionary kind! Not for long, to be sure, and I suspect there was always something in me that scoffed when my lips uttered such things."
Gissing's younger brother, Algernon Gissing (1860—1937), was also a novelist. His books include A Masquerader (1892), At Society's Expense (1894) and The Dreams of Simon Usher (1907). He is remembered today mainly in relation to his brother's life and career.