George Gissing portrays a wide variety of writer characters in New Grub Street. In the previous post I talked about his primary plotline with Edwin Reardon and Jasper Milvain, and mentioned their friend Biffin, “the Realist.” Milvain’s sisters zhiv and zhiv also explore their ability to write and exploit the literary marketplace, pushed and guided by their opportunistic brother.
But I set aside another major plotline in New Grub Street for separate consideration, the story of the man of letters Alfred Yule and his daughter Marian. Marian is of course deeply enmeshed in Jasper Milvain’s world, and she’s forced to make a rising generation choice between her father and her lover. Jasper helps her break free from her father’s tyranny and limited appreciation of her, but in his solid proto-realist manner Gissing frustrates happy ease, and Jasper abandons Marian and ends up with the widowed Amy Reardon. Marian’s fate is a curious result for a sympathetic heroine, as her romantic dreams are crushed, but she has at least in part established some independence.
Let me work back from this provocative finish and go to the original set-up. Gissing’s characters and different households all reflect powerfully on one another. The story begins with Jasper visiting his sisters and his weak (and dying) mother, and the introduction of Marian, visiting as well. Jasper believes he has no choice but to succeed by any means possible, but he notices Marian and thinks she is dangerously attractive. We don’t quite realize that Gissing is exploring, just as May Sinclair later does in the The Creators, the economics and psychology of literary production and marriage. But we get our bearings pretty quickly as Gissing shifts his scene to the troubled and increasingly desperate world of Edwin and Amy Reardon. And from there he follows Marian into the fascinating and deeply problematic world of her household and her father, Alfred Yule.
I mentioned that Edwin Reardon and Alfred Yule together add up to an approach to George Eliot’s Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, a sort of scholarly dying hand affecting the fate of literate women. Gissing’s formulation is actually more compelling in some ways, although he doesn’t achieve the amazing depths explored by George Eliot. Scholarship is a critical factor for both of Gissing’s characters (as it is for F.M. Mayor in The Rector’s Daughter), although it is handled quite subtly. It’s hard to shake Casaubon in considering this pair, because Gissing’s approach is a striking contrast to Casaubon’s grandiose Reform Bill-era attempt to one up the Germans and encompass the knowledge of the scholarly world, a project that was always marked for failure. In my last post I mentioned Johnson and his Dictionary, Shakespeare, and Lives, along with his Grub Street roots, and he’s famous of course for producing his Dictionary under his own name, competitive with 40 members of the French Academy. Casaubon seems to be trying to follow Johnson’s example of individual, independent monumental scholarship, or perhaps it’s more along Edward Gibbon’s genteel, monied lines. Dorothea Brooke believes in the value of his ambition and project more than the man himself, finding an object for her religious fervor, but it’s a false hope. There’s nothing grandiose about the ambition of Alfred Yule or Edwin Reardon, as they’re merely trying to get by, but they’re both deeply engaged in self-deception. It a different viewpoint on literary drudgery and failure, probably closer to Gissing’s own embittered experience.
Edwin Reardon and Alfred Yule (along with Biffin too, for that matter) are both very solid classical scholars, and Gissing wants to explore the meaning and value of such an education and interest in the contemporary world. This also goes to Gissing’s own biography, as he was a prodigal classicist himself, and he throws around the deep learning of Reardon, Biffin and Yule with nonchalant ease. Reardon’s visit to Italy and Greece, which he remembers as he’s poor and dying, is modeled on Gissing’s own similar journey. It’s great, rich pickings for careful analysis by readers much smarter and better organized than I am, and I’m sure Gissing’s intellectualizing has attracted its share of capable critics. This view of the relationship of Reardon and his wife Amy is poignant and even heartbreaking–they come so close to achieving the dream of combining love and learning and literature.
Gissing is writing about the world in which he found himself, a young man with the skills and tools of a scholar, hoping to make his way on Grub Street the way that Johnson did. Jasper Milvain, who doesn’t appear to have the least shred of classical learning, states right up front that the game has changed. He knows that Reardon won’t make it, and he inspires Amy Reardon to save herself. If this was the entire scope of Gissing’s novel, it would be more than sufficient. And Gissing swipes directly at the tyranny of the conventional three-volume format, suggesting that writers like himself and Reardon would make much better books without it. But Gissing answers the demand of Victorian form by creating another character who immensely enriches his story and portrait of literary futility, in Alfred Yule.
If Jasper Milvain represents the rising generation, Alfred Yule stands for the old-fashioned, dying one. He has toiled through a lifetime, getting by as a man of letters and never achieving success. The sad and poignant side of his story is that he still believes that he can turn the corner and make a name for himself and have an easy landing in old age. He thinks his scholarly and literary quest is a noble one, worthy of the support of everyone around him. Most especially, Yule has carefully trained his daughter Marian to be his helpmate. At the start she’s essentially an assistant and gopher, trudging to the British Museum (where Jasper does his own work, and has spotted her) and preparing materials for her father’s work. Over the course of the story, as Jasper rather reluctantly gives in to his attraction to her, she achieves both personal and scholarly independence from her father. She is doing much of his work herself, and with Jasper’s inspiration and her dream of marrying him, she eventually reaches the stage of signing and publishing her own work.
It’s all much more complicated and interesting than that. There’s an inheritance plot, as Alfred Yule’s rich brother snubs him in his will, having never approved of his choice to live and work in Grub Street, but he leaves 10,000 pounds to Amy Reardon, driving that plot, and 5,000 to Marian. This latter sum pushes Jasper to believe he might be able to marry her, if he can keep working and hang on for another year or two. That’s a long time in Jasper’s dizzying rise (and Edwin’s precipitous fall), and when Marian’s actual inheritance turns out to be half that sum it dashes her hopes. Jasper is a cad, after all, well-meaning but clearly subject to Darwin and Spencer’s social law, and Amy Reardon’s intact 10,000 is more fit. She and Jasper are perfectly suited for one another.
Alfred Yule’s self-deception about the appropriate use for Marian’s 5,000 is very sad, as Gissing works through his last bit of Grub Street hope that he might start a review and make it a success. And just to top it off, Alfred Yule’s eyesight begins to fail, making him even more dependent on Marian, just as she is being pulled away by her attraction to Jasper. There’s more–Jasper is employed by one of Yule’s Grub Street enemies, and Yule is suspicious of him from the beginning, causing Marian to put in extra work and emotion to clear his name and establish his good intent, only to have him abandon her at the end. Yule’s paternal fear and concerns were correct all along, although they were pernicious and destructive in their own right, and Marian had been wrongfully cloistered and never allowed to live and love.
Gissing also lays out another side of the literary life in the marriage of Alfred Yule, one that is picked up and explored by May Sinclair in The Divine Fire and The Creators. Yule’s wife zhiv, Marian’s mother, is an uneducated woman who keeps his house and raises his daughter and gives her emotional support, but she doesn’t share any of his intellectual pursuits. Yule knows that she helped him to live and survive, and she never put any bourgeois pressure of the kind Amy Reardon forced onto Edwin. Marian has grown up to fill the role of helper and companion, but as Yule’s sight dims and his failure lays itself out before him, he bitterly knows that his inability to bring home colleagues and to have a wife who shares in his quest for success has been a big part of his degradation. Gissing creates a simple but compelling hierarchy of what I called the “economics and psychology of literary production and marriage,” and Alfred Yule’s marriage to zhiv is a strong negative example set against the dysfunctional Reardons, although it does produce the heroic Marian. All Yule has is his daughter, and once she’s independent, it isn’t enough.
In The Creators May Sinclair picks up on the marriage of Alfred and Zhiv Yule and recreates it in the union of George Tanqueray and Rose. She also shows the tyranny of fathers over daughters in Laura Dunning’s plot. It’s interesting to see how things change as Sinclair explores the idea of women as full-fledged writers and creators, and her general intentions aren’t as dark and cynical as Gissing’s are here. The comparison shows that Gissing’s view is an extremely dark satire, but one has to suppose that’s in keeping with his classical and Johnsonian mash up with Flaubert and Zola and realism.