BOOK REVIEW / A first class grump about going second class: Collected letters of George Gissing, Vol IV, 1889-1891: Ohio University Press, pounds 53.75

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The Independent Online
ONE can read certain writers' letters as a holiday from their creative work, a chance to temper a rebarbative aesthetic stance with the homeliness of routine.

Little such refinement, though, attends the correspondence of George Gissing, most of whose letters merely confirm the air of dejection that rises from his novels like a fog. When he writes of a book by the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen that its central character is 'doomed to a life of disillusions, of frustration, of sad solitude', the reader is struck by an odd sensation that Gissing has unwittingly described himself.

Gissing's pessimism, of course, is nearly legendary. The very mention of his name in literary circles is enough to conjure up a dreadful vista of freezing garrets, blighted hopes and the thump of rejected manuscripts on the doormat; it is entirely characteristic that the most overworked adjective in this volume should be 'dolorous'. In poor health, harassed by a family who, while sponging off him, seem to have disapproved of the fact that he was pouring his immortal spirit down the drain a pint at a time (he sold the copyright of New Grub Street outright for pounds 150), his shabby-genteel existence was constricted by a gloom that is quite unfeigned. 'I shall end in the Asylum or the Thames,' he tells his sister Ellen.

The present volume covers a transitional period in his career, both personally and professionally. The Nether World (1889) was the last of his great chronicles of working-class life. Subsequently, in The Emancipated, New Grub Street and Born In Exile - all, incredibly, written in the space of two years - he moved if not exactly to the drawing-room, then to a portrayal of the sort of bourgeois existence from which he felt himself to be permanently excluded.

At the same time Gissing managed to realise a much more tangible ambition. Much of 1889-91 found him in Greece and Italy visiting the classical sites that had absorbed his imagination since boyhood. The galvanic effect that Italy in particular had on Gissing can be glimpsed in a softening of his notorious anti-democratic sentiments. The English tourists swarming over the Colosseum are 'gross animals', but the good humour of the Italian crowds seems almost to have reconciled him to ordinary people.

But the old problems remained. Chief among them were his family, straitened finances - late 1890 sees him sweating to finish New Grub Street 'for I am well-nigh penniless' - and creative torpor. The accounts of his efforts to write in the absence of inspiration send a shiver down the spine of anyone even remotely connected with the literary world.

Worst of all, though, was solitude. The sea trip to Greece - our hero travelling second class - brings a symbolic moment when a chatty parson, on discovering his identity, reports on a discussion of his work that has taken place in the first-class compartments. It was his fate in life, Gissing acknowledged, to be known by the first-class people and to associate with the second-class.

To solitude, inevitably, could be added sexual frustration. Gissing's first marriage, to an alcoholic prostitute, Nell, he imagined he could reform, had ended in disaster. After her death in 1888 he made one or two vague overtures towards genteel women, before settling, with absolute matter-of-factness, on a working girl named Edith Underwood.

Edith was to end up in an asylum and the first cracks in their marriage were already apparent by Christmas 1891 and the birth of their first child. 'I want to drink wine,' Gissing writes at one point, 'to talk and laugh, to feel that I am living and not only a machine for producing volumes. I want to hear music, above all things.' Despite the consolations of his last years - a relationship with a Frenchwoman, Gabrielle Fleury, and a sympathetic publisher - it is difficult to believe that he was ever happy, or ever could have been. As might have been anticipated by now, the editing by Paul F Mattheisen, Arthur C Young and Pierri Coustillas is punctilious, and the complete edition - there are another five volumes planned - looks set to become a landmark in Gissing studies.