"New Grub Street," published in three volumes in 1891, is George Gissing's grimly realistic exploration of literary life in 1880s London. While it is a remarkably vivid novel, it is also an accurate and detailed depiction of what it was like to be a struggling author in late nineteenth century England, "a society where," as Professor Bernard Bergonzi points out in his introduction, "literature has become a commodity, and where the writing of fiction does not differ radically from any other form of commercial or industrial production."
"New Grub Street" is the contrapuntal narrative of two literary figures, Edwin Reardon, a struggling novelist who aspires to write great literature without regard to its popular appeal, and Jasper Milvain, a self-centered, materialistic striver whose only concern is with achieving financial success and social position by publishing what the mass public wants to read. As Milvain relates early in the novel, succinctly adumbrating the theme that winds through the entirety of "New Grub Street":
"Understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market. I-well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets. . . . Reardon can't do that kind of thing, he's behind his age; he sells a manuscript as if he lives in Sam Johnson's Grub Street. But our Grub Street of today is quite a different place: it is supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy."
Gissing brilliantly explores this theme through the lives of his characters, each drawn with stunning depth and verisimilitude. There is, of course, Reardon, whose failure as a novelist and neurasthenic decline destroys his marriage and his life. There is also Reardon's wife, Amy, a woman whose love for Reardon withers with the exsanguination of her husband's creative abilities. While the manipulative and seemingly unfeeling Milvain pursues his crass aspirations, he also encourages his two sisters, Dora and Maud, to seek commercial success as writers of children's books. And intertwining all of their lives are the myriad connections each of the characters has with the Yule family, in particular with the nearly impoverished Alfred Yule, a serious writer and literary critic, and his daughter and literary amanuensis, Marian.
It is Marian--struggling to reconcile the literary demands and expectations of her father with the desire to lead her own life, struggling to escape the claustrophobic world of the literary life--who ultimately, pessimistically challenges the verities of that life while sitting in its physical embodiment, the prison-like British Museum library:
"It was gloomy, and one could scarcely see to read; a taste of fog grew perceptible in the warm, headachy air. . . . She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any individual could cope with in his lifetime, here she was exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be any more than a commodity for the day's market. What unspeakable folly! . . . She herself would throw away her pen with joy but for the need of earning money. . . . This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print-how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit."
It is Marian, too, who ultimately becomes the romantic victim of Milvain's aspirations, the powerful language of Gissing's anti-romantic subplot twisting into almost gothic excess as he extends the metaphor of London's fog to Marian's sleepless depression:
"The thick black fog penetrated every corner of the house. It could be smelt and tasted. Such an atmosphere produces low spirited languor even in the vigorous and hopeful; to those wasted by suffering it is the very reek of the bottomless pit, poisoning the soul. Her face colorless as the pillow, Marian lay neither sleeping nor awake in blank extremity of woe; tears now and then ran down her cheeks, and at times her body was shaken with a throe such as might result from anguish of the torture chamber."
"New Grub Street" is deservedly regarded not only as Gissing's finest novel, but also as one of the finest novels of late nineteenth century English literature. Grimly realistic in its depiction of what it was like to be a struggling writer in late nineteenth century London, it is also remarkable for its historical accuracy and its literary craftsmanship. If you like the realism of writers like Harding and Zola, then "New Grub Street" is a book you must read!