I've read three of his books. The Odd Women, based around the question of the New Woman, New Grub Street, and Born In Exile. Gissing's portrayal of genteel women, caught in the trap of poverty with no realistic means of escape (too posh for labour, untrained for the 'male' professions, so their only recourse is to accept degrading and pitifully paid jobs in the limited professions open to them - governesses and teachers) is deeply moving, even when his general attitude to the emancipated woman remains ambivalent.
Similarly, New Grub Street explores the lower rungs of the literary world, how society rewards opportunism and networking over genuine literary endeavour.
Born in Exile, which I have just finished, is also his most striking - and provoking. Its main character, Godwin Peak, a fiercely intelligent and proud man born to a vulgar, lower middle family, seeks to improve his social connections and find an idealised perfect woman by becoming a member of the clergy. The year is 1884 and Godwin is a committed atheist, both by nature and training, yet the only way he can gain equal footing with men he considers his intellectual equals (the upper middle class), and the woman he considers his ideal, is through the social mobility offered by the church.
"There is a case in which a woman will marry without much regard to her husband's origin. Let him be a parson, and he may aim as high as he chooses."
Godwin is an egotist, a snob, proud to the point of self-destruction and one of the most unlikeable characters I have read about in a long time. I got through the first half of the book only because I longed to see his comeuppance. Yet, the sneaking suspicion came upon me that Gissing actually sympathised with Godwin's plight - that this hypocritical, self-justifying egotist was in fact the hero of this bitter, strange novel. The crazy thing is, by the end, Gissing had almost convinced me of it. Not wholly, but I sympathised with Peak - a man frustrated by his class and lack of means in finding a natural place for himself within society.
The double standards to which Godwin is subjected become clear when his dishonesty is denounced as vile, hypocritical and inspired by greed; social-climbing of the most dishonorable order, yet clergymen like the handsome and well-born Bruno Chilvers, who has patently little, if any, actual belief in Christianity is feted as a great, 'broad minded' man, a credit to the modernising church. This is highlighted in an amusing, somewhat heavy-handed exchange between the two men.
[Bruno]'The results of science are the divine message to our age; to neglect them, to fear them, is to remain under the old law .... Less of St Paul, and more of Darwin! Less of Luther, and more of Herbert Spencer!'
'Shall I have the pleasure of hearing this doctrine at St Margaret's?' Peak inquired.
'In a form suitable to the intelligence of my parishioners, taken in the mass. Were my hands perfectly free, I should begin by preaching a series of sermons on ~The Origin of species~. Sermons! An obnoxious word! One ought never to use it. It signifies everything inept, inert.'
Did I mention how objectionable I found Godwin Peak? Here is a sample of his views on womankind:
Conventional women--but was not the phrase tautological? In the few females who have liberated their souls, was not much of the woman inevitably sacrificed, and would it not be so for long years to come? On the other hand, such a one as Sidwell might be held a perfect creature, perfect in relation to a certain stage of human development. Look at her, as she sat conversing with Moorhouse, soft candle-light upon her face; compare her on the one hand with an average emancipated girl, on the other with a daughter of the people. How unsatisfying was the former; the latter, how repulsive! Here one had the exquisite mean, the lady as England has perfected her towards the close of this nineteenth century. A being of marvellous delicacy, of purest instincts, of unsurpassable sweetness. Who could not detail her limitations, obvious and, in certain moods, irritating enough? These were nothing to the point, unless one would roam the world a hungry idealist; and Godwin was weary of the famined pilgrimage.
Popular culture (of a book that has gained widespread appeal):
'...I couldn't read a page. Whatever the mob enjoys is at once spoilt for me, however good I should otherwise think it. I am sick of seeing and hearing the man's name... This book seems to me to have a bad smell; it looks mauled with dirty fingers. I despise Oldwinkle for his popularity. To make them laugh, and to laugh ~with~ them--pah!'
Working class Londoners:
But the London vulgar I abominate, root and branch. The mere sound of their voices nauseates me; their vilely grotesque accent and pronunciation--bah! I could write a paper to show that they are essentially the basest of English mortals.
In a character, these attitudes are startling and unpleasant, but when you suspect that they are the voice of the author - well, it's difficult as a 'modern reader' to adjust to it, to accept with a blithe 'oh, well, it was different then.'
Still, what is extraordinary about Gissing for me is how very real he makes the experiences of these Victorians, with their economies (absorbing to read about the cost of a meal, rent for a room, the price of meat - survival. And then to compare it to the aristocrats I regularly read about in romances, with their thousand pound Worth gowns and flashing jewels). He makes the London fog real (for the best description, there's an incredible passage in The Odd Women), and the petty struggle of maintaining a social standing; the rigid immobility of the late Victorian class structure. The problematic reception to the 'emancipated woman,' and 'radical politics' - in other words, the spread of democracy, which necessarily meant bestowing rights and powers upon the 'unenlightened mob' Godwin so despises. Fear and loathing of commercialism, consumerism and the 'dumbing down' of culture pervades his work.
Most astonishing of all (though perhaps I am being naive) is the battle between science and religion that raged over a century ago, and shows no signs of abating even today. That the debate is alive and well, and its parameters so unchanged seems incredible. Reading Gissing, I feel I can reach out and touch these faraway people, the space of years reduced by the similarity of our day to day struggles, both material and otherwise.
A troubling, infuriating writer, but worth the effort, I think.
A snippet from a review of Gissing's biogrpahy:
Orwell, who admired him, once proposed that every writer eventually produces a book whose title summarises their attitude to life. Gissing's, you suppose, would be Born in Exile, but the gate-keeper who barred him from the paradisal park of his imaginings - a thousand a year, intellectual company and a "lady" to love - was substantially his own inner self.
Here’s a bio on the Victorian Web
And a website devoted to all things Gissing.