George Gissing

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George Gissing
George Gissing.jpg
BornGeorge Robert Gissing
(1857-11-22)22 November 1857
Wakefield, Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Died28 December 1903(1903-12-28) (aged 46)
Ispoure, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France
Literary movementNaturalism
Notable worksThe Nether World (1889)
New Grub Street (1891)
Born In Exile (1892)
The Odd Women (1893)


George Robert Gissing (/ˈɡɪsɪŋ/; 22 November 1857 – 28 December 1903) was a British novelist who published 23 novels between 1880 and 1903. Gissing also worked as a teacher and tutor throughout his life. He published his first novel, Workers in the Dawn, in 1880. His best known novels, which are published in modern editions, include The Nether World (1889), New Grub Street (1891) and The Odd Women (1893).


Early life[edit]

Gissing was born on 22 November 1857 in Wakefield, Yorkshire, the eldest of five children of Thomas Waller Gissing, who ran a chemist's shop, and Margaret (née Bedford). His siblings were: William, who died aged twenty; Algernon, who became a writer; Margaret; and Ellen.[1] His childhood home in Thompson's Yard, Wakefield, is maintained by The Gissing Trust.[2]

Gissing was educated at Back Lane School in Wakefield, where he was a diligent and enthusiastic student.[1] His serious interest in books began at the age of ten when he read The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens and subsequently, encouraged by his father and inspired by the family library, his literary interest grew.[3] Juvenilia written at this time was published in 1995 in The Poetry of George Gissing.[1] He was also skilled at drawing. Gissing's father died when he was 12 years old, and he and his brothers were sent to Lindow Grove School at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, where he was a solitary student who studied hard.[3]

In 1872, after an exceptional performance in the Oxford Local Examinations, Gissing won a scholarship to Owens College, forerunner of the University of Manchester.[1] There he remained solitary, continued his intense studies,[4] and won many prizes, including the Poem Prize in 1873 and the Shakespeare scholarship in 1875.[1]

Gissing's academic career ended in disgrace when he fell in love with a young woman Marianne Helen Harrison, known as Nell. She is often described as a prostitute, but there is no evidence for this. It is reported that he gave her money to keep her off the streets, again with no evidence. When he ran short of money he stole from his fellow students. The college hired a detective to investigate the thefts and Gissing was prosecuted, found guilty, expelled and sentenced to a month's hard labour in Belle Vue Gaol, Manchester, in 1876.[1]

Gissing, by Elliott & Fry

In September 1876, with support from sympathisers, he travelled to the United States, where he spent time in Boston and Waltham, Massachusetts, writing and teaching classics.[5] When his money ran out he moved to Chicago, where he earned a precarious living writing short stories for newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune.[1][6] He lived in poverty until he met a travelling salesman in need of an assistant and Gissing demonstrated his products.[7] These experiences partially inspired his 1891 novel, New Grub Street.[1] In September 1877, Gissing left America and returned to England.[nb 1][1]

Literary career[edit]

After returning to England, Gissing settled in London with Nell, writing fiction and working as a private tutor. He failed to get his first novel Workers in the Dawn accepted by a publisher and published it privately, funding it with money from an inheritance. Gissing married Nell on 27 October 1879.[1] Their marriage was plagued with poverty and they were frequently separated while Nell was institutionalized for alcoholism.[9] His only friend in London was fellow author and Owens College alumnus Morley Roberts, who wrote a novel based on Gissing's life, The Private Life of Henry Maitland, in 1912.[10] He was friends with Eduard Bertz, a German socialist with whom he became acquainted in 1879.[1] Gissing spent much time reading classical authors at the British Museum Reading Room, as well as coaching students for examinations.[11] He took long walks through the streets of London observing the poor. In his reading, John Forster's Life of Dickens particularly interested him.[12] He wrote in his diary entry for January 23rd 1888 that Forster's work was "a book I constantly take up for impulse, when work at a standstill'.[13]

According to his pupil Austin Harrison, from 1882 Gissing made a decent living by teaching; and tales of his fight with poverty, including some of his own remembrances, were untrue.[14] The issue of his supposed poverty may be explained by Gissing's attitude to teaching, which he felt robbed him of valuable writing time, and by poor management of his finances.[15][16]

Gissing's next novel, Mrs Grundy's Enemies, remained unpublished, like the first, although it was bought for publication by Bentley & Son in 1882.[17] George Bentley decided not to publish it despite Gissing making revisions.[1][18][19] Before his next novel, The Unclassed was published in 1884, Gissing and his wife separated, largely because Gissing was unwilling to give the time and energy required to support Nell through what was becoming her increasingly chronic ill-health. He continued to pay a small amount of alimony until her death in 1888.[1] Between his return to England and the publication of The Unclassed, Gissing wrote 11 short stories, although only "Phoebe" was published at the time, in the March 1884 issue of Temple Bar.[20]

Portrait of Gissing in 1901

The years following the publication of The Unclassed were a time of great literary activity. Isabel Clarendon and Demos appeared in 1886; Demos marked the beginning of a relationship with publishers Smith, Elder & Co., who published him until New Grub Street in 1891. The novels written at this time depicted the life of the working class. Gissing used the £150 proceeds from the sale of The Nether World in 1889 to fund a trip to Italy, which he had wanted to make for some time as a result of his interest in the classics.[1] His experiences in Italy formed a basis for the 1890 work The Emancipated.[21]

On 25 February 1891, he married another working-class woman, Edith Alice Underwood. They settled in Exeter but moved to Brixton in June 1893 and Epsom in 1894. They had two children, Walter Leonard (1891–1916) and Alfred Charles Gissing (1896–1975), but the marriage was not successful. Edith did not understand his work and Gissing insisted on keeping them socially isolated from his peers, which exacerbated problems in the marriage. Whereas Nell was too sick to complain about his controlling behaviour, some historians believe Edith stood up to him with arguments. She may have suffered uncontrollable and violent rages as Gissing claimed in his letters to Bertz, but from this distance in time it is impossible to know the truth. Gissing exerted his revenge – or protected the child from continual violent assaults since he stated in letters the child's safety was in danger – in April 1896, when Walter was spirited away without Edith's knowledge and sent to stay with Gissing's sisters in Wakefield. Gissing said this was to prevent the boy being a victim of Edith's violence but he strongly disliked the way she represented him to his son. Alfred, the younger child, remained with his mother. The couple separated in 1897, though this was not a clean break - Gissing spent his time dodging Edith and afraid she might seek a reconciliation. In 1902, Edith was certified insane and was confined to an asylum.[1] At this time he met and befriended Clara Collet who was probably in love with him, although it is unclear whether he reciprocated.[22] They remained friends for the rest of his life and after his death she helped to support Edith and the children.

Gissing's literary work began to command higher payments. New Grub Street published in 1891 brought him £250. In 1892 he befriended fellow writer George Meredith, who influenced his writing.[23] In the 1890s Gissing lived more comfortably from his earnings, though his health suffered, which limited the time he spent in London.[24] Novels from this period include Born in Exile in 1892, The Odd Women in 1893, In the Year of Jubilee, 1894 and The Whirlpool in 1897. From 1893, Gissing wrote short stories, some of which were collected in the 1898 volume Human Odds and Ends and other collected volumes were published after his death. In 1895, he published three novellas, Eve's Ransom, The Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires, reflecting the changing tastes of the reading public, which were moving away from three-volume novels.[1]

In 1897 Gissing met H. G. Wells and his wife, who spent the spring with him and his sister at Budleigh Salterton. Wells said Gissing was "no longer the glorious, indefatigable, impracticable youth of the London flat, but a damaged and ailing man, full of ill-advised precautions against the imaginary illnesses that were his interpretations of a general malaise".[25]

Later years[edit]

Commemorative plaque, 13 Rue de Siam, Paris 16th: "George Gissing, 1857–1903, English writer, lived here in 1900"

Soon after separating from Edith, Gissing made a second trip to Italy in 1897–1898, which is recounted in his travel book By the Ionian Sea (1901). While in Siena, he wrote Charles Dickens: a Critical Study.[26] In Rome he met H. G. Wells and his wife and did research for a romantic novel set in the sixth century, Veranilda. The Town Traveller, written in the final months of his marriage in 1897, was published while he was in Italy. After a short stay with his friend Bertz in Potsdam, he returned to England in 1898 and moved to Dorking in Surrey.[1]

In July 1898, he met Gabrielle Marie Edith Fleury (1868–1954), a Frenchwoman who approached him with a request to translate New Grub Street. Ten months later, they became partners in a common-law marriage as Gissing did not divorce Edith. They moved to France, where he remained, returning to England briefly in 1901 for a six-week stay in a sanatorium in Nayland, Suffolk. The couple settled in Paris, but moved to Arcachon when Gissing's health deteriorated. The final years of his life were spent in the villages of Ciboure, near St Jean-de-Luz, and Ispoure, near Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.[1]

Gissing's relationship with Fleury provided inspiration for his 1899 novel The Crown of Life. He wrote several novels during his third marriage, including Among the Prophets, which remained unpublished and no longer survives, Our Friend the Charlatan (1901) and Will Warburton, which was published posthumously in 1905. Gissing worked on a historical novel Veranilda, which was unfinished when he died. In 1903, he published The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, written between 1900 and 1901 which initially appeared as a serial entitled "An author at grass" in the Fortnightly Review.[1] It consists of a series of imaginary autobiographical essays written from the standpoint of a once struggling writer who inherited a legacy enabling him to retire in the countryside and brought much acclaim.

In addition to fiction, Gissing followed his critical study of Charles Dickens with further writings including introductions to editions of Dickens' works, articles for journals and a revised edition of John Forster's biography of the author.[1]

Gissing died aged 46 on 28 December 1903 after catching a chill on an ill-advised winter walk. Veranilda was published incomplete in 1904. In response to a Christmas Eve telegram, H. G. Wells came to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to be at Gissing's side in his final days and helped nurse him during his last illness. Wells characterized Gissing as a "flimsy inordinate stir of grey matter". Further on he said, "He was a pessimistic writer. He spent his big fine brain depreciating life, because he would not and perhaps could not look life squarely in the eyes,—neither his circumstances nor the conventions about him nor the adverse things about him nor the limitations of his personal character. But whether it was nature or education that made this tragedy I cannot tell."[27] Will Warburton was published in 1905, as was his final publication, the short story collection The House of Cobwebs.[28] Gissing is buried in the English cemetery at Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

Commemorative tablet at Gissing's birthplace

Gissing is given prominent space in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.[29][30] Gissing's conservatism was rooted in his aristocratic sensibility. After a brief flirtation with socialism in his youth, Gissing lost faith in the labour movements and scorned the popular enthusiasms of his day.[31] In 1892, he wrote to his sister Ellen, "I fear we shall live through great troubles yet ... We cannot resist it, but I throw what weight I may have on the side of those who believe in an aristocracy of brains, as against the brute domination of the quarter-educated mob." In The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Gissing reflected: "To think I once called myself a socialist, communist, anything you like of the revolutionary kind! Not for long, to be sure, and I suspect there was always something in me that scoffed when my lips uttered such things."[32] In his fictionalised biography of Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland, his friend Morley Roberts commented:

He had once, as he owned, been touched by Socialism, probably of a purely academic kind; and yet, when he was afterwards withdrawn from such stimuli as had influenced him to think for once in terms of sociology, he went back to his more natural despairing conservative frame of mind. He lived in the past, and was conscious every day that something in the past that he loved was dying and must vanish. No form of future civilisation, whatever it might be, which was gained by means implying the destruction of what he chiefly loved, could ever appeal to him. He was not even able to believe that the gross and partial education of the populace was better than no education at all, in that it must some day inevitably lead to better education and a finer type of society. It was for that reason that he was a Conservative. But he was the kind of Conservative who would now be repudiated by those who call themselves such, except perhaps in some belated and befogged country house.[33]


Gissing's early novels were not well received, but he achieved greater recognition in the 1890s, both in England and overseas. The increase in popularity was linked not just to his novels, but to the short stories he wrote in this period and his friendships with influential and respected literary figures such as the journalist Henry Norman, author J. M. Barrie and writer and critic Edmund Gosse. By the end of the 19th century, critics placed him alongside Thomas Hardy and George Meredith as one of the three leading novelists in England.[1] Sir William Robertson Nicoll described Gissing as "one of the most original, daring and conscientious workers in fiction."[34] Chesterton called him the "soundest of the Dickens critics, a man of genius."[35] George Orwell was an admirer and in a 1943 Tribune article called Gissing "perhaps the best novelist England has produced". He believed his "real masterpieces" were the "three novels, The Odd Women, Demos, and New Grub Street, and his book on Dickens. [The novels'] central theme can be stated in three words—'not enough money'."[36]


The traditional view of critics is that Émile Zola was a primary influence on Gissing,[37] but Jacob Korg suggests that George Eliot was a greater influence.[38]

The Gissing Journal[edit]

The Gissing Journal is a quarterly single-author journal devoted to the life and works of George Gissing, which publishes essays, book reviews, and news items on Gissing and his circle. It was first published in January 1965 and edited until December 1968 by Jacob Korg of the University of Washington. From January 1969 to April 2013 the editor was Pierre Coustillas, emeritus professor of English at the University of Lille. In July 2013 Malcolm Allen of the University of Wisconsin took over the editorship. However he was only able to produce six issues and the journal ceased publication in December 2014. Owing to the intervention of Markus Neacey, a regular contributor and independent Gissing scholar, The Gissing Journal restarted publication in January 2017, with Neacey as editor. In the previous year to this, he had written The Gissing Journal: A History and Index of the First Fifty Years (Grayswood, Surrey: Grayswood Press, 2016). Contributions from academics and enthusiasts are always welcome.

The Gissing Journal is indexed by the Modern Language Association, reviewed annually by The Year’s Work in English Studies, and regularly praised on the back page of the Times Literary Supplement. The complete contents of the journal from 1965 to 2008 can be read in pdf format on the following page of The Gissing in Cyberspace website:


  • Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898)
Short story collections
  • Human Odds and Ends (short stories, 1898)
  • The House of Cobwebs and other stories 15 short stories. (1906)
  • Letters to Edward Clodd (1914)
  • Letters to an Editor (1915)
  • The Sins of the Fathers and Other Tales (1924)
  • The Immortal Dickens (1925)
  • A Victim of Circumstances and Other Stories (1927)
  • A Yorkshire Lass (1928)
  • Brownie (1931, seven stories written for the Chicago Tribune c. 1876–7)[39]
  • Stories and Sketches (with preface by Alfred C. Gissing, 1938)
  • Essays and Fiction (1970)
  • My First Rehearsal and My Clerical Rival (1970)

Selected short stories[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Incorrectly, biographers Austin Harrison and Frank Arthur Swinnerton suggested that Gissing travelled to the town of Jena in Germany and studied the works of philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Auguste Comte before returning home, providing Gissing with the background for a character's visit to Germany in his novel Workers in the Dawn in 1880 but the details were provided by his friend Eduard Bertz and a note about travel plans in Gissing's notebook provides evidence of his direct voyage to England.[8]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Pierre Coustillas, 'Gissing, George Robert (1857–1903)' ((subscription or UK public library membership required)) , Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online), Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 17 June 2012.
  2. ^ The Gissing Trust
  3. ^ a b Swinnerton, p. 16
  4. ^ Swinnerton, p. 17.
  5. ^ Stearns, George A. (1926). "George Gissing in America," The Bookman, Vol. LXIII, No. 6, pp. 683–685.
  6. ^ Swinnerton, p. 19.
  7. ^ Swinnerton, p. 20.
  8. ^ Korg, p. 20.
  9. ^ Gissing, George (1983). Showalter, Elaine (ed.). The Odd Women. London: Penguin Books. pp. xv. ISBN 978-0140-43379-1.
  10. ^ Swinnerton, p. 22.
  11. ^ Swinnerton, p. 23
  12. ^ Swinnerton, p. 24.
  13. ^ Coustillas, Pierre ed. London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England: the Diary of George Gissing, Novelist. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1978, p.20.
  14. ^ Swinnerton, p. 26.
  15. ^ Harrison, Austin (1906). "George Gissing," The Nineteenth Century and After, Vol. LX, pp. 453–463.
  16. ^ Swinnerton, p. 28.
  17. ^ Gettmann, Royal A. (1957). "Bentley and Gissing," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 4, pp. 306–314.
  18. ^ Rawlinson, p. 138.
  19. ^ Korg, p. 54.
  20. ^ Rawlinson, p. 3.
  21. ^ Swinnerton, p. 29.
  22. ^ McDonald, Deborah (2004). Clara Collet 1860–1948: An Educated Working Woman. London: Woburn Press.
  23. ^ Swinnerton, p. 30.
  24. ^ Swinnerton, p. 31.
  25. ^ Swinnerton, p. 32.
  26. ^ Archer, William (1899). "Mr. Gissing on Dickens." In: Study and Stage. London: Grant Richards, pp. 28–32.
  27. ^ Wells, H.G. (1934). Experiment in Autobiography. New York: Macmillan. pp. 481–93.
  28. ^ Swinnerton, p. 34.
  29. ^ Kirk, Russell (1968). Collected Articles on George Gissing: Who Knows George Gissing?. London: Frank Cass & Co. pp. 3–13.
  30. ^ Kirk, Russell (1993). "Letters from Grub Street". The Modern Age. XXXV (4): 369–370.
  31. ^ "Victorian Web". Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  32. ^ Kirk, Russell (1960). The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. p. 432.
  33. ^ Roberts, Morley (1912). The Private Life of Henry Maitland. London: Eveleigh Nash. p. 174.
  34. ^ Nicoll, W. Robertson (1894). "The News of England". The Book Buyer. XI: 480.
  35. ^ Chesterton, G. K. (1906). Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. New York: Dodd Mead & Company. p. 5.
  36. ^ "George Gissing". Tribune. 2 April 1943.
  37. ^ Keary, C. F. (1904). "George Gissing". The Athenaeum. XVI: 82.
  38. ^ Bader, A. L. (1963). "New Looks at Gissing". The Antioch Review. 23 (3): 392–400. JSTOR 4610542.
  39. ^ "George Gissing in the Grub Street of Chicago" (PDF). New York Times. 26 June 1932. Retrieved 5 August 2018.


Further reading[edit]

  • Alden, Stanley (1922). "George Gissing, Humanist," The North American Review, Vol. CCXVI, pp. 364–377.
  • Allen, Margaret Pinckney (1922). "'The Odd Women' and 'The Girls'," The North American Review, Vol. CCXVI, pp. 691–694.
  • Anderson, Melville B. (1916). "A Chat about George Gissing," The Dial, Vol. LXI, pp. 3–7.
  • Baker, Ernest Albert (1950). "George Gissing." In: The History of the English Novel, Vol. IX. New York: Barnes & Noble, pp. 122–160.
  • Barry, William (1906). "George Gissing: In Memorian," The Bookman, Vol. XXX, p. 141.
  • Bennett, E.A. (1901). "Mr. George Gissing." In: Fame and Fiction. London: Grant Richards, pp. 197–208.
  • Bennett, E.A. (1902). "English and French Fiction in the 19th Century," The Academy, Vol. LII, pp. 173–174.
  • Bernbaum, Ernest (1902). "George Gissing," The Harvard Monthly, Vol. XXXV, pp. 20–28.
  • Bjorkman, Edwin (1904). "The Works of George Gissing," The Bookman, Vol. XVIII, pp. 600–603.
  • Brewster, Dorothy & Angus Burrell (1930). "George Gissing: Release Through Fiction?" In: Adventure or Experience; Four Essays on Certain Writers and Readers of Novels. New York: Columbia University, pp. 7–36.
  • Burrell, Angus (1927). "Gissing the Reticent," The Nation, Vol. CXXIV, pp. 648–649.
  • Clodd, Edward (1926). Memories. London: Watts & Co., pp. 165–195.
  • Collie, Michael (1975). George Gissing. University of Toronto Press.
  • Courtney, W.L. (1903). "George Gissing," The English Illustrated Magazine, Vol. XXX, pp. 188–192.
  • Cunliffe, John (1919). "George Gissing (1857–1903)." In: English Literature in the Last Half Century. New York: The Macmillan Company, pp. 97–118.
  • Delany, Paul (2008). George Gissing: A Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Dolman, Frederick (1897). "George Gissing's Novels," National Review, Vol. XXX, pp. 258–266.
  • Findlater, Jane H. (1900). "The Slum Movement in Fiction," National Review, Vol. XXXV, pp. 447–454.
  • Findlater, Jane H. (1904). "The Spokesman of Despair," The Living Age, Vol. CCXLIII, pp. 733–741.
  • Follet, Helen Thomas & Follet, Wilson (1967). "George Gissing." In: Some Modern Novelists. New York: Henry Holt & Company, pp. 50–71.
  • Gissing, Ellen (1927). "George Gissing: A Character Sketch," The Nineteenth Century, Vol. CII, pp. 417–424.
  • Gissing, Ellen (1929). "Some Personal Recollections of George Gissing," The Blackwood's Magazine, Vol. CCXXV, pp. 653–660.
  • Howe, Irving (1963). "George Gissing: Poet of Fatigue." In: A World More Attractive. New York: Horizon Press, pp. 169–191.
  • Hutcheon, Rebecca (2018). Writing Place: Mimesis, Subjectivity and Imagination in the Works of George Gissing. London: Routledge
  • Keahey, John (2000). A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea. New York: St. Martin's Press [following in Gissing's footsteps throughout southern Italy 100 years later].
  • Kennedy, J.M. (1913). "George Gissing." In: English Literature, 1880-1905. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, pp. 253–278.
  • Lister, Edith (1906). "Some Recollections of George Gissing," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. CCC, pp. 11–18.
  • Middleton, George (1913). "New Lights on Gissing," The Bookman, Vol. XXXVI, pp. 655–667.
  • Mauck, Helen Sawtell (1932). Problems of English Society as Depicted in the Novels of George Gissing, A Thesis, Kansas State College.
  • Neacey, Markus (2016), The Gissing Journal: A History and Index of the First Fifty Years. Grayswood, Surrey: Grayswood Press.
  • Gosse, Edmond (1927). "George Gissing." In: Leaves and Fruits. London: William Heinemann, Ltd., pp. 275–281.
  • Nicoll, W. Robertson (1913). "George Gissing." In: A Bookman's Letters. London: Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 288–296.
  • More, Paul Elmer (1908). "George Gissing." In: Shelburne Essays, Fifth Series. New York: Hoghton Mifflin Company, pp. 45–65.
  • Shafer, Robert (1935). "The Vitality of George Gissing," The American Review, Vol. V, No.4, pp. 459–487.
  • Tindall, Gillian (1974). The Born Exile: George Gissing. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p.p. 295
  • Wells, H.G. (1897). "The Novels of Mr. George Gissing," The Living Age, Vol. CCXV, pp. 22–28.
  • Waugh, Arthur (1915). "George Gissing." In: Reticence in Literature, and Other Papers. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, pp. 161–182.
  • Williams, Raymond (1983). "George Gissing." In: Culture and Society, 1780–1950. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 172–179.
  • Woolf, Virginia (1929). Introduction to Selections Autobiographical and Imaginative from the Works of George Gissing. London: Jonathan Cape.
  • Yates, Mary (1922). George Gissing, an Appreciation. Manchester University Press.

External links[edit]