I like George Gissing’s writing very much. The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft, which was published in 1903, the year he died, is one of my favourites of his books—and one of my favourite books of all time. Gissing was a generation younger than the great Victorian novelists he so much admired (Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Wilkie Collins) and knew it was pointless to try to imitate them (he did, however, embody his love for Dickens in a critical study of the great novelist in 1898). What Gissing did instead was to set about forging a new kind of writing for a new kind of time. And for a different set of personal circumstances.
For Gissing was, for most of his life, extremely hard-pressed for money. He was rarely in any position to document the pleasures and foibles of upper-class Victorian society (as Thackeray did), or to cast his sociological nets wide enough to seize up the character of a whole society in the sweep of an all-encompassing vision (as Dickens did). Gissing’s canvas is smaller. Most often—and most engagingly—he wrote about the disenfranchised individual, usually an artist, burdened with talent but deprived of opportunity. Many of his protagonists—slightly displaced or deferred self-portraits—are impoverished writers living in circumstances that vary from straightened to desperate. Typical of the tone of his novels about writing and financial stress is this characteristic sentence from New Grub Street (1891): “It was very weak of Harold Biffin to come so near perishing of hunger as he did in the days when he was completing his novel.”
Later in life, when things were not quite so bad, Gissing sternly admonished his readers to “abstain from poverty.” Poverty, he maintained, was “the great secluder.”
There is a short story by Gissing (for he occasionally took a breather from the writing of his twenty-two novels and wrote stories instead) which captures—unforgettably, for me—the conflicting circumstances generated by the unfortunate coming together of artistic desire and material deprivation. The story is “The House of Cobwebs” and it is the first story of the fifteen that make up the collection called The House of Cobwebs and other Stories, published in 1906, three years after the author’s death. My edition, published by Constable in 1931, contains a very long and indispensible introductory survey of Gissing’s life and works, written by Thomas Seccombe for the original 1906 edition.
I love this story. Nothing much happens in it (I love that too). It begins the way the best stories do: “It was five o’clock on a June morning.” Clean. Taut. The next sentence, however, thickens the texture of the language and shades the story’s atmospheres into a rather gluey juxtaposition of bright illusion and a rather grotty reality. “The dirty-buff blind of the lodging-house bedroom shone like cloth of gold as the sun’s unclouded rays poured through it, transforming all they illumined, so that things poor and mean seemed to share in the triumphant glory of new-born day.” This double-sided ambiance is then locked into place by the first appearance of the story’s protagonist: “In the bed lay a young man who had already been awake for an hour.”
This young man, dreaming in a shaft of sunlight slanting into his mean room, is in fact calculating the hard truths of his circumstances. He needs three months to finish writing his novel, and he has fifteen shillings a week to live on (“if I spread my money out”). He realises he shall have to leave his present lodgings—as Spartan as they are.
In the course of a troubled and aimless wander around London, the young man happens upon a row of three deserted houses (“for some time unoccupied and unrepaired”), their meagre gardens having run to seed, each “a little wilderness of coarse grass, docks, nettles and degenerate shrubs.” The paint on the houses is blistering, the windows are broken. But up on the third floor, there is one window, still intact and cleaner than the rest, and from inside it, come the sounds of somebody playing “Home Sweet Home” on the accordion. The sole inhabitant of the houses –the accordion player—is a certain impoverished Mr. Spicer. Mr. Spicer invites the young writer in, and the two subsequently strike a bargain whereby the young man will be allowed to rent the bright front room—the one with the intact window—for next to nothing. His only responsibility will be to help Mr. Spicer restore the tangled garden to near-respectability. The young man lives amidst the sun-brightened cobwebs, finishes his novel, sells it to a publisher and finally moves out. Mr Spicer—who loves “literature”—is proud of the young man. That’s about it.
The rest is atmosphere. And language.
It’s a great story. A small story, but a great story.