THE HEROIC LIFE OF GEORGE GISSING, PART II by PIERRE COUSTILLAS, Reviewed by
 

THE HEROIC LIFE OF GEORGE GISSING, PART II
By PIERRE COUSTILLAS
(Pickering & Chatto/ Ashgate, January 2012) 500 pp.
Reviewed by on 2012-05-17.

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Over the past half century, the reputation of George Gissing, the late Victorian English novelist (1857 1903), has risen quite impressively, rather like a once undervalued stock in the Dow Jones or FTSE Literary Average. For many decades, this steady climb has owed much to Pierre Coustillas himself as the scholarly dean of Gissing studies. This reviewer especially welcomes Coustillas's long awaited Life of George Gissing, which will run to three volumes. Just as Part I did, Part II now gives us extensive information unmentioned in any previous Gissing biographies. Coustillas achieves this by his unmatched use of richly varied sources and resources, including unpublished manuscripts and many rare books; accountant-like details about Gissing's writing spans, his negotiations to get into print, his book sales, and his profits; Gissing's skilled drawings and sketches; Coustillas's own explorations of houses, towns, and countries where Gissing lived or traveled; fresh information about his family and friends; and re-examined published documents, a number of them edited by Coustillas himself over the decades. In sum, Part II has lasting scholarly value and merit. After the third Part appears this July, the contributors to the Wikipedia entry on Gissing ought to weigh Coustillas's three volume Life against the only biography of Gissing they now list: Paul Delany's one volume George Gissing: A Life (2008). At least, they should add Coustillas to Delany. I myself would include as well John Halperin's 1982 Gissing: A Life in Books--also unlisted by Wikipedia--which made good use of a permitted access to Coustillas's earlier draft of his own as yet unpublished biography. I would further add Jacob Korg's pioneering George Gissing: A Critical Biography (1963), largely because of its still impressive historical perspectives.

For sheer biographical drama, Coustillas's second volume simply cannot match Part I's vivid account of Gissing's disastrous love affair with the seventeen year old prostitute "Nell" Harrison; his small thefts at college aiming to save her from prostitution; his arrest, his imprisonment, and his expulsion from Owens College; his year of exile in the United States; and then his foolishly idealistic marriage to "Nell" two full years after returning. Yet Part II does cover the remarkable decade of Gissing's finest novels, including New Grub Street (1891) and Born in Exile (1892). Even a knowledgeable Gissing reader will find valuable new information here.

Take one strikingly impressive example. Coustillas quotes an unpublished letter from the woman who became Gissing's most sympathetic friend and helper for many years, Clara Collet--a protofeminist and social reformer. In this letter, which Coustillas discovered in an unpublished biography of Gissing written by his second son Alfred, Collet tells how she first came to value what she herself describes as the greatness of Gissing's novels: that in depicting the lives of the poor, he outdid the understanding of even the best social researchers and reformers. She also explains how she wrote an article on his novels for the Charity Organization Review and then gave a talk on them to London's Ethical Society. Only afterwards, as she reveals, did she hear about Gissing's imprisonment and expulsion from Owens College, which aroused her deep sympathy for the social isolation that this had clearly caused. Most surprisingly of all, we discover that she began to correspond with Gissing in spite of her strong disapproval of The Odd Women, just recently published--the one Gissing novel in our time most often praised by feminists. Indeed, his new work of fiction actually "repelled" her. Finally, in a moving but also funny way, she recalls how she and Gissing first met one another at her own Richmond home and how he accepted her invitation to take a boat ride up the Thames. Yet she herself--not Gissing--did the sculling! (183-85).

Apart from this highly revealing letter, Coustillas lays out other new and rich details. For instance, he provides fresh information about the large family of Edith Underwood Gissing--a half-educated, upper working class woman whom the novelist unfortunately chose for his second wife. Her mother had died nine years before the marriage, her stonemason father carried on his own father's business, and her seven siblings--three brothers and four sisters--were all upper working class (103, 329n22 &n23). Most interestingly, when she finally read New Grub Street, she actually "enjoyed it." But I am not convinced that she liked it because--as Coustillas claims--she "doubtless" could not grasp her own "disguised presence" in the novel as Alfred Yule's wife (116)--a quite important character. In my opinion, Gissing's sympathetic portrayal of this kind and supportive working class wife with almost no education would have appealed to Edith whether she missed any direct connection with herself or not. She also would have clearly felt pleased at the contrast between the good hearted Mrs. Yule and Reardon's much better educated "upper middle class" wife (Gissing, New Grub Street [Oxford UP 2008] 14), who behaves with harmful selfishness. Even so, apart from Coustillas's hypothesized explanation, one feels grateful for the fresh detail about Edith's reaction to this novel.

Nevertheless, in spite of the scholarly riches of Part II as well as Part I, this biography sometimes arrives at what I consider insufficiently balanced judgments. In his enthusiasm for Gissing, Coustillas voices all but unqualified approval of his less than perfect subject. Even his title seems to warn us of this. While the word "heroic" typically describes the selflessness of someone who saves children from burning homes or wounded soldiers from a battlefield, Coustillas calls Gissing's life heroic because he spent much of it writing first rate novels in spite of many hardships. This special use of Heroic revived an old memory from my college years. When--during a meeting with English majors--Robert Frost was asked what advice he had for aspiring writers, he memorably replied: "That's simple. You must have a gut for punishment."

"A Gut for Punishment" would not make a smooth or attractive title for a biography of Gissing or anyone else. Yet rather better than Coustillas's title, something like "A Bravely Creative Life" might perhaps describe Gissing's troubled years as a writer.

In any case, Coustillas's biography nearly always sides with the novelist himself in his difficulties or contentions with others and thus resembles a fictional narrative exclusively told from the central character's point of view. I myself much prefer Coustillas's warm empathy for Gissing to Delany's scattered jibes at his egotism. Even so, Coustillas might have sometimes questioned the grounds on which Gissing himself judged persons whom he knew. Seconding (for instance) Gissing's assessment of his two younger sisters, Coustillas finds them both--especially Margaret--annoyingly religious and lacking in personal insight (5, 65 66, 90 92, 94,146). But is this a fair verdict about these two unmarried sisters from the lower middle class who had to contend with many of the same family troubles that Gissing himself had to face? These included the premature death of their upwardly mobile father, then of a brother, and, perhaps most devastatingly, the enduring scandal generated both in hometown Wakefield and in nearby Manchester by George's own behavior: his relationship with "Nell" the prostitute, his shocking arrest, his month of hard labor, and the destruction--largely by his own doing--of a promising academic career. If his sometimes unwise choices led to lasting family shame, this remained beyond Margaret's or Ellen's control. Consequently, even a hard line atheist--one who perceives religion as both harmful and delusional--might attempt to understand the comfort that religion can sometimes bring to thwarted lives such as those of Gissing's two sisters. Finally, instead of simply dismissing their religiously-based moral judgments, one might try to analyze them.

In this otherwise first rate biography, Coustillas's strong identification with his man also leads him to defend even Gissing's lesser works against those who have criticized them. But I need to stress an important point. Like Part I, Part II makes very little attempt at the mixture usually known as "critical biography." Instead Coustillas nearly always confines Gissing's novels to the context of his own era's book reviews. While Coustillas reveals a world-wide command of such reviews, he tends to dismiss or even scorn those who have faulted some of Gissing's fiction.

In the Introduction to Part I, Coustillas briefly discusses critics from the 1960s onward who have praised Gissing's works, yet he ignores various others who have praised only some of them--including me (Part I: 2-5). Coustillas does commend part of my additional and more or less non critical studies--my research into Gissing's nearly five months in Chicago during 1877--and he also provides a rather imprecise acknowledgement of my bibliographic findings there: "much on . . . Gissing's publications in Chicago" (Part I: ix & 117). Specifically, I discovered six hitherto unattributed stories by Gissing, buried where no one else had looked--in the Chicago Daily News--along with a previously unattributed story by him from the Chicago Post (Selig, ed., Lost Stories [1992], 97 149). Nevertheless, when Part I later discusses these stories and the hostile newspaper rivalry that probably led Gissing to publish them unsigned, Coustillas fails to cite me as their finder and attributer or as the source of his background information about the News (Part I, 118 19). On the other hand, he himself first prompted my research by asking me to look for a few lost Gissing stories in the city where I lived--in two forgotten weeklies. After I uncovered two of his short stories, Coustillas and I co-authored an article ("Unknown Gissing Stories from Chicago," TLS 12 December 1980: 1417 18) that explained what we had found, reprinted in full Gissing's "A Test of Honor," and summarized his "A Mother's Hope."

But I do not share Coustillas's tendency to praise nearly everything that Gissing wrote. For instance, in George Gissing (rev. ed. 1995), I have tried to distinguish his lesser fiction from his most outstanding novels--such as New Grub Street and Born in Exile--and his very best short stories, such as "A Victim of Circumstances," "Comrades in Arms," and "Lou and Liz." Though I have described Gissing's Denzil Quarrier as both melodramatic and second-rate (George Gissing 75-77), Coustillas salutes its "artistic richness" and scolds "most reviewers" for having insensitively overlooked its "highly suggestive" and "innovative" achievements (138).

Notwithstanding the biographer's overestimates of Gissing's lesser works and over identification with the man, The Heroic Life Part II will long remain the definitive account of a most important part of Gissing's career. Based on extensive private family documents that Coustillas was deservedly permitted to see by Gissing's granddaughter and great grandson, this book comes as close to an authorized biography as we shall ever get. It also displays a still more impressive authority. Its deep and wide research will remain indispensable to future Gissing biographers and critics, as well as his readers, far into our twenty first century and most probably beyond.

Robert L. Selig, Professor Emeritus of English at Purdue University Calumet, is the author of George Gissing (1983, rev. ed. 1995), editor of George Gissing, Lost Stories from America (1992), and author of many critical articles on Gissing's works.


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