Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Gissing and The Nether World

George Orwell might have written the biography of George Gissing. He was asked to do so by a publisher in 1946 but he was on his way to the island of Jura and so had to decline the offer. Instead he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four which is a decent swap. Orwell was born in 1903 the same year that Gissing died and they both lived to the age of 46 each succumbing finally to lung disease. I am relying here on the biography George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delany. Therein the point is made that whereas Orwell took to tramping to research his books on poverty, Gissing merely walked the streets and visited the workshops of Clerkenwell to do research for his novel The Nether World but it could also be maintained that Gissing had no need of sentimental immersion as he had just buried his first wife Nell two weeks before starting that novel. He had first met and fallen in love with her when he was a brilliant young student and she a young prostitute. Though he, through the multiple scholarships which he had won, was well off, for a student, still that was not enough to keep her off the streets and he began to steal from his fellows at Owens College (later Manchester University). The month in goal that he received for his crime was the beginning of his real research into the nether world. Expelled from college in disgrace he went to America that place of dubious sanctuary but when he came back after a year took up with Nell again. His plan was to turn her into a ladylike companion but she kept up with her trade and her drinking throughout their marriage. Delany suggests that she infected him with syphilis, the disease that finally killed her and may have exacerbated the weakness of his lungs.

There are many of us who have been scorched by the fire of a fatal relationship but have come out the other side with a here be dragons map engramatically engraved on our brains . Gissing continued to explore that territory. What he needed was a nice intelligent work-girl that he could mould to a suitable companion. His second wife went mad and fought with the servants.

By being expelled from Owens College he had lost his chance to rise in the world. He later wrote in a letter:

The life of a Fellow at Oxford or Cambridge is, I should think, almost ideal. He has his man-servant, his meals either in private or at the public table, an atmosphere of culture and peace.

The way that the clever student can con his lessons well and deliver them back in the same diction as the professor, that sincere flattery that brings academic honour, could be the very mimesis that hobbles his style. It’s not there all the time, that constraint that makes him seem like a foreigner that was attempting the speech of a class always beyond him and that he could never be sure he was getting right. There is a concept of what is ‘writerly’ that stifles the life of his prose sometimes but I do not deny that this may be a function of his hurry. He began the novel on 19th.of March and finished it on the 18th. of July. In our more leisurely days that would probably be the time allotted for a first very rough draft .

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