I have to admit that I was not looking forward to reading George Gissing’s New Grub Street. I enjoyed The Odd Women but also found it very dark and, frankly, depressing. Being in the final stages of dissertation writing, I tend to go for books that seem fun or at least pleasantly entertaining. With Gissing, it seems that everyone starves to death and experiences nothing but misery along the way.
I cannot say that New Grub Street is very different. However, as a student of book and publishing history of the nineteenth century, I found it an incredibly satisfying read. My Penguin Classics edition (edited in 1968) claims that Edwin Reardon is the central figure of the novel but I disagree. Women take centre stage in Gissing’s portrayal of the effects of the novel industry, not as writers but as the spouses and daughters of mediocre and unsuccessful novelists without any power to change the circumstances of their lives.
Gissing portrays strong, if put upon women who defy the “Angel of the House” trope that Dickens relies so much on. Instead, Gissing’s women, express their opinions and argue with their husbands and fathers.
Marion Yule, Amy Reardon, and, my personal favourites, Dora and Maud Milvain, are subtly well-developed characters. They are not heroic or martyrs to the plot but disappointed, hardened, and familiar. They are wonderful examples of Gissing’s naturalist style.
The men in the book who seem to go out of their way to make these women miserable seem to forget that in their search for artistic recognition and creative freedom, they have wives and children to support – dependents who were promised one way of life and are disappointed in the reality that they face. Amy Reardon is particularly portrayed as a terrible person because she thought she was marrying a soon-to-be successful author. However, when Edwin Reardon continues to makes sarcastic jokes about the workhouse and gives up writing entirely to take a clerk position that pays only 25 shillings a week, well, it was not what Amy signed up for. She has a son (who Edwin clearly admits he does not care anything about) to feed and educate and Edwin’s lack of sympathy, makes for an interesting and complex dynamic.
Amy’s attitudes towards the limited divorce laws of the late-Victorian age are also informative and help to shed light on the realities and risks of marriage.
So, while a sad novel, it is not tragic. Instead, New Grub Street is cynical, ironic, angry, and topical. If you have any interest in the Victorian publishing industry, I highly recommend the novel. If you like your fiction “real” – whatever that means – then, this is also a novel for you.