Predictably, I didn’t love this book like I did The Odd Women, though once I got into it, I did enjoy it. And usually I avoid books about writers and writing, finding them too navel-gazing; despite that, and the fact that it is a 19th century novel (published 1891), I read half the book in a single day.
This book follows several characters involved in various ways in the changing London literary scene. Edwin Reardon is a sensitive artist determined to write meaningful novels, to the chagrin of his wife, Amy, who has to pay the bills. His friend Jasper Milvain, on the other hand, will write anything for money and churns out articles like there’s no tomorrow; when the family runs short on funds, his sisters Maud and Dora start turning out commercial children’s books as well. Meanwhile Marian Yule spends her days ghostwriting for her father Alfred, a critic who blames his lower-class wife for success passing him by.
While the book follows the struggles and relationships of these characters, it is really about literary life in late 19th century London. This period seems to have begin the beginning of the modern literary world: universal primary education was new and meant books could be marketed to a mass audience, and so much material was being published that a book needed strong marketing to succeed. New Grub Street even includes reviewers praising works by their friends and panning that of their nemeses. I wasn’t always entirely convinced by Gissing’s portrayals: his hack writers, for instance, cheerfully proclaim that they are hacks working solely for money; but it seems to me that in real life all writers think well of their own work, no matter its actual quality. (Even romance, the most formulaic of all genres, apparently only appeals when the writer shares the audience’s fantasies; cynical authors have tried churning out admitted crap to manipulate a gullible audience, without success. But perhaps Gissing anticipated that, as Edwin’s experience with commercial fiction is similar.) At any rate, the largest part of Gissing’s bitterness is reserved for the plight of starving artists, and issues of money and class. This is a realistic novel about characters whose lives are shaped by their access (or lack thereof) to money and society – not restful reading, but it feels much more immediate and contemporary than the work of other Victorian writers.
Gissing keeps the story engaging, though it is a bit longer than necessary, and suffers from occasional melodrama toward the end. The weaving together of several stories is not always artful, with the book sometimes rewinding the clock to catch up on another character. On the other hand, the way minor characters’ stories play out in the background, getting complete arcs despite rarely appearing on-page, is skillful. And the plot doesn’t develop the way you might think; one of Gissing’s strengths is avoiding the traditional marriage plot in favor of a more complex and nuanced view of relationships.
The characters are believable, their stories interesting, and the setting well-drawn. Despite the contemporary feel to the discussions of books, there is always something to remind us how much times have changed; for instance, Edwin, who is supposed to be a sympathetic character, has no interest in his baby son and even resents his claim on Amy’s attention – a lack of paternal feeling that bothers exactly no one, not even Amy. Meanwhile, the writing is good and very readable for a classic, with plenty of dialogue and twists to keep readers invested.
So, then, I would recommend this novel – but after The Odd Women; I suspect this one gets more play these days because the people who make those “1000 books” lists are writers. But if there was ever a book to make you glad not to be a writer, this is it!