I had found nothing to dislike about George Gissing first time round, New Grub Street about five years ago, and was suddenly moved to pick up The Nether World when I found myself stuck in the nineteenth century of late, waddling round in my bombazine gown.I'm still reading Bleak House in daily instalments and, once I reach the end of that and this one perhaps that will be my current addiction satisfied for a while or at least until it snows and I feel all nineteenth-century again.
George Gissing writes unrelenting gritty, tell-it-like-it-is fiction, it could be argued that he does for London what Emile Zola does for Paris and if I can cope with the despair of the lives he portrays I am gleaning a huge amount 200 pages into this latest read. If ever you want to read a fine readable fictional account of day to day life in nineteenth-century London look no further, you can almost see, hear and smell it on every page of The Nether World. The desperate ends that poverty-stricken people would go to for money, the struggle for survival both physical and emotional all keenly wrought.
The Oxford World's Classics cover picture declares this book with perfect accuracy and it intrigued me enough to track down the complete painting.
Behind the Bar 1882 by John Henry Henshall, and in The Museum of London.
Look at that little face proffering a bottle over the counter and the moribund looking babe in arms, probably being quietly slipped a top-up dose of Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup, fondly known as 'Quietness' according to my 1879 edition of Hints to Mothers. Dr Bull issues dire warnings about the use of Syrup of Poppies, but at half-a-crown the cost of this book doubtless prohibitive to the very people who could have done with reading it, if they could read that is.
George Gissing knew and wrote about all this and much more.
By chance I discovered that George Gissing had lived for some time up the road in Exeter and, proudly claiming Exeter as my place of birth, I was suddenly interested and had to know exactly where George had kicked off his boots and plonked his feet on the grate to toast his toes through the holes in his socks...I'm making a few assumptions there.
Does this happen to anyone else?
It's going to be a nigh on useless piece of information when I find it, just an address, nothing more, but in the finding of I had such a good time scouring the online 1891 census returns and eventually find it I did.
24 Prospect Park and George Gissing (spelt Gessing to fool me) had lived there with his wife Edith and, in the house at the same time, an editor, Charles Rockett.
In the end just 500 yards as the crow flies from the Priory Road house I was born in...er sixty two years later, as long as the crow survives crossing the main Exeter to London railway line that is.The stork made it OK.
So you see, nothing gained from that whatsoever but it all somehow fulfills the need to know.
Now finally I've found the John Halperin biography Gissing, a Life in Books which had been elusively mis-shelved here under Women's Diaries.
Halperin dishes the dirt and reveals that Gissing's marriage to Edith,
'a respectable girl of humble origin...she was no beauty'
was one made in hell, the woman who was
' to bear his children, to torture him for years, to drive him almost mad, and once more to make a financial slave of him'.
Except apparently in the ten weeks after first meeting Edith, George wrote New Grub Street so something must have inspired him.
I expect all she wanted was a new kitchen or the bathroom painted or something but according to H.G.Wells
'never did a man need mothering more'
and there's a man who must have known what he was talking about.
Gissing entered a form of literary exile in Exeter by all accounts and was thinking up ways to
'keep my mind active without the help of congenial minds.'
which doesn't say a lot for life in the West Country in 1891.Now of
course it's increasingly chock-full of congenial minds and wait until I
tell you about the forthcoming Peninsular Arts programme any day soon;
some highly respected literary figures trekking down to Plymouth to
speak in the coming year.We're all very excited.
Suddenly The Nether World, New Grub Street and all the other Gissing's waiting to be read seem like a worthwhile reason to hang around in the nineteenth century just a bit longer, especially as snow is forecast any day and there is a new biography of the man being published and now I can't wait to read it, George Gissing, A Life by Paul Delany due from Orion in February.
So I will refrain from mothballing my bombazine away in the trunk just yet because there will be renewed interest in all things Gissing for sure and we can all say, yes we've always liked him, did you know he lived at 24 Prospect Park, Exeter, Devon?
While everyone else says either 'George who?' or ' You really should get out more.'