New Grub Street – George Gissing (1891)

After having found a beautiful 1930 edition of New Grub Street and based on the opinion of one of my more well-read friends, I picked this up a couple of years ago. As part of my ongoing quest to read more classics, this was pulled off the shelf.

I really knew very little about either Gissing or this book before reading it, so did some initial research during my read as I find I get a lot more out of the books when I have some background knowledge. The title “New Grub Street” refers to an old street in London actually called Grub Street that was the neighborhood of bohemian types, beginning writers, poor poets and low-class publishers. Thus, Grub Street was linked with hack journalism and low-level literature and it has been argued that Gissing would have been familiar with this due to his own career of writing.

The book focuses on the writing world on London during the mid-Victorian era, following two characters, both writers although in very different veins and with very different motivations. Edwin Reardon writes for more noble reasons: he writes literature with little commercial value and sees it as art for art’s sake even though this means he (and his family) will be (and will remain) poor in all likelihood. Jasper Milvain is the polar opposite to Reardon: Jasper writes only to make money and will write whatever is needed to meet the demand of the market.

They also have contrasting views of marriage: Reardon has married young and married for love to a quite educated lady who views money as success, not literature. This, of course, leads to some troubles for Reardon and his small family especially when his wife views him as voluntarily placing the family in poverty for misplaced values.  Milvain, on the other hand, wants to get married, not necessarily for love but definitely for money. His future wife, he thinks, is the free meal ticket that he needs to write and live successfully.

Since this is a Victorian novel, there is no surprise that there are some quite heavy moralistic overtones to the story and a lot of familial intertwining between both Milvain and Reardon. However, despite this, this novel is really quite good and reads fast considering it was written more than 120 years ago.  It is also considered one of the best examples of nineteenth century writing on the subject of writing professions.

Gissing was one of the naturalist writers of the nineteenth century and this is seen throughout this novel in his detailed descriptions of the various garrets when Reardon lives, the social machinations of meeting the “right people at the right time” in order to forward a career (not so different from our 21st century networking but with a much heavier focus on income) and the heavy emphasis of the class system in Victorian society then.

Although this novel has a bitter attitude towards the literary profession, some of it rings very true in some ways. It can be challenging to make a living writing what you want, and there are probably times when you would have to write what other people desire for money. Such is life, so there are parts of this story that do resonate with anyone who has tried that line of work.

A good read, a story that moves quickly and some interesting characters. If you’re jonesing for a Victorian fix and want someone with a lighter moral touch that Dickens, try Gissing. He has a lot of work out there so there’s lots to choose from.

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