New Grub Street by George Gissing

Dracula wasn’t the first Victorian vampire novel. In Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), the court of Chancery, tangled nest of claims and counterclaims that it is, sucks the life out of all those who place their hopes in it (and isn’t Miss Flite’s collection of caged birds, to be released “on the day of judgement”, a little too much like Renfield’s menagerie?). In George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), though, the vampire is literature itself, with the three-decker novel of the day being described as “A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.”

Gissing isn’t talking about the likes of Dickens, but those jobbing writers trying to make a living in a conventionally-minded market where the power lies with the lending libraries first, the publishers second, and the writers last of all. Or, worse, he’s talking about those poor idealistic writers whose ideals don’t conform to the market, but persist with them all the same. Among the former is Edwin Reardon, whose one success as a novelist has led him into a too-hasty marriage with a woman a little too expectant of better things, after which the demand to write another, and another triple-decker, better or at least equal to his one good effort, destroys his finances, his marriage, his hopes and his health. Among the latter is Harold Biffen, whose devotion to a literary ideal (his long-worked-on novel, Mr Bailey, Grocer, takes as its subject “the ignobly decent” — i.e., the trade- and working-classes, unromanticised, and so made entirely unpalatable for the genteel-minded lending-library readership) leads him to live a life of constant borderline starvation, barely able to scrape together enough for a meal without pawning his coat. He nevertheless loves nothing more than to go round Edwin Reardon’s of a Sunday afternoon to spend an hour discussing a line or two of Euripides.

There’s a peculiar scene in Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker cuts the Count with a kukri knife, only to have pound notes and gold coins pour out. The effect is surreal, more like a political cartoon than a moment from a horror novel, but it may get to the heart of it. The vampire in Victorian fiction is, ultimately, money, or rather, the peculiar Victorian attitude to money: that it is far better to inherit a fortune (unearned) than to stoop to the horror of actually working for it. It’s the need to present a genteel front, to pretend to be of the moneyed classes rather than the working classes, which causes so much suffering in so many Victorian novels.

George GissingI first read New Grub Street in search of one of those immersive reading experiences only a Victorian blockbuster can give, and was in no way disappointed. Gissing based a lot of the plot on firsthand experience of his life as a jobbing writer (exaggerated a little, perhaps, to better express his own disappointments and frustrations). He somewhat bitterly lays down the rules of being a writer. Success, for all but the genuine genius (“Oh, if you can be a George Eliot, begin at the earliest opportunity”), is nothing to do with literary ability; it’s to do with money. For money wins you connections, connections get you not just work but reputation, and it’s reputation — social as much as literary — that assures you an income. Because of this, Gissing (who was expelled from university and imprisoned for stealing, which he did to keep a woman he later married — and who later died from drink — from prostituting herself) says a writer must endeavour to remain unmarried till his success is assured. For, as a bachelor, he can accept invites to important, connection-making dinners without being expected to repay the compliment with dinners of his own, something that requires not just a presentable wife, but a presentable home — which all comes down, once more, to needing money in order to make money. If he must marry before that, Gissing says, he should marry a good-natured working class girl, who will have no expectations of living in style while her writer husband hacks away to earn his paltry living. But by doing so, he will of course sacrifice his future success, for a working-class wife will never be presentable, should the writer progress to the stage of having to give dinners.

Cover to Gissing’s New Grub Street by Mervyn Peake

My favourite moral tangle from the novel — and moral tangles are a thing Victorian novels do so well — centres on Marian Yule, the daughter of a fading man of letters, Mr Yule. Mr Yule’s worsening eyesight and diminished reputation causes him to hit on a last-gasp plan to launch his own literary magazine, at the exact same time (amazingly enough) that his daughter stands to inherit a small sum of money — small, but large enough to fund a literary magazine. Or enough to allow Marian to marry the man she loves, Jasper Milvain, the Steerpike of Gissing’s novel, whose cool judgement of the literary market fits into a perfect five-year plan to see him ensconced at the top, by providing what it demands, flattering those who will further his career, and reminding himself, with a cold practicality, not to get carried away with awkward distractions like love. The trouble is, Jasper can’t help proposing to Marian, particularly when he hears of her small inheritance. To make things that little bit worse, Marian’s father thinks Jasper wrote a bad review of one of his works, and already hates him. It’s a perfect little moral dilemma, throwing love, family and money into the same pot, then adding a twist at the right moment to ensure it all gets that little bit worse, and then worse again.

Gissing is brilliant at depicting the Gormengastian gloom of literary London (“the valley of the shadow of books” is his term for the fog-swathed British Library, the centre of literary production), a world of bruised egos, thwarted ambitions, disappointed ideals, and subtle betrayals, all in the name of oh-so-Victorian practicality. He can spin an entire chapter out of one extended exchange full of muted sarcasm and wounded loyalty, subtly shifting power relationships (that between Marian and the father she does all the literary drudge work for being one of the best), and emotional manipulation, along with a little wallowing in pessimism in the name of realism.

It’s dark, despairing, and just that little bit stern — as a Victorian novel should be. But also, so very readable.