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eorge Gissing is best remembered for his novels New Grub Street and The Odd Women, but these are the highlights of a career which, though short, was marked by relentless industry: he wrote another 21 novels, more than a hundred short stories, a travel book, literary criticism, essays. The details of his frequently miserable private life — miserable largely because of Gissing's stunning capacity for self-punishment — have fascinated generations of readers ever since his friend Morley Roberts published the first biography, thinly disguised under the title The Private Life of Henry Maitland. Roberts got many details and emphases wrong, but fortunately Gissing assiduously chronicled his own life, though the records were damaged before and after his death. Taken together, the superb edition of his Collected Letters, his Diary and the curious semi-fictional memoirs The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft give us a unique and touching insight into a very distinctive personality and the life he struggled through as a second-rank novelist in late Victorian England.

Gissing's fiction is broadly naturalistic and anti-romantic in flavour and exclusively urban in setting. His early novels are set among the London slums and deal with the life there in remorseless and penetrating, but not very sympathetic, detail: the best of these is The Nether World (1889), a masterpiece of minute, unsentimental observation of conditions at the bottom of the social pyramid. Other novels, of which the most characteristic is The Unclassed (1884) and the best New Grub Street (1891), deal with a special class of characters which Gissing made peculiarly his own. He defined them himself as "a class . . . distinctive of our time well educated, fairly bred, but without money."

Apart from his slum novels, the best of his work deals with social issues. Gissing was a deeply conservative, neurotic, restless man. He hated Jingoism and nationalism, predicting all too accurately where they would lead. He distrusted science and condemned the proponents of progress; he scorned all the popular enthusiasms of his day. His was an aristocratic sensibility, a sensibility deeply nostalgic for the past, especially the remote past of the classical world. However, his conservatism does not prevent him from being a perceptive, informed and amusing observer and diagnostician of many problems of the day: the production and consumption of 'literature' in New Grub Street; women's fettered ambitions and discontents in The Odd Women, class climbing in Born in Exile and the immoral lives of the fashionable, artistic middle classes in The Whirlpool. However, these are by no means didactic novels; not essays disguised as novels. Gissing always explores his subject in the individualised context of sex, class and money — the three poles around which all his work revolves.

Gissing was no experimenter in fictional technique, and he certainly wasn't interested in testing the boundaries of toleration. Dickens and George Eliot are his benchmarks in fiction, not Henry James or Thomas Hardy. His novels are conventional products of the late Victorian literary marketplace; a market which Gissing well understood and deplored, but which he could not afford to ignore. His earlier novels are nearly all too long, to fit the exigencies of the circulating libraries, and sometimes their material is beaten out thin. None of them have much in the way of symbolic, or even metaphorical, resonance. His plots, though neatly contrived, suffer from melodramatic intrusions. Few of his characters are really memorable; the male protagonists are nearly always studies in partial self-portraiture, and the females belong to a few types who appear repeatedly. We read and enjoy Gissing because he is such a personal writer who seems, more than most, to speak to each reader. It is largely a question of style. Gissing expended much effort on his style, and with time it became extremely distinctive: a melancholy, ruminative, confiding style, rising often to a high note of indignation or exaltation, full of the most acute, if occasionally laboured, psychological analysis, varied by excellent lively dialogue and shot through by flashes of dark, mordant, saturnine humour.

Last modified 26 November 2004