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Labourers in Fetters

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It’s natural and not, I guess, uncommon for aspiring writers to look to established practitioners for hints on how to proceed. In my own case, though avid in my day for useful tips on how to make my mark in the Republic of Letters, I only ever came across two of any real value. The first was Mark Twain’s steely injunction: ‘Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’ The second was Hemingway’s advice to stop writing for the day before you have said everything you have lined up ready to commit to paper; that way you have something in reserve to restart the engine when you return to your desk tomorrow. To these two golden nuggets, I would add a third: read George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

Life is not a fairy story in which merit and reward are exactly balanced. Indeed, it is because of their imbalance in real life that fairy stories are needed. This I take it was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she described Middlemarch – an epic on the theme of disappointment, and emphatically not a fairy story – as ‘the first English novel written for grown-ups’. On similar grounds, New Grub Street, published in 1891, twenty years after Middlemarch, might well be called the second. Its subject is the hopes and struggles of a group of people, all known to each other, and all trying more or less desperately to make a living with their pens. It is, finally, a story of blighted hopes and stillborn promise in which decency, intelligence and good intentions are inadequate preventers of catastrophe.

For most of these characters their choice of career was originally dictated by a love of reading and the desire to apply their talents in the only world in which they feel at home: the world of books. One of the group, however, stands out as an exception: Jasper Milvain, New Grub Street’s anti-hero as one is tempted to call him, has no interest in literature as a source of refined enjoyment

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It’s natural and not, I guess, uncommon for aspiring writers to look to established practitioners for hints on how to proceed. In my own case, though avid in my day for useful tips on how to make my mark in the Republic of Letters, I only ever came across two of any real value. The first was Mark Twain’s steely injunction: ‘Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’ The second was Hemingway’s advice to stop writing for the day before you have said everything you have lined up ready to commit to paper; that way you have something in reserve to restart the engine when you return to your desk tomorrow. To these two golden nuggets, I would add a third: read George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

Life is not a fairy story in which merit and reward are exactly balanced. Indeed, it is because of their imbalance in real life that fairy stories are needed. This I take it was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she described Middlemarch – an epic on the theme of disappointment, and emphatically not a fairy story – as ‘the first English novel written for grown-ups’. On similar grounds, New Grub Street, published in 1891, twenty years after Middlemarch, might well be called the second. Its subject is the hopes and struggles of a group of people, all known to each other, and all trying more or less desperately to make a living with their pens. It is, finally, a story of blighted hopes and stillborn promise in which decency, intelligence and good intentions are inadequate preventers of catastrophe. For most of these characters their choice of career was originally dictated by a love of reading and the desire to apply their talents in the only world in which they feel at home: the world of books. One of the group, however, stands out as an exception: Jasper Milvain, New Grub Street’s anti-hero as one is tempted to call him, has no interest in literature as a source of refined enjoyment to writer and reader alike. It is simply a commodity, and its value is what someone will pay for it. A complex and somewhat Steerpike-ish figure, Jasper is all too clearly aware of the true nature of the would-be writer’s position at the bottom of the literary food-chain and of what is needed to rise above it. To make writing one’s profession, to set oneself to feed a family and keep a roof over their heads with nothing more than a blank sheet of paper and the words one finds to fill it takes a special kind of courage and a sustained exercise of willpower. And in the end these may not be enough because the Enemy is omnipresent and very strong. Its name is Poverty. Jasper alone among Gissing’s characters has realized from the start the terrible truth that the cause of poverty is poverty and that the only hope of release from the wheel is exceptional self-discipline, single-minded ambition and a ruthless avoidance of anything and anyone superfluous to his purposes. And he frankly acknowledges the need for what the French call piston – the helpful push up the ladder from carefully cultivated acquaintances. The book’s other central figure, Jasper’s friend Edwin Reardon, has none of Jasper’s flinty clarity of vision. When we first hear of him we learn that he has just sold a three-decker novel for £100 and on the strength of this first very modest success he has married, and moved into an unfurnished flat. Worse – he has become a father. Already, then, he is the victim of what Cyril Connolly called the number one ‘enemy of promise’: the Pram in the Hall. From this moment on, Edwin will be running to stand still. Simply to maintain – let alone improve – his already parlous position he must produce another three-decker. And another after that. And another after that. Fair enough, we think: he’s done it once, he can do it again. And again. But there’s the rub: Edwin hasn’t an idea in his head; he has already used up his entire stock of fictionable material and is now suffering from the mother and father of writer’s blocks. Plot and character are just not his thing. They require a kind of imagination and power of invention which he simply doesn’t have. ‘If I had had the means,’ he tells Jasper, ‘I should have devoted myself to the life of a scholar.’ This we can believe when we learn that the first piece of writing he tried – and failed – to sell was an essay on the B-team Latin poet Tibullus. Now the nearest he gets to the world of scholarship is the occasional evening with his friend Biffen (a likeable character, poor as a church mouse but oddly contented with his lot), discussing tricky passages in the Greek Anthology and dreaming of one day visiting Greece again, where once, briefly, he was truly happy. Edwin Reardon and Jasper Milvain, while drawn as believable portraits of people whose doings and destinies can really engage us, are at the same time figures illustrating a permanent and universal divide in the world of letters between those who write because there’s something they want to say and those who write for a carefully researched market. Of course, it may happen by chance that the first group unexpectedly tickles the fancy of a large audience, while the second group may misjudge their aim and find no readers at all. But where Edwin and Jasper are concerned, we can be pretty sure that Edwin’s effusions are not going to become a surprise bestseller any more than Jasper’s are going to fail to reach the audience he has shrewdly targeted. And, of course and inevitably, it will be The Market that decides, sternest of judges against whom there is no appeal. Gissing shows us a third type of toiler in the literary salt-mines in the persons of Alfred Yule and his daughter Marian. Yule, a dry-as-dust, embittered academic manqué, spends his time scratching about in the literary undergrowth for material he can work up into papers on more or less recondite topics (‘French Authoresses of the Seventeenth Century’, for example) which he sells for a bare pittance to the heavyweight or would-be heavyweight periodicals. His happy hunting-ground is the Reading Room of the British Museum where his daily labours are lightened by his daughter, who does all his research and gets in return precious little in the way of thanks or appreciation. Devoted, modest, uncomplaining and – we are allowed to suspect – twice as intellectually gifted as her father, Marian, the book’s heroine, if there is one, is easy to like and we are not surprised when she innocently attracts the amorous interest of Jasper Milvain (and I shall not tell you how that turns out). New Grub Street is not a cheery read. It is a tragedy, and like all tragedy it exerts a fascination which would be difficult to explain to a Martian. We only know that the unfolding story draws us on as we read towards what we know from the start is not going to be a happy ending. It owes part of its interest, admittedly, to its being at once a piece of fiction and a social document aiming at truth – a report from the Lower Depths, of which Gissing was himself a denizen. Like Dickens, Gissing shows us the Victorian city seen from below – grimy, fog-bound and peopled by creatures to whom life has not been kind. But unlike Dickens he speaks from lived experience of the urban underworld that Dickens (despite his brief but traumatic period of servitude in the famous blacking factory) knew essentially as a tourist, if an uncommonly sharp-sighted one. Another tourist in the world of the working poor was George Orwell (‘tourist’ in the sense that he entered that world as a deliberate choice – though from impeccable motives – and could escape from it whenever he chose). Orwell was fascinated by New Grub Street. He called it ‘a protest against the form of self-torture that goes by the name of respectability’. And he described its author as ‘a bookish, over-civilised man, in love with classical antiquity, who found himself trapped in a cold, smoky Protestant country where it was impossible to be comfortable without a thick padding of money between yourself the outer world’: precisely the situation in which Edwin Reardon finds himself. Money or the lack of it is, notoriously, a leading motif in virtually all nineteenth-century fiction, where happy endings normally take the form of Good People comfortably off (after some sticky moments) and Bad People up the creek without a paddle. New Grub Street heroically refuses to follow this well-trodden path. It is Jasper who puts the novel’s mission statement into words when he calls poverty ‘the root of all social ills’. And he adds, ‘The poor man is labouring in fetters.’ Gissing, of course, was not the only writer of his time so hampered. He belongs, rather, with a ragged-trousered band of nineteenth-century writers whose lives and work were shaped by their experience of poverty – experience which lends a special authority to their reports on life in the Lower Depths. James Thomson, for example, the hapless author of The City of Dreadful Night, can make this claim. So could Ernest Dowson, whose ‘days of wine and roses’ were days in which the roses – alas! – came in a poor second to the wine. So could tubercular W. E. Henley, whose lack of a leg inspired his friend Stevenson’s Sea Cook and for whom Edward Thomas commissioned a wooden leg of his own design from the village carpenter and was billed for a ‘novelty cricket bat’. And so could Welsh ‘supertramp’ W. H. Davies, who took to life on the road in order to live as cheaply as possible while trying to raise enough money to self-publish his first book of poems. Aside from empty pockets, one quality these writers had in common was the courage which fuelled their determination to follow their calling as writers, whatever the cost and however desperate their circumstances. Gissing was in good company here, in what I like to think of – not too fancifully, I hope – as our first Beat Generation.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Roger Jones 2017


About the contributor

Roger Jones is hoping to be magically translated to some desert island where he will never again have to hear the words Trump or Brexit. Meanwhile he is working on a new (third) edition of What’s Who?, his ever-growing dictionary of eponyms.

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