George Gissing's New Grub Street was first published in three volumes in 1891. The subject matter and major themes of the work make it difficult to not consider Gissing's biography in conjunction with the text. Gissing's adult life was a trying one; one plagued by difficulties in marriage and literary career.
Early in his career, Gissing was imprisoned briefly for stealing money in order to help a prostitute by the name of Helen Harrison. Gissing married Helen, but it was an unhappy marriage--she died from her heavy drinking several years later. Subsequently, Gissing's view of his own, rather bleak financial standing led to his marrying Edith Underwood, a working-class woman with whom there is little evidence that he felt true concordance with. Such tensions of marriage and career recall those that are central to the narrative of New Grub Street.
It was shortly after Gissing's marriage to Edith that he wrote New Grub Street. Gissing had no high hopes for the work, writing that he had produced it out of an "utter prostration of spirit," but nevertheless the work met with a generally positive critical response. This, unfortunately, was not enough to make Gissing a household name. Nevertheless, Gissing's work remains crucially important today in presenting a faithful portrait of some of the new difficulties of the "literary" profession at the turn of the century.
The title of the work references the "Grub Street" of the 18th century which came to be synonymous with hack writers of small literary merit, in Samuel Johnson's formulation, "originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet." Gissing's work chronicles the lives of writers in the 1880s, "New Grub Street" referring to difficult relationships between "literature" and the contemporary market.
The story follows the friends and relations of an old family by the name of Yule. There were three brothers, John, Edmund, and Alfred. Of these brothers, John chose to engage in business, manufacturing paper and becoming relatively prosperous. Edmund died leaving little money to his widow and his daughter, Amy, who has married young writer Edwin Reardon who seeks to write literature free from the gross contingencies of the "market."Alfred Yule engages primarily in writing pedantic literary pieces for which there is only a small audience at best. His daughter Marian is his assistant, and his wife a woman of modest backgrounds who inevitably feels alienated from the intellectual camaraderie between her husband and daughter.
Reardon's friend, Jasper Milvain, is a young journalist and avowed "man of business," as "practical" as Reardon is idealistic. Milvain's sisters Dora and Maud come to live with Jasper in London after their mother dies, and the Milvains all become acquainted with Marian via Jasper's encounters with her at the British Museum Reading Room. A budding interest develops between Jasper and Marian, but the prospects seem bleak because Jasper has designs to marry a wealthier woman who can support his endeavors and also because Alfred takes an intense dislike of Jasper owing to Jasper's ties to an editor named Fadge who has disparaged Alfred's work.
When Marian receives five-thousand pounds from the death of her uncle John Yule, Jasper decides to propose marriage. Marian accepts against her father's will (her father wishes that Marian will help him invest in a new literary venture), but their engagement is postponed indefinitely when she finds that the money is in fact unavailable. During the postponement, Jasper yields to the temptation of money and asks a wealthier woman, Miss Rupert, to marry him. Miss Rupert, however, refuses him and he goes back to Marian to suggest that they marry immediately. Marian sees that Jasper's heart is not in it, however, and breaks off their engagement.
Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon finds that he is unable to write because of financial pressures--he finds that his success at producing writing cannot be contingent on commercial pressures. This places a strain on his marriage, and pushed to the wall, Edwin accepts a job as a clerk to one Mr. Carter. Amy leaves with their ten-month old son Willie to live with her mother and brother, feeling Edwin's position to be disappointing (she had suggested he leave to the seaside for a few months to recover his nerves and to then try writing again). Edwin and Amy become more and more estranged from one another, and even when financial problems might be solved by Amy inheriting ten thousand pounds from the death of John Yule, Edwin feels too proud to accept her money. Similarly proud, Amy refuses to go with Edwin to Croydon when he finds a more stable position (a secretaryship) there.
A well-meaning friend, Harold Biffen, tries to convince Reardon to reconcile with Amy but to no avail. It is not until Reardon receives news that his son Willie is dying that he goes to Amy, and the two reconcile over this tragedy. However, Reardon, weak from his poverty, soon dies from illness as well. Poor Biffen (who has recently survived a fire and saved a manuscript for a realist novel he has written narrating the commonplace events in the life of one "Mr. Bailey, Grocer") receives Reardon's old furniture and room but his lack of literary success and corresponding lack of female company leads him to take poison and commit suicide. In contrast, another writer, Whelpdale has involved himself with a scheme to revamp a periodical by the name of Chat as Chit-Chats, catering to a public that has an increasingly low attention span. Whelpdale is successful, manages to become an editor, and decides to propose to Dora Millvain, who accepts. It seems that the more "business" minded writer wins most.
This result is borne out too by Jasper Milvain's success at the close of the novel. Having practically manipulated Marian into rejecting him, Jasper is now free to marry Amy Reardon. Her fortune enables him to become editor at Fadge's magazine, The Current. The novel ends with their happy ending, but the way in which they discuss Marian as a sort of burden which he has avoided feels deeply unsettling.
Gissing's narrative doesn't quite follow a chronological format but switches its focus back and forth between characters, thus often employing retrospective signifiers.
Despite Jasper Milvain's attempts to write friendly reviews of Biffen's realist work, Mr. Bailey, Grocer, Biffen's work is torn apart by other readers and critics. They complain that its focus on commonplaces leads to its failing in fiction's "first duty" (to tell a story) and to amuse readers, besides. No doubt Gissing too seeks to focus on the commonplaces of writerly lives, on the poverty and the meanness which seems to always befall those who strive for literary value independent of fluctuating readerly tastes. However, Gissing does tell a story (or rather, stories) of the commonplace that manage to maintain momentum and interest.
The picture of late nineteenth-century London as a place for writers is a complicated one--it isn't just one which condemns the market for destroying the humanistic ideals of the "literary men." Gissing knows that his relatively well-to-do, pragmatic reader won't readily sympathize with men like Reardon or Biffen; in an odd narrative break, Gissing launches into an extended second-person address:
"The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don't they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make a place in the world's eye - in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr. Jasper Milvain?...But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world's labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of society, and they are admirable citizens."
Yet, despite this appeal, it is Gissing that has painted such an unsympathetic portrait of Reardon when he says any number of ugly, mean things to his wife who indubitably suffers for his inability to write for the market. And, it is Gissing who paints the portrait of the poor Biffen, deluded into thinking he loves Amy Reardon during his final days of intense poverty and immense sexual frustration. The suggestion that they might be great men in a society that operated less according to the market and to the "practical" seems to fall flat given these portraitures.
Along the same lines of presenting a complicated and "real" view of the literary world, Jasper Milvain is neither a modern villain without human feeling, nor is he a paragon for the new man of letters. Milvain is at times generous--though, admittedly, only when he himself feels well off enough--such as when he writes good reviews for Biffen and Reardon. He understands much about "success" that Reardon and Biffen do not: he understands that one needs to know people and have a reputation that precedes one's writing, he understands a new generation of readers with a less "sustained attention" and a demand for shorter, amusing pieces, and he understands the practical but very real difficulties and strains placed on a marriage when poverty intervenes. Still, Gissing doesn't excuse Milvain's treachery against Marian, and Milvain himself seems torn apart by his own performance of such a treachery. Amy and Jasper's "happy ending" ("So Amy first played, and then sang, and Jasper lay back in dreamy bliss") sounds bitingly ironic next to the reminder of Marian's continuing struggles.
It seems that Gissing provides no "answers," and even the book itself is kind of a question or challenge to his readers: in writing about the state of literature in an increasingly capitalist society that successfully commodifies aspects that were hitherto taken as humanistically independent of the market, has he been able to write something which exempts itself, through its self-reference and self-awareness? The experiment is an interesting one.