In the spirit of Karen’s Holiday Reading post, I thought I’d offer a few words on a book in which I’ve been luxuriating this holiday season: the first volume of The Heroic Life of George Gissing. Pierre Coustillas’s eagerly-anticipated, triple-decker biographical tour-de-force has been several decades in the making, and, judging by this first installment, the completed project will deliver a masterfully detailed account of Gissing’s strange life.

As the author of The Nether World (1889), The Odd Women (1893), and the novel for which he is perhaps best known, New Grub Street (1891), George Gissing has often been characterized as a writer of gloomy, grim, unrelentingly pessimistic social realism, a kind of lesser Zola in all respects save bitterness. Indeed, the most arresting particulars of Gissing’s real life – relatively well-known in Victorianist circles – would seem to supply ample fuel for the creation of much fictional vitriol: the incredible promise of a prodigious mind dashed during a scandalous petty crime committed in the name of the prostitute with whom young Gissing had become psychologically and affectively entangled; the several unhappy, syphilitic marriages; the long and embattled road to an alarmingly modest literary career cut short by Gissing’s death at the age of 46.

Coustillas’s aim, in writing this biography, is to recalibrate the terms of the critical cul-de-sac to which Gissing’s work has been relegated for the last century-and-a-bit, and to recast Gissing as an earnest, energetic idealist whose rightful entrance into prime literary ranks has been thwarted by incapable assessors for far too long. Coustillas carries two formidable weapons into the Colosseum here: his career-long study of Gissing’s life and works, and his own earnest, energetic investment in the Gissing cause.

The first of these weapons is evident in the audacious quantity of detail about Gissing’s early life that Coustillas has quarried from the dustiest of annals. I won’t mention how many ancestral generations of Gissing’s are traced to what obscure points in the opening chapter of The Heroic Life, but I will say that the exhaustiveness of Coustillas’s research generally slips the charge of pedantry by painting a genuinely full and engrossing picture of Gissing’s small-town origins. The lives lived by Gissing’s father and paternal grandfather, for instance, make for a fascinating case study of the intergenerational accumulation of cultural capital in Victorian Britain’s non-urban lower-middle classes, and illuminate the emergence of a stripe of liberalism more social than strictly political in the latter half of the century.

Infusing this audacity of detail is Coustillas’s unmistakable authorial personality, which rises to the fore when facing off against any person or circumstance even vaguely responsible for circumscribing Gissing’s full flourishing. Not even Gissing’s own mother, who, admittedly, remained an emotionally distant figure throughout his life, escapes opprobrium:

She was an incurably incurious person, prematurely old-fashioned, as were the vast majority of Victorian lower-middle-class housewives, and although information about her is rather scarce and widely dispersed, all the elements available enable one to form an idea of her personality which is not likely to leave out anything essential. From no source do we gather that hers was a complex individuality. (25)

Right. Yikes.

Coustillas’s vociferous, spirited defense of Gissing animates this volume with the irresistible passion that marks all of his recuperative work on Gissing, and there’s an important sense in which this biography contains something like a ghostly autobiography of Coustillas himself, as an exemplar of an older model of scholarship that once turned on this kind of singular dedication. In 1970, P.T. Keating wrote of Coustillas that “no one else can match his enthusiasm and industry” (396). The fact that this same energy is still in evidence 40 years later speaks to the depth of commitment that Coustillas has brought to his Gissing project.

Such a single-minded focus has its downsides, of course, and the tone of this volume becomes needlessly defensive at times. When combined with repeated assaults that emphasize the cognitive deficits of various literary critics through the years, for example, Coustillas’s continuous insistence on Gissing’s elite intellectual abilities becomes a bit strident. My main contention with this defensiveness is the disservice it does to Coustillas’s otherwise sensitive and generous critical capacities.

The only other criticism I’d make with respect to this volume is the absence of any photographs therein. In this lovely review of the book, Anthony Quinn also notes this omission, one made all the more strange by the number of highly involved descriptions of photographs that embellish the text. Though serving, perhaps, as a kind of ekphrastic apologia, these descriptions only whet the appetite for the real thing.

Still, this biography is an unequivocal accomplishment, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. To quote P.J. Keating once more, “Those of us interested in Gissing, but less intensely committed to him, owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Coustillas” (393). The first volume of the biography describes Gissing’s life from 1857 to 1888, while the second part, coming out this very month, handles the period from 1888 to 1897. The third and final volume, due in July 2012, covers the years from 1897 to the time of Gissing’s death in France in 1903. I think I’ve got next year’s holiday reading list all sorted.

Coustillas, Pierre. The Heroic Life of George Gissing, Part I: 1857–1888. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011.

Keating, P.J. “The State of Gissing Studies.” Victorian Studies 13.4 (1970): 393-396.

6 thoughts on “The Heroic Life of George Gissing

  1. Wow! I love to read Victorian biographies for fun too. I hate to admit I do it with an eye to the footnotes. I am always curious in the absence of letters what people use as evidence (bank statements, accounts of the geographical milieu). You have me eager to read the first installment to see how the biographer put together the account of Gissing’s ancestry and background.

  2. There’s no shame in admitting how much you enjoy the backstage pass that footnotes often represent, Karen – I know what you mean! What’s amazing about this Gissing biography is just how many of the notes reference something – some photograph or odd document – in the biographer’s own collection.

    I’m very glad to hear that your appetite for more biographical reading has been whetted!

  3. I’m still new in my Gissing-studies, though can say I read Gissings “By the Ionian Sea” and thought it a masterpiece, I tried to read some of Gissings other work, but fail to see Gissings other ‘great work’, however I must admit there are some lines of good prose in his work, I say more or less as Yeast said of Crowley’s poetry . . .

  4. Gissing certainly isn’t for everyone, Alysa, though I’m glad to hear that you’ve taken to at least one of his works! On the other hand, I’ve often thought that the Yeats-Crowley exchange could have been taken right out of a Gissing novel, so there might yet be more there for you to enjoy. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I merely came to Gissings “By the Ionian Sea” by accident, I didn’t thought I’ve heard of him before, anyway at once I thought I must buy the book, I read it and thought than I must read some of his other work as well, I’ve also thought the Crowley – Yeast exchange could have come right out of a Gissing novel, anyway I ordered the first part of Coustillas’ “The Heroic Life of George Gissing” and am willing to buy the other parts as well!

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