George Gissing and the Ethnographer's 'I'

Civilisation in The Nether World and Eve's Ransom

in Critical Survey

In the last thirty years, critical studies of George Gissing have tended to focus on the early social novels, from Demos (1886) to The Nether World (1889), and then the early 1890s social problem novels, New Grub Street (1891) and The Odd Women (1893). However, to the late Victorians, Gissing was at his most powerful and popular during the mid-1890s, with works like In the Year of Jubilee (1894), Eve’s Ransom (1895) and The Whirlpool (1897). These put Gissing on the intellectual map and saw him move from writerly obscurity to man of letters, admired by Wells, Meredith and others. However, after his death, Gissing suffered from a reaction against what was seen as his pessimism, his egoism, and his bleak portrait of society. In one of the early studies of his work, Virginia Woolf criticised the personal in Gissing’s novels – seeing the protagonists as thinly veiled versions of himself and his own injustices: ‘…Gissing is one of those imperfect novelists through whose books one sees the life of the author faintly covered by the lives of fictitious people.’1 She considered that ‘…to use personal suffering to rivet the reader’s sympathy and curiosity upon your private case is disastrous.’ This strain of critical opinion continued even into the 1960s, scarcely questioned. V.S. Pritchett remarked that, ‘[n]o other English novelist until then had a chip the size of Gissing’s; self-pitying, spiritless, resentful, humourless, his lucid bleat drags down his characters and his words’, whilst Irving Howe suggests that only New Grub Street avoids ‘those impulses to self-pity which mar a good many of his books.’