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The New Grub Street by George Gissing
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The New Grub Street (1891)

by George Gissing

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Title:The New Grub Street
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New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891)

  1. 10
    A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (DLSmithies)
    DLSmithies: Both addressing, in their different ways, the relationship between financial security and the writing of fiction.
  2. 00
    Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett (peterbrown)
    peterbrown: Although published 32 years after 'New Grub Street' Bennett also looks at life in North London (Clerkenwell) is concerned with the world of books, as well as class and poverty, particularly hunger.
  3. 00
    Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood (stevanderman)
  4. 11
    The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (Booksloth)
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An impressive, if perhaps overlong novel, written in installments by Gissing and published in 1891, but set in the London professional writing scene of the early 1880s. The author knew his setting and subject well, and I think it absolutely shows. I just noticed this book at #28 on The Guardian's 100 Best Novels list from a few years ago.

I was engaged in the storylines, and the characters are well-developed. Nothing is rushed here, and given the book's length I expected a few draggy episodes. Happily, on the whole I didn't experience these. To me, three key characters drive the novel: Edwin Reardon, a mediocre writer who struggles to publish anything of marketable value, and finds himself "stuck fast" in his increasingly fruitless efforts to keep himself and beleaguered wife Amy out of poverty. The drama arising from his deciding to return to a clerkship job while Amy variously scolds and encourages him in her attempts to salvage their damaged marriage, remains of interest throughout the book; Jasper Milvain, affable young bachelor, aglow with optimism and committed to improving his position in life, whatever the questionable merits of his writing. He tries to shake Edwin out of his lethargy, which seems impossible. His younger sisters are oft-appearing characters, both new to London and under Jasper's tutelage as writers. Though influenced by Jasper, they show flashes of independence as well; finally, Marian Yule, love interest of Milvain's, who lives under the oppressive roof of her father Alfred and the frazzled Mrs Yule. Her uncertainty as to Jasper's true love, given his devotion to material and practical dictates, ensures they’ll be no tidy or predictable romantic conclusion.

Tragedy does wield its influence on events here, and vagaries of the heart throw in a surprise or two. The one untrammeled character remains Milvain, who at one point says, "Many a fellow could write more in quantity, but they couldn't command my market. It's rubbish, but rubbish of a very special kind, of fine quality." ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Feb 18, 2019 |



"Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income."
New Grub Street - George Gissing

Unforgettable 500-page British classic set in 1880s London about the men and women working as part of the literary hub of New Grub Street. Indeed, we encounter some of the most articulate, refined, educated people in society; however, since these genteel men and women of letters lack the benefit of either family fortune or private wealth, they must continually use their pens to stave off grueling poverty and starvation as they attempt to stake their claim in the world of books and publishing.

Not an easy task even when their writing is going well, a fact author George Gissing (1857-1903) knew first-hand since circumstances hurled him into much the same plight; matter of fact, his earliest published novel, Workers in the Dawn, hit bookstores in 1880, when Gissing was a mere twenty-three years old, a semi-autobiographical three-volume novel recounting the unhappy life of a struggling, half-starved London artist married to a prostitute. Incidentally, when the author read the first book review of Workers he became so outraged he described literary critics as “unprincipled vagabonds.” Ooooo, George! If you were alive today, I hope you wouldn’t lump me among those nasty, filthy English cads.

Anyway, New Grub Street is also a “triple-decker,” that is, a novel in three volumes, which was standard fare at the time - almost predictably, the reason for this format was money: rather than purchasing novels, the reading public typically used circulating libraries and these circulating libraries could make a separate charge for each volume checked out. One of the main characters, Jasper Milvain, bemoans how such a demanding structure is “a triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.” And Milvain isn’t even a novelist; rather, as we come to know in much more detail, his literary focus is entirely practical and utilitarian – acknowledging his turn of mind and skill level, he writers columns for literary periodicals.

As counterpoise to all these literary folk, there’s old John Yule, a wealthy retired merchant who would very much like to see literary production abolished since by his reckoning the writing and especially the reading of books makes men weak, flabby creatures with ruined eyes and dyspeptic stomachs, men who should spend their leisure hours not reading but out in open-air exercise. But, alas, John is fighting a losing battle since in 1880s England reading has caught on like wildfire – books, journals, magazines and newspapers are all the rage.

One of the novel’s overarching themes is the hierarchy of social class. A prime example is John’s brother Alfred Yule, a literary man and journalist, who disgraced his family by taking a humble servant woman for his wife. Then when Mrs. Yule gave birth to daughter Marian, Alfred forbade his wife to speak to her daughter since he was horrified at the prospect that Marian might be infected with his wife’s faulty grammar and hackneyed diction. No, no, no – as soon as humanly possible, Marian was separated from her mother and sent off to a day school. Then, some years later, after hearing her mother’s grammatical errors, young Marian innocently asked her father, “Why doesn’t mother speak as properly as we do?”

Along somewhat the same lines, in conversation with his hyper class-conscious wife Amy, young novelist Edwin Reardon stresses the biggest difference in all the world: that the man with money thinks: “How should I use my life?” and the man without money thinks: “How shall I keep myself alive?” Reardon goes on to ruminate that if he should fail to make a great name for himself as a novelist, how such a fate would be a grievous disappointment to Amy. However, when we first encounter the novelist around age thirty, the promise of fame is very much alive as he did write and have published two marginally successful novels prior to his marriage. But shortly thereafter, as we read further on, a crisis is at hand: sensitive, high-principled Edwin Reardon encounters the ever-looming nightmare for a poor novelist attempting to make money in order to support a family by the publication of his work: writer’s block. In many respects, the drama of Edwin Reardon’s personal and artistic integrity is at the heart of the heart of Gissing’s compelling tale.

Another writer with integrity is Reardon’s friend Harold Biffen, a habitually half-starved scarecrow of a man who has a vision for a realistic novel, a novel depicting life as it truly is, specifically, the grimy nitty-gritty of an everyday drudge, in his case, a grocer living hardscrabble in the poorest section of the city. This literary skeleton-man despises romantic novels with their heroes performing predictable heroic acts, so it is something of an irony that Biffen performs the most singularly heroic act in the entire novel. Listening to Harold Biffen’s philosophy on realism and the realistic novel, I hear echoes of this very three volume George Gissing, a novel realistic in the extreme, reminding me much more of the Paris destitute depicted in Émile Zola’s The Gin Palace than any Charles Dickens misty-eyed yarn with a happy ending.

At one point, a demoralized, forlorn Edwin Reardon shares with Harold Biffen the highpoints of his life, a time prior to his marriage when he was traveling. As he relates: “The best moments of life are those when we contemplate beauty in the purely artistic spirit – objectively. I have had such moments in Greece and Italy; times when I was a free spirit, utterly remote from the temptations and harassings of sexual emotion. What we call love is mere turmoil. Who wouldn’t release himself from it forever, if the possibility offered?” The novelist’s statement accords with Edmund Burke’s philosophy of the sublime - the magnificent experience of beauty and overwhelming majesty out in nature, so distinct from the toil of even a creative expression such as novel writing, an endeavor forever bound to the pressures of schedule and the anxiety of possible rejection. Also, Edwin’s words speak to English society as a whole in the nineteenth century, where the vast majority of men, women and even children were condemned to a life of unrelenting toil, forever bound to the wheel of Ixian, slaving from dawn to dusk as if they were nothing more than beasts of burden.

Yet again another aspect of nineteenth century British society takes center stage with the unfolding events in the life of Marion Yule. How free is Marion and how eligible is she as a lover and future wife? The answers to these questions are closely tied to how much money, if any, she will receive in her inheritance from her rich uncle, John Yule, along with to what degree she will be obliged to care for her ailing father. With Marion, Gissing provides us with a clear perspective on how a woman’s life and possible tragic fate is so dependent on outside forces, especially the letter of the law.

Toward the end of the novel, we listen in on a discussion of the future face of publishing with Jasper Milvain and others as the forward-looking Mr. Whelpdale proposes a change in the name of a paper: “In the first place I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat, I should call it Chit-Chat. . . . Chat doesn’t attract any one, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America.” With this brief exchange George Gissing conveys how well-worn, conventional notions of culture are rapidly transforming, how success in literature is becoming Americanized along with everything else, how what people read will be driven by catchphrases and slick marketing. Utilitarian, optimistic, pragmatic, materialist Jasper Milvain is all for it. The more I reflect on Gissing’s novel, the more I discern distinctly how the entire current day mass-media is the new literary New Grub Street.
( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
FINAL REVIEW



"Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income."
New Grub Street - George Gissing

Unforgettable 500-page British classic set in 1880s London about the men and women working as part of the literary hub of New Grub Street. Indeed, we encounter some of the most articulate, refined, educated people in society; however, since these genteel men and women of letters lack the benefit of either family fortune or private wealth, they must continually use their pens to stave off grueling poverty and starvation as they attempt to stake their claim in the world of books and publishing. Not an easy task even when their writing is going well, a fact author George Gissing (1857-1903) knew first-hand since circumstances hurled him into much the same plight; matter of fact, his earliest published novel, Workers in the Dawn, hit bookstores in 1880, when Gissing was a mere twenty-three years old, a semi-autobiographical three-volume novel recounting the unhappy life of a struggling, half-starved London artist married to a prostitute. Incidentally, when the author read the first book review of Workers he became so outraged he described literary critics as “unprincipled vagabonds.” Ooooo, George! If you were alive today, I hope you wouldn’t lump me among those nasty, filthy English cads.

Anyway, New Grub Street is also a “triple-decker,” that is, a novel in three volumes, which was standard fare at the time - almost predictably, the reason for this format was money: rather than purchasing novels, the reading public typically used circulating libraries and these circulating libraries could make a separate charge for each volume checked out. One of the main characters, Jasper Milvain, bemoans how such a demanding structure is “a triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.” And Milvain isn’t even a novelist; rather, as we come to know in much more detail, his literary focus is entirely practical and utilitarian – acknowledging his turn of mind and skill level, he writers columns for literary periodicals.

As counterpoise to all these literary folk, there’s old John Yule, a wealthy retired merchant who would very much like to see literary production abolished since by his reckoning the writing and especially the reading of books makes men weak, flabby creatures with ruined eyes and dyspeptic stomachs, men who should spend their leisure hours not reading but out in open-air exercise. But, alas, John is fighting a losing battle since in 1880s England reading has caught on like wildfire – books, journals, magazines and newspapers are all the rage.

One of the novel’s overarching themes is the hierarchy of social class. A prime example is John’s brother Alfred Yule, a literary man and journalist, who disgraced his family by taking a humble servant woman for his wife. Then when Mrs. Yule gave birth to daughter Marian, Alfred forbade his wife to speak to her daughter since he was horrified at the prospect that Marian might be infected with his wife’s faulty grammar and hackneyed diction. No, no, no – as soon as humanly possible, Marian was separated from her mother and sent off to a day school. Then, some years later, after hearing her mother’s grammatical errors, young Marian innocently asked her father, “Why doesn’t mother speak as properly as we do?”

Along somewhat the same lines, in conversation with his hyper class-conscious wife Amy, young novelist Edwin Reardon stresses the biggest difference in all the world: that the man with money thinks: “How should I use my life?” and the man without money thinks: “How shall I keep myself alive?” Reardon goes on to ruminate that if he should fail to make a great name for himself as a novelist, how such a fate would be a grievous disappointment to Amy. However, when we first encounter the novelist around age thirty, the promise of fame is very much alive as he did write and have published two marginally successful novels prior to his marriage. But shortly thereafter, as we read further on, a crisis is at hand: sensitive, high-principled Edwin Reardon encounters the ever-looming nightmare for a poor novelist attempting to make money in order to support a family by the publication of his work: writer’s block. In many respects, the drama of Edwin Reardon’s personal and artistic integrity is at the heart of the heart of Gissing’s compelling tale.

Another writer with integrity is Reardon’s friend Harold Biffen, a habitually half-starved scarecrow of a man who has a vision for a realistic novel, a novel depicting life as it truly is, specifically, the grimy nitty-gritty of an everyday drudge, in his case, a grocer living hardscrabble in the poorest section of the city. This literary skeleton-man despises romantic novels with their heroes performing predictable heroic acts, so it is something of an irony that Biffen performs the most singularly heroic act in the entire novel. Listening to Harold Biffen’s philosophy on realism and the realistic novel, I hear echoes of this very three volume George Gissing, a novel realistic in the extreme, reminding me much more of the Paris destitute depicted in Émile Zola’s The Gin Palace than any Charles Dickens misty-eyed yarn with a happy ending.

At one point, a demoralized, forlorn Edwin Reardon shares with Harold Biffen the highpoints of his life, a time prior to his marriage when he was traveling. As he relates: “The best moments of life are those when we contemplate beauty in the purely artistic spirit – objectively. I have had such moments in Greece and Italy; times when I was a free spirit, utterly remote from the temptations and harassings of sexual emotion. What we call love is mere turmoil. Who wouldn’t release himself from it forever, if the possibility offered?” The novelist’s statement accords with Edmund Burke’s philosophy of the sublime - the magnificent experience of beauty and overwhelming majesty out in nature, so distinct from the toil of even a creative expression such as novel writing, an endeavor forever bound to the pressures of schedule and the anxiety of possible rejection. Also, Edwin’s words speak to English society as a whole in the nineteenth century, where the vast majority of men, women and even children were condemned to a life of unrelenting toil, forever bound to the wheel of Ixian, slaving from dawn to dusk as if they were nothing more than beasts of burden.

Yet again another aspect of nineteenth century British society takes center stage with the unfolding events in the life of Marion Yule. How free is Marion and how eligible is she as a lover and future wife? The answers to these questions are closely tied to how much money, if any, she will receive in her inheritance from her rich uncle, John Yule, along with to what degree she will be obliged to care for her ailing father. With Marion, Gissing provides us with a clear perspective on how a woman’s life and possible tragic fate is so dependent on outside forces, especially the letter of the law.

Toward the end of the novel, we listen in on a discussion of the future face of publishing with Jasper Milvain and others as the forward-looking Mr. Whelpdale proposes a change in the name of a paper: “In the first place I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat, I should call it Chit-Chat. . . . Chat doesn’t attract any one, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America.” With this brief exchange George Gissing conveys how well-worn, conventional notions of culture are rapidly transforming, how success in literature is becoming Americanized along with everything else, how what people read will be driven by catchphrases and slick marketing. Utilitarian, optimistic, pragmatic, materialist Jasper Milvain is all for it. The more I reflect on Gissing’s novel, the more I discern distinctly how the entire current day mass-media is the new literary New Grub Street.
( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
New Grub Street presents in a realistic narrative, the contemporary working conditions of a new class, the professional author. George Gissing, born the son of a chemist in 1857, was as an author breaking important new ground, as well as responding to significant cultural change in the literary generation after Dickens and Thackeray. His naturalistic style provides an urban alternative to the rural novels of Thomas Hardy.

The eponymous hero of David Copperfield is also a writer, but Dickens focuses primarily, and in some detail, on Copperfield's childhood, not his career as a novelist. He does not delve into the gritty world and threadbare texture of Victorian literary life. This may be partly due to the social and cultural upheavals inspired by changes in the culture of British education in the latter decades of the Victorian era. George Gissing's career as a man of letters was the product of this. For the rest of the century, the lives of writers and readers would undergo a profound transformation which would permanently reshape the British literary landscape. Henceforth, high and low literary culture would increasingly diverge. This is one of the main themes in John Carey's important critical study The Intellectuals and the Masses. It is also the animating idea of New Grub Street.

Gissing was hardly alone in finding the role and conduct of the modern writer an urgent topic in late Victorian literary London. A year before New Grub Street, Henry James also published a novel, The Tragic Muse, about "the conflict between art and 'the world'", though James focused on painting and the stage more than literature. Even in our era with the internet revolution promoting another paradigm shift, Gissing's subject remains as topical as ever, and addresses timeless themes in the everyday life of the full-time, professional writer.

In New Grub Street, the narrative is set in the literary world with which Gissing himself was intimately familiar; the title refers to the London street that, in the eighteenth century world of Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne, was synonymous with hack writing. By the 1890s, Grub Street no longer existed, though hack writing, of course, never goes away, with timeless imperatives. As one character puts it: "Our Grub Street of today is supplied with telegraphic communications, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy." (p 9)

The novel's protagonists are a contrasted pair of writers: thoughtful Edwin Reardon, a shy "literary" novelist with few commercial prospects; and Jasper Milvain, a hard-driving young journalist who treats his writing as the means to an end in a ruthless literary marketplace. "I speak," he says, "only of good, marketable stuff for the world's vulgar." Reardon will face continual difficulties while Milvain will flourish in literary London ("I write for the upper-middle-class of intellect, the people who like to feel that what they are reading has some special cleverness").

New Grub Street is Victorian in its realist depiction of a society in transition, but modern in the way it harks forward to the imminent new century with its portrait of the artist as an existential character making his solitary way in the world. For example Reardon ponders on memories of moments with his wife Amy on their honeymoon, remembering their voices:
"The voices seemed to be lingering still, in a sad, faint echo, so short a time it was since those words were uttered.
His own fault. A man has no business to fail; least of all can he expect others to have time to look back upon him or pity him if he sink under the stress of conflict. Those behind will trample over his body; they can't help it; they themselves are borne onwards by resistless pressure." (p 212)

The resistless pressure of life is ultimately too much for Gissing's sad protagonist. He is like the hero of Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy's final novel; Jude Fawley is a working-class boy who dreams of becoming an Oxford scholar. Hardy's Jude is Reardon's West Country equivalent. While Gissing's natural world is depressing his literary depiction of it is brilliant - a truly great novel. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Dec 14, 2015 |
This very long classic is an interesting look at the lives of struggling writers during the Victorian era. What I found fascinating, is that the writers fell into 3 categories: successful 'literary' writers, writers who made a living by churning out articles and books that would appeal to the masses, and writers who wrote carefully crafted works, but either lacked talent, or were never discovered, and basically were starving artists. In many ways, the art of writing has not changed. Today, we have those few successful literary writers who might win recognition with Pulitzers, Mann Booker awards, or other coveted prizes. And then there are those financially successful writers who churn out many books a year and have a staff of writing assistants who help them produce these instant best sellers. But the majority of writers, go unrecognized and do not make money. The only thing that has changed from Gissing's era is that now people can be self-published pretty easily. Although I found the topic interesting, I thought the flow of this book was slow and it lacked the charm or emotional tug of a Trollope or a Dickens. I don't know why this is on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die; I could have skipped this one, but, at least it's checked off. ( )
  jmoncton | Apr 5, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
George Gissingprimary authorall editionscalculated
Arata, StephenEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bergonzi, BernardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As the Milvains sat down to breakfast the clock of Wattleborough parish church struck eight; it was two miles away, but the strokes were borne very distinctly on the west wind this autumn morning.
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... at one-and-twenty John Yule obtained a clerk's place in the office of a London newspaper. Three years after, his father died, and the small patrimony which fell to him he used in making himself practically acquainted with the details of paper manufacture, his aim being to establish himself in partnership with an acquaintance who had started a small paper-mill in Hertfordshire. His speculation succeeded, and as years went of he became a thriving manufacturer.
All these people about her [in the British Museum Reading Room], what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet >newer books might be made out of theirs? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print -- how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit! ... A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed "Literary Machine"; it had then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself, to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have then reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today's consumptions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140430326, Paperback)

In "New Grub Street" George Gissing re-created a microcosm of London's literary society as he had experienced it. His novel is at once a major social document and a story that draws us irresistibly into the twilit world of Edwin Reardon, a struggling novelist, and his friends and acquaintances in Grub Street including Jasper Milvain, an ambitious journalist, and Alfred Yule, an embittered critic. Here Gissing brings to life the bitter battles (fought out in obscure garrets or in the Reading Room of the British Museum) between integrity and the dictates of the market place, the miseries of genteel poverty and the damage that failure and hardship do to human personality and relationships.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:47 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The Victorian novel presents a picture of a society in which literature has become a commodity and its production a mechanical business.

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