I kind of understand why George Gissing isn’t as popular as, say, Charlotte Bronte

oddwomenGeorge Gissing is a really good writer. I’m reading his The Odd Women, right now, and it’s a really brilliant feminist novel: probably one of the best feminist novels I’ve ever seen from a 19th century author–it has strong women and weak women, moral women and immoral women, understanding lovers and wrathful lovers. In general, it avoids falling into several traps. The first is the implication that although these women are exceptional, most women are simpletons. And the second is the implication that women, overall, are purer and more moral than men.

No, this novel is really fascinating. It deals with a pair of reformers who are trying to teach unmarried women how to earn a living as clerks, but it also has a bunch of other characters. For instance, there’s Monica Madden, who dislikes the reformers and is sooo not about working for a living, and decides to marry a well-off guy in order to escape the working world, only to discover that she needs to assert herself (and profess a belief in the equality of the sexes) purely in order to get her controlling husband off her back.

And there are her spinster sisters, Virginia and Alice Madden, who come off as somewhat simple and beaten down by life. They have an indomitable will to survive, but they have nothing more: no energy and no passion. And it’s not their fault! That’s the thing. Gissing recognizes that although their fate wasn’t predetermined (another character, Rhoda Nunn, who faced similar circumstances, managed to triumph and build a life), it was, nonetheless, a product of the oppressive society in which they grew up.

I love Gissing. This is the third novel of his that I’ve read in as many months (the others were New Grub Street and The Whirlpool) and all have been exciting and refreshing.

However, I do understand why he’s not as popular or well-known as, say, Charlotte Bronte.

I feel like Gissing is an author who you love if you’ve read a lot of 19th century British novels. You love him if you’ve become accustomed to the Romantic outlook and larger-than-life characterization of Victorian literature. When you open Gissing, everything–the language and the milieau and the plotlines–leads you to expect hijinks and drama. But instead you get solid psychological realism. It’s pretty shocking stuff!

However, if you haven’t read much 19th century literature, then I imagine your reaction to Gissing would be a bit like, “What’s the point? This is just like a modern novel, except it’s harder to read.”

Teachers are always trying to point to older novels and say, “Look how ahead of its time this is!” But, really, that’s not what we want in an older novel. What we want from older literature is to see and feel and hear something different–something that’s not being done anymore. We want omniscient, intrusive narrators and long-winded digressions. We want horrific melodrama and strange Dickensian caricatures. And we want those things, because they change our view of what a novel is and what it can do.

Art, unlike science, contains no progress. 19th century novels aren’t less advanced than modern novels. They’re simply different. And when we read them, we read something that’s very different and yet equally good.

I think the thing that I love most about Gissing is the way that he shows me what realism is. It’s possible, in his books, to feel exactly the moment at which they go off the rails and deviate from what would happen in a Dickens novel or a Trollope novel. For instance, I’m currently at a part where Monica (now marired) is conducting a somewhat-illicit dalliance with another man. In a Trollope novel, he’d turn out to be a cad. In a Dickens novel, she would be a trollope AND he would be a cad. But in a Gissing novel, you’re not sure. Neither are cads. They’re both just people–good people who are caught up in their emotions and in the whirl of events. And because of that, you really have no idea what will happen.

Guess I’m reading books again. Just finished George Gissing’s NEW GRUB STREET

New Grub StreetIt’s a book that’s shockingly unlike any 19th century British novel I’ve read before. In my mind, there’s a clear divide between 19th century British and French literature. French literature is concerned with the specifics of things: how businesses work, how ordinary people live, and how relationships come together and break apart. Whereas British literature is more broad strokes. It’s concerned with personalities and archetypes. French literature is serious; British literature is funny. French literature is primarily realist, while British literature is primarily Romantic.

However, I guess there was a British realist movement after all, because this book is not funny, and its psychological portraits are very finely-grained. The book is ostensibly about a few struggling men (and women) of letters in the late 19th century, but like most British novels, the book is really about whether it’s possible to live a good life if you have no money. Most British novels, however, tend to elide this problem by having the protagonist magically inherit enough money somewhere in the 3rd act. That’s what makes them Romantic rather than Realist. British literature borrows all the angst and drama of not having enough money, but doesn’t want to worry about the consequences.

Not to spoil anything, but New Grub Street does not do that. I think I can even pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that this book was playing by different rules. It was a few chapters in, when Edwin Reardon is having conflict with his wife, Amy, over his inability to write another novel, and their increasing financial straits. He asks her whether she still loves him, and she replies, “Oh yes! Of course!” (or something like that), but you start to realize that things are more complicated than that. She certainly has love for him, but it’s waning. Things aren’t what they used to be.

This is one of the few 19th-century British novels that had me in genuine suspense throughout, because I was like, I don’t know. I genuinely do not know. Are Henry and Amy going to make it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Anyway, it’s worth reading, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, which I apparently am, since I immediately started reading a 19th century Spanish realist novel: Benito Perez Galdos’ Tristana.