Saturday, November 24, 2007

The books lying around, and Grub in particular

(Which post turns out to be really about just the one book, my having lost focus, or found focus, and saving some other ramblings for later.)

Books received for my birthday: None.
It's like no one really knows me.

Books I have hanging about the house, and which I'm dying to read, but seem to have absolutely no time for:

New Grub Street, by George Gissing.
This is a library book it seems like it's taking me forever to read, but it feels like very suddenly I'm approaching the end. I looked into Gissing on the recommendation of... something I read somewhere, ages ago, by someone I respect (was it Doris Lessing?), and because of comments regarding Patrick Hamilton to the effect that Hamilton is the literary descendant of Dickens via Gissing. Well, I'd read some Dickens, so now some Gissing.

I don't find Gissing to inspire page-turning the way either Hamilton or Dickens do, but he does show keen insight into the workings of the world. Two things in particular fascinate me about this book:

1. Publishing — is it about art or about business? which only goes to show that the various crises the publishing industry regularly faces along with the criticisms hurled at bestselling authors for writing to formula and having no literary merit are not new.

2. Women. The period covered is one of transition: women are finding independence and starting to earn their own way in the world without shame. The Married Women's Property Act has just come into effect.

The matter of divorce: "Isn't it a most ridiculous thing that married people who both wish to separate can't do so and be quite free again?"

Gissing is modern. He's a feminist.

(And it's this transition in women's status that I find profoundly interesting. There's a little of this in Hamilton, and more of it in Christina Stead's Letty Fox; women working in shops but still aspiring to husbands of means. I've read books about women on estates with servants and about modern women, but very little about those in between, as if they never existed, though they may be the most real of all.)

Oh, and 3. The middle class, the admission that there is one.

"Biffen," he continued, "when I first made his acquaintance, had an idea of writing for the working classes; and what do you think he was going to offer them? Stories about the working classes! Nay, never hang your head for it, old boy; it was excusable in the days of your youth. Why, Mr. Reardon, as no doubt you know well enough, nothing can induce working men or women to read stories that treat of their own world. They are the most consumed idealists in creation, especially the women. Again and again work-girls have said to me: 'Oh, I don't like that book; it's nothing but real life.'"

"It's the fault of women in general," remarked Reardon.

"So it is, but it comes out with delicious naiveté in the working classes. Now, educated people like to read of scenes that are familiar to them, though I grant you that the picture must be idealised if you're to appeal to more than one in a thousand. The working classes detest anything that tries to represent their daily life. It isn't because that life is too painful; no, no; it's downright snobbishness. Dickens goes down only with the best of them, and then solely because of his strength in farce and his melodrama."

It sounds like a backhanded compliment to Dickens, and Gissing may even be asserting his superiority over him. The whole thing's laden with irony: Of course, this is exactly the sort of novel Gissing has written — the daily life of the working class.

And the women characters (although not exactly work-girls), meanwhile, want to read precisely this kind of novel:

"Best or worse, novels are all the same. Nothing but love, love, love; what silly nonsense it is! Why don't people write about the really important thins of life? Some of the French novelists do; several of Balzac's, for instance. I have just been reading his 'Cousin Pons,' a terrible book, but I enjoyed it ever so much because it was nothing like a love story. What rubbish is printed about love!"

"I get rather tired of it sometimes," admitted Edith with amusement.

"I should hope you do, indeed. What downright lies are accepted as indisputable! That about love being a woman's whole life; who believes it really? Love is the most insignificant thing in most women's lives. It occupies a few months, possibly a year or two, and even then I doubt if it is often the first consideration."

Edith held her head aside, and pondered smilingly.

"I'm sure there's a great opportunity for some clever novelist who will never write about love at all."

"But then it does come into life."

"Yes, for a month or two, as I say. Think of the biographies of men and women; how many pages are devoted to their love affairs? Compare those books with novels which profess to be biographies, and you see how false such pictures are. Think of the very words 'novel,' 'romance' — what do they mean but exaggeration of one bit of life?"

"That may be true. But why do people find the subject so interesting.?"

"Because there is so little love in real life. That's the truth of it. Why do poor people care only for stories about the rich? The same principle."

Gissing's a realist, with a touch of the cynic about him. This novel does deal with matters of love, in fact, but these are matters of business and of complications, and of how other (better?) relationships are sullied by these.

And I'm enjoying this novel because it's nothing like a love story.

Has anyone else read Gissing?

1 comment:

Melanie said...

I've read and reviewed "The Odd Women", which I thought was an okay novel, but a wonderful social document. As you say, Gissing has such modern feminist sensibilities which are a little surprising to come across in a book of that era. I have "New Grub Street" in a nice pbk edition waiting for me on the bookshelf near the bed, and you make me want to start it immediately.