21 Jul 2012

New Grub Street: a Review

There is a certain humour which makes the corners of my mouth twitch as I type about writing a review on a book which concerns book reviews. New Grub Street, written by George Gissing and published in 1891, explores the economic and social circumstances of the literary circles of the Victorian eta. In the book, Gissing creates a microcosm of London’s literary society (known as Grub Street for 300 years). Based on his own experiences, he offers a frightfully realistic depiction of what life was like for many intellectual people living in Victorian London.

Like moths to a flame, we are drawn into the irresistibly tough world of Edwin Reardon, a struggling novelist, and other characters such as Jasper Milvain, an ambitious journalist. We are thrown into the tumult of the bitter battles of these intellectuals; most notably, between artistic integrity and economic dictates. Through the characters of Reardon, Milvain and Yule we can feel, with heartfelt sympathy, the inescapable miseries of poverty and the fatal damage that failure can have on an individual and those around them.

The book is unrivalled in its sophistication and thoroughness, even when compared to its Victorian counterparts. George Orwell described it as 't
he most impressive of Gissing's books […]. To a professional writer it is also an upsetting and demoralising book, because it deals among other things with that much-dreaded occupational disease, sterility.'

Now, I won’t even pretend to have read any of Gissing’s novels but it is, indeed, impressive. We are rapt by empathy for Reardon’s economic situation, particularly when his dire circumstances are exacerbated by his silly snob of a wife; we are horrified by the hopelessly desolating fact that, without money, these characters that act as representations of many are doomed; we are thrown into momentarily jubilance at the prospect of Reardon succeeding, and are depressingly confounded that selfishness and money triumph over all good intentions and artful appreciation.

Central to the text are the differences in Jasper and Edwin’s approaches to literature, art and income. It is summed up by the extract below, spoken by Edwin Reardon, which is juxtaposed against Milvain.

“How I envy those clerks who go by to their offices in the morning! There's the day's work cut out for them; no question of mood and feeling; they have just to work at something, and when the evening comes, they have earned their wages, and they are free to rest and enjoy themselves. What an insane thing it is to make literature one's only means of support! When the most trivial accident may at any time prove fatal to one's power of work for weeks or months. No, that is the unpardonable sin! To make a trade of an art! I am rightly served for attempting such a brutal folly.”
Of course, a tragically inevitable fate awaits Reardon, despite my best wishes. His inability to take a leaf out of Milvain’s book, and write ‘the trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies.’ Unlike Reardon, he rejects artistic integrity for financial and social prominence, and succeeds. We are left with a pessimistic but, I fear, frightfully realistic depiction of Victorian society, where money is needed for success in life, whether in a literary career or another. Unfortunately, the same is probably as true today as it was back in Reardon’s day. Reardon experiences the shadier side of this hard fact of life, and pays for it with nothing less than his entire life.

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