The enemies of promise

<strong>George Gissing: a Life</strong>

Paul Delany <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 444pp, £25 </em>

Poor Gissing. If a life were measured by how much it was a warning to others, he would be one of history's successes. There was nothing glamorous about his failure, and most of the world couldn't even see it. But Gissing could see it (though the shape his failure took in his imagination varied) and the result was a sort of tragic crippling of his life. "The story of his life is the story of his books," writes Paul Delany in this quietly marvellous biography, but anyone with a trace of human sympathy would surely trade all of Gissing's books for a touch of happiness for this kindly, over-diligent and self-cursed man.

The curse began early. The son of a clever, determined and socially ambitious dispensing chemist, Gissing won academic honours, coming 12th in the whole country in the Oxford Junior examinations of 1872 and winning a scholarship to Owens College (later Manchester University). His teachers there saw every academic honour as being within his grasp.

But then came a youthful mistake that most men would later conceal, deny or shrug off: Gissing fell in love with a Manchester prostitute, Nell Harrison. He decided he could "save" her. He married her. Nell was an alcoholic, hiding in booze from her monstrous childhood. To support her and keep her in drink, he stole money from fellow students' coats. The college principal called in the police, marked money was planted, Gissing took the bait (5/2d - about £50 in today's money) and the trap sprang shut: a month's hard labour in the grim Bellevue Prison.

Gissing never recovered. For the rest of his life he was dogged by the fear of being found out; in the hideous, minatory respectability of late-19th-century England, being "disreputable" meant being ostracised, and Gissing never seemed to walk comfortably in the world again.

He ran to America for a year; made a small living at journalism; and, returning to England, became a novelist and a denizen, as well as the great chronicler, of Grub Street. If you know anyone who wants to be a writer, never mind Stephen King's On Writing. Never mind the University of East Anglia MA in creative writing. Make them read New Grub Street; that is what it was like then, and that is what it is like now.

Gissing came to terms with the demands of Grub Street, turning out book after book: 22 novels and other works, written with a grim sense of industrial production appropriate to the age. He thought of himself as an artist, spoke of art, yet lived like a clerk, but without the security. He would go weeks without any friendly human contact, speaking only to his landlady's servant. He went indefinite periods without sexual contact, not least because he only desired women either so far below him - he had a strange obsession with prostitutes - that they would, like Nell, ruin him, or so far above him that they would disdain him.

He was perhaps the Victorian prose version of Schiller's "sentimental poet": never at home in his native society, always in tension with the world. Above all, sensing that he could never belong - never be somebody - he longed for just enough money to live in the country and contemplate. "Two men sitting in front of a fire, smoking their pipes and discussing the classics, is Gissing's model of happiness," writes Delany, but Gissing could never attain it. He wanted to gain a Comtean scientific detachment from the world, to know the secrets of the universe. Instead, he found himself living with Nell, and there was, he said, nothing in Comte that could help him deal with her.

Gissing may not be much read now, except for New Grub Street, but he left his mark on British socialism. Orwell thought him the greatest of English novelists, though perhaps only with his socially active mind; it is hard not to see Gissing as the model for Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which tells a less laudatory tale of the sacrifice of life to an ideal of Art.

Gissing's social conscience was in part formed by ghastly Victorianisms, by the terrible Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the awful William Morris with his fake "mediaevalism" and the unspeakable Comte with his "positivist" optimism. He never particularly liked the masses; certainly not when they were carousing or rioting at their vulgar pleasures. Above all, he yearned to refine them but realised it wasn't on. Hence, perhaps, his experiments, literary and real, with prostitutes. But Delany quotes H G Wells, who knew a thing or two about women: "Poor Gissing. He thought there was a difference between a woman and a lady. There isn't, you know, there isn't."

Though his geographical researches were diligent enough - plodding around Lambeth until 2am, visiting hat factories and low taverns - his engagement with the reality of the working class was mostly got out of penny papers. Rather than go out and connect, he arranged a complicated system of clippings and cross-references to feed his work; Delany tells of Gissing grinding away among his scrapbooks in his room while the workers were protesting and throwing bricks two miles away in Trafalgar Square.

This, Delany does not judge. His biography is kindly, meticulous, detached without being aloof. He is particularly illuminating on Gissing's relationships with women. They never worked out. He yearned for a wife to go into the world with him, but his two marriages ended dreadfully and did nothing to lift the curse: that this clever man felt the world would never forgive him for stealing or for Nell, and so he never forgave himself. He died in 1903, aged 46.

One of Delany's great achievements is to bring Nell out of the shadows. We have a dreadful sympathy for Gissing, but we howl for poor Nell as her life spirals away; it terrified Gissing, but what must it have been like for her? She appears in his works, but as a pitiful, malign thing. She deserves a book of her own. As it is, Delany serves her well, and his subject irreproachably.

The book is organised in the old-fashioned style - antecedents, early life, et cetera - but done with such command that it feels as though the form is being invented before your eyes. Delany's summation at the beginning is masterly, his conclusion moving. In between is an eloquent study of a life that might be described, in Siegfried Sassoon's words, as "an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral". The tragedy of Gissing's life was that the struggle and the odds were mostly of his own making.

Granta will publish Michael Bywater's "Like Brothers: On Men and Friendship" next winter

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us