In a tiny seventeenth-century cottage, fashioned from stone stables, I found the Idle Bookseller. Not that Ros Stinton lives up to her trade name, presiding as she does over the largest collection of books and pamphlets by or about the Victorian novelist George Gissing to be found anywhere. The shrine-cum-bookshop is up a steep flight of stairs at the back of her home, in Town Lane, Idle, once an ancient village but now swallowed up in the suburbs of Bradford. To the rear, which would have suited the mildly reactionary novelist, is the Idle Conservative Club. Down the road is the Idle Working Men’s Club, for which I imagine there is a long, if rather desultory, waiting list.
Gissing himself could never have been accused of idleness. In a short and mostly unhappy life, he wrote more than twenty novels chronicling Victorian England, before dying in the south of France at the age of 46. He was also the author of the first serious literary study of Dickens, volumes of letters, travel and autobiography, and a diary not published until 1978. His masterpiece, New Grub Street, a grim tale of London’s shady literary world first published in 1891, has hardly ever been out of print and has been described as ‘perhaps the greatest novel ever written about the collision of the creative impulse with material considerations’. That was the story of his life.
Grub Street was a real place, the haunt of needy authors and literary hacks in London’s Moorgate from the seventeenth century. Ironically, it was later renamed Milton Street. In the novel, the locale is reinvented as bitter commercial reality, a state of mind rather than a point of geography. Reardon, the scholarly novelist hero, is never able to earn enough to satisfy the social ambitions of his wife Amy. She leaves him, and he dies of congestion of the lungs, a terrible portent of Gissing’s own end. The anti-hero, fellow writer Jasper Milvain, is perfectly attuned to the needs of the market. H
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