A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Scholarly, anxious Edwin Reardon had achieved a precarious career as the writer of serious fiction. On the strength of critical acclaim for his fourth novel, he has married the refined Amy Yule, but the brilliant future Amy expected has evaded her husband. New Grub Street is the story of the daily lives and broken dreams of men and women forced to earn a living by the pen. The catastrophe of Reardon’s failing marriage is set among the rising and falling fortunes of novelists, journalists and scholars who labour ‘in the valley of the shadow of books’.
Good synopsis writing is almost a dark art. The blurb on the back cover of a book can be what sells it (or not) to the casual book-buying public, be they browsing in an airport bookshop or scrolling through online listings – and knowing where to draw the line between revealing enough of the plot to entice a would-be buyer without delivering any major spoilers is a skill possessed by comparatively few.
As a book reviewer, it’s always a joy for me to come across a really well-written synopsis because I can use it to open my review: it saves me having to explain what the book is about, gives me a neat launch pad and – more prosaically – fills up space.
Which takes me straight to George Gissing’s description of Edwin Reardon, struggling with writer’s block:
‘Description of locality, deliberate analysis of character or motive, demanded far too great an effort for his present condition. He kept as much as possible to dialogue; the space is filled so much more quickly, and at pinch one can make people talk about the paltriest incidents of life.’
As Katherine Mullin points out in her excellent introduction to the new OUP edition of New Grub Street, that passage is immediately followed by a chunk of dialogue, but it isn’t dialogue-as-padding, it’s actually a very deft piece of character analysis.
In some ways, that need to fill blank space with words – any words – is central to George Gissing’s exposé of the world of publishing in the second half of the 19th century, which was dominated by the circulating libraries and the tyranny of the three volume novel.
Publishers insisted on the three volume format. They sold the first editions to the big circulating libraries (Mudie’s and W H Smiths being the two biggest players in the field) who in return, demanded that the price be fixed at an extortionate 31s 6d (thirty-one shillings and sixpence). The libraries bought the books in bulk, negotiating a massive discount for themselves on the price, and then sent them out to their one-guinea-a–year subscribers one volume at a time. The exorbitant retail price ensured that ordinary people couldn’t possibly afford to buy their own copies, thus consolidating the circulating libraries’ stranglehold on both writing and publishing – leaving authors struggling to fill the pages.
And Gissing knew exactly what he was talking about because Edwin Reardon’s travails mirrored his own early experiences; but that isn’t to say Reardon is a self-portrait, more that there are elements of of Gissing in him – just as there are in many of the other characters in the book.
While New Grub Street is a fascinating – and rare – glimpse behind the scenes of the publishing world of the time, it is the characters Gissing populates that world with who draw you in and keep you reading. At over 400 closely-printed pages, it could easily have been a penance to read, but the vibrant writing and vivid characters keep you turning the pages.
On the surface, Gissing seems to be examining – and lamenting – the way commercial pressures stifle art and creativity. Reardon wants to write ‘serious’ books, but needs money to support his wife and child and so – as both he and his wife Amy see it – has to prostitute his talent to pay the bills. Harold Biffen, on the other hand, eschews financial gain and dedicates his life to ‘art’, living on bread and dripping while he painstakingly crafts Mr Bailey, Grocer – ‘the true story of Mr Bailey’s marriage and of his progress as a grocer’.
At the other end of the scale we have on the one hand the cheerfully cynical Jasper Milvain, who knows exactly what the chattering classes want and sets about providing it for them and on the other, Whelpdale, shamelessly exploiting the ‘quarter-educated’ with his brainchild magazine Chit-Chat (a very thinly disguised swipe at George Newnes’ Tit-Bits).
But Gissing – with his own scandalously messy back story – knew that life is complex and human beings doubly so. Not for him one-dimensional thumbnail sketches, stock characters and straightforward motives. His dramatis personæ are fuzzy around the edges, morphing and shifting as you watch them. No sooner do you think you have a handle on a character than Gissing bends them out of shape by changing the perspective from which we are viewing them. It’s both unsettling and totally convincing because it’s exactly the way real people are. Perspective is everything.
And that is particularly true of Gissing’s female characters – Jasper’s sisters Dora and Maud, Reardon’s wife, the ambiguous Amy, and – most of all Marian Yule. Far from being mere ciphers – supporting actors twittering around the men at one remove from the story – they are at the very heart of it: full-blooded, living, breathing and flawed human beings with their own desires and fears.
In fact, although Edwin and Amy Reardon are the physical pivot around which everyone else in New Grub Street circulates, Marian is both the novel’s most sympathetic character and its moral compass. Drudging away under the great dome of the British Library’s Reading Room she researches – and to a large part actually writes – the pedantic articles for literary journals to which her embittered and less talented father Alfred appends his own name. It is there that she meets and falls under the spell of the charismatic Jasper, in one of English literature’s greatest emotional mismatches, and the non-love story which follows is beautifully delineated by Gissing, who was both knowledgeable about and very sympathetic towards women’s emancipation. Marian is a great creation and what finally happens to her is nothing short of a master stroke – one which modern writers wouldn’t dare to deliver.
Gissing didn’t see the world in black and white, and he didn’t view the tensions between art and commercial success or merit and reward as being remotely clear cut either; Jasper may be a cynical social climber, but he’s also incredibly focussed and hard working, while Biffen – purporting to admire ordinary people – leaves a man to burn to death in a house fire, choosing instead to go and rescue his manuscript.
New Grub Street is a tumultuous and character-driven story that never stops moving. Written in just two months (because Gissing urgently needed the money in order to marry), it was his ‘breakthrough’ novel, and provided him with a degree of financial security for the remainder of his sadly short life.
It is a book so detailed and multi-layered that a short review like this one can’t even begin to do it justice – but if you like your characters real and messy, your endings less than clear cut and your narratives laced with dark and knowing humour, then New Grub Street is well worth adding to your ‘to be read’ list.
Oxford University Press. Oxford World’s Classics. 2016. Paperback. ISBN: 9780198729181. 528pp.