New Grub Street

A review of New Grub Street by Rob Mason

Pierre Coustillas has devoted himself to Gissing for more than half a century and concluded that George Gissing’s “life and professional career had been heroic. A scrupulous, original artist who cared more for the quality and sincerity of his work than for the demands of the public 

“New Grub Street is by general consent his masterpiece, in this novel he was writing about a world he knew thoroughly, and in which he had suffered. There is a painful bitterness in the book, yet it is fair even to the characters who, unlike the hero Edward Reardon, regard writing as a business and respond to the demands of the market. It is impossible not to identify Reardon with Gissing himself, and when one character observes that Reardon would have written a good novel every two years if he had been left to himself and free to work at his own speed, one can’t help thinking that Gissing was passing judgement on himself. Reardon’s fate – suffering a complete writer’s block – is doubtless one that Gissing feared for himself.” John Goode

Grub street was an actual street in London and also the symbolic street of the rise of professional writing. The Grub-street Race" of commercial writers who worked in Grub Street, a London district that was home to a bohemian counterculture of impoverished writers and poets.  In the late 19th century, Anthony Trollope's novel The Way We Live Now (1875) depicts a female hack writer whose career was built on social connections rather than writing skill.The term: Hack writer is first recorded 1826 and is used to refer to a writer who is paid to write low-quality, rushed articles.

“Gissing’s own world view was shaped by his rejection of one of the most cogent grand narratives of progress in the nineteenth century, Positivism, which held that mankind could reach its goal by applying scientific methods to social levels of experience.  His rejection of this was facilitated by his reading of the godfather of modernist anti-rationalism, Arthur Schopenhauer.  Unlike the majority of philosophers of his time, including Hegel, Schopenhauer does not hold reason in high regard. Our illusions, based on self-serving perceptions, remain so entrenched despite the most sophisticated appeals to reason. Therefore, Schopenhauer can be justly labelled as the greatest anti-rationalist philosopher of all time. Only the genius has some capacity for objectivity in so far as he can harness his will and become the pure knowing subject.” Tom Sunic.

A few lines from New Grub Street

At five a familiar knock sounded through the flat; it was a heavy rap followed by half-a-dozen light ones, like a reverberating echo, the last stroke fairly audible.  Reardon laid down his book, but kept his pipe in his mouth, and went to the door. A tall thin man stood there, with a slouch hat and long grey overcoat.  He shook hands silently, hung his hat in the passage, and came forward into the study.

His name was Harold Biffen, and, to judge from his appearance, he did not belong to the race of common mortals. His excessive meagerness would all have qualified him to enter an exhibition in the capacity of a living skeleton, and the garments which hung upon his framework would perhaps have sold for three-and-sixpence at a second-hand clothes dealer's shop.  But the man was superior to these accidents of flesh and raiment.  He had a fine face: large gentle eyes, nose slightly aquiline, small and delicate mouth.  Thick black hair fell to his coat collar; he wore a heavy moustache and a full beard.  In his gait there was singular dignity; only a man of cultivated mind and graceful character could move and stand as he did.

His first act upon entering the room was to take from his pocket a pipe, a pouch, a little tobacco-stopper and a box of matches, all of which he arranged carefully on a corner of the central table.  Then he drew forward a chair and seated himself. (From chapter 10 of New Grub Street by George Gissing 1857 - 1903.