George Gissing, by Paul Delany

The glory of the gutter
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The Independent Culture

The truism that a damaged life is the mother of artistic invention can have no sharper illustration than the very sad career of George Gissing. The smartest boy in England – top in Latin and English in London University's matriculation exams – he went on to produce a set of the most important, engaging, realistic novels about late-Victorian society that we have. The Nether World (low life in London's Clerkenwell), New Grub Street (trying to be a writer in the harsh new era of commercial publishing), The Odd Women (what price marriage in the era of the New Woman?) keep their force. Gissing is England's Zola, a strong successor to Dickens, to be named in the same breath as Hardy.

But the unremittingly pessimistic tale told by Gissing's catalogue of novels and stories – about people down on their financial uppers, sexually needy, stuck in bad marriages, haunted by unspeakable pasts, cursed by snobberies, sunk in the mire of social distinction, close to the workhouse and madhouse, drawn to the Thames Embankment and the seduction of chucking themselves in – is all his own story. He was the quintessential writer maudit.

Gissing was awfully short of blessings in his life, but he is now very blessed in getting the kind of canny, sensitive and clued-up biographer he (and his fiction) have long been crying out for. Jacob Korg's George Gissing: a critical biography is very good, but it did come out 44 years ago, well before the great nine-volume edition of the Letters in the 1990s, and the Gissing critical machine headed by the formidable researcher and editor, Pierre Coustillas.

Paul Delany benefits from all that work. He has the advantage of being able to draw on a story until now widely scattered. He is also a properly careful user of the novels as evidence. John Halperin's Gissing: a life in books (1987) is greatly suggestive that way, but does keep going too far. Halperin often commits what used to be called the Biographical Fallacy, which Delany avoids. The avoidance helps make this Life the best contribution so far between single covers to a grasp of Gissing's very grim ways.

Things went badly early on. Born in 1857, he amputated his promising academic career by stealing from fellow students at Manchester's Owens College. The money was for Nell Harrison, a 17-year-old prostitute he had fallen for. After a month in the panopticon prison of Bellevue, he fled to the US. Starving in Chicago, he embarked on his future life-sentence of writing for money.

Cash from the papers bought him his passage home, where he married his Nell. His motives were utterly confused. He felt a marked man, a jailbird Cain, exiled from respectable society. He'd have to slum for sex. Desirable posher women would not, he thought, go for a lower-middle-class type (his father was a Wakefield pharmacist). He was befuddled too, like many Victorian men, by masterful Pygmalion dreams of raising a girl from her gutter.

The sex was good, at least at first, but the mission failed. Nell drank more, wouldn't stop trading her body on London streets. They separated, though he kept on giving her money. She died of the effects of drink and syphilis, in a slummy room, the bed-clothes pawned, a crust and lump of butter in a drawer, his picture on the wall. She remained a dark secret, added to the unspeakable jail record.

Deep down now in the Grub Street mire, syphilitic, coaching for money, ripped off by publishers, he made the same mistake all over again. He hastily married Edith Underwood, a girl picked up in the Marylebone Road, dooming himself to more years of self-exile from "educated people", stuck in a hell of quarrelling, plate-throwing and child-beating by a mate utterly averse to the improvements he would have liked. She never, he complained, lost her "vile London accent".

As she headed for the seemingly inevitable mental asylum and death from the effects of the syphilis (in all likelihood infected by him), he did something similar again, running away to France to live with the translator of New Grub Street.

But Gabrielle Fleury didn't prove the proper femme d'artiste he sought. Her tight-fisted dominating Maman kept him his nailed in his place, and on horribly short commons. Her near-starvation diet egged on the ruin that overwork, smoking, London pollution and syphilis had wrought. He died aged only 46 in 1903, not long after falling into Maman's hands.

Gissing never escaped the slogging, hacking Grub Street life – putting in 24,000 words a week, working on Christmas Day, turning out novels in a few weeks, stories by the day. He was a pot-boiler by necessity, with a small tribe to support - children in foster care, a mother, two sisters, his failed-novelist brother Algernon, wives, Gabrielle, her Maman – who was nonetheless a driven perfectionist. Abandoned stories and novels piled up in the drawer. And most moving about this direly driven existence is the way Gissing kept making bad things things worse for himself by his poor taste in women.

Admittedly, he would never have written The Nether World had he not seen Nell's ghastly death chamber, nor New Grub Street and The Odd Women had he not struggled with Edith, but those awful times were a high price to pay for even such powerful novels. TS Eliot once said that the trouble with Thomas Hardy's plots was that Hardy couldn't resist, when things had got truly bad, giving one final turn of the screw himself. It was Gissing's plight that he couldn't resist doing that with his life. What's good about Delany's biography is the fine mix of sympathy and horror with which he tracks Gissing's most melancholy gift: for that self-mutilating screw-turning.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English at Oxford University