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Spellbound, George Gissing. Volume I: The Storyteller; Volume II: A Twenty-First Century Reappraisal. Ed. Christine Huguet. Amsterdam: Equilibris, 2008. ISBN 978-90-5976-007-3 hardcover; ISBN: 978-90-5976-008-0 paperback. Price: €118/€79

  • Ruth Livesey

…plus d’informations

  • Ruth Livesey
    University of London

Corps de l’article

George Gissing was, as several contributors to this valuable double volume point out, one of the most cosmopolitan of late-nineteenth-century British novelists. In Gissing’s own lifetime his early interest in German Romantic writing, later friendship with the German critic Eduard Bertz, and final partnership with the French translator, Gabrielle Fleury give ample biographical support to the notion that this novelist—often identified with narratives of lower-class London—was frequently thinking across the channel to continental Europe. Over the past decade there has been a renewal of interest in Gissing’s works as a result of the Anglo-American turn to historicist studies of the literature and culture of the British fin de siècle. Several contributors to this collection, such as Diana Maltz and Constance Harsh, have played a part in shaping that field with monographs in which the individual author is a means to open out broader narratives of cultural politics and aesthetics in the late nineteenth century.

Yet Spellbound, a double volume of eleven reprinted short stories and eleven specially commissioned critical essays, owes its existence to a rather different source of scholarship: the forty-five-year devotion of the French critic Pierre Coustillas to the cause of fostering a community of research on Gissing, through the Gissing Newsletter (later the Gissing Journal) and his own estimable publications. Christine Huguet’s edited collection has been assembled as a Festschrift for Coustillas and his wife Hélène (a noted Gissing scholar in her own right). The tempting, if misleading, identification of Gissing as a naturalist novelist—Britain’s Emile Zola—has always made him a popular subject for Anglo-French literary scholarship. Coustillas’s contribution to the field, however, goes far beyond this starting point. Thanks to him, Gissing scholarship continues to be as cosmopolitan as Gissing’s own interests, with its chief centre of gravity in continental Europe and a thriving output of single-author focussed collections and studies.

The unusual format of this double volume is testament to the value of such scholarship. Although bound and marketed as a single book, the first 200 pages are a selection of Gissing’s short stories drawn from the wide span of his career and rarely reprinted after their original publication in periodicals. The stories range from two Gissing stories published during his “American exile” in Chicago and New York in 1877--“Gretchen” and “An English Coast Picture”--to “The Pig and Whistle,” composed in 1900 but published posthumously in 1904. The second volume consists of a critical essay on each of the short stories drawn, for the most part, from regular contributors to the Gissing Journal. The publishers, Equilibris, should be congratulated on supporting this venture, which would be a useful format for studies of the minor fiction of other authors besides Gissing. In its ideal form, such a double-volume publication allows the reader to trace the chronological development of the author’s engagement with the short-story form and then to move on to the companion essays in the subsequent volume.

This mode of reading Gissing’s short stories is, however, slightly problematic. Gissing was, to say the least, ambivalent about the aesthetic possibilities of the short story form. His ventures in short-story publication, as the useful appendix to this work makes clear, went in phases, with over 30 pieces appearing in the first three years of his career as a professional writer from 1877 to 1880 and a scant few in the early 1880s, followed by a complete hiatus; then a prolific output in the middle years of the 1890s, steadying to a trickle until his death in 1903. Much of this is due, of course, to the market possibilities for short fiction in the late nineteenth century. In exile in the United States after his expulsion from Owens College and conviction for theft to support the then prostitute, Nell Harrison, Gissing was palpably excited by the fact that he could make money from writing: he wrote a story a week for the Chicago Tribune, earning $18 dollars, he recalled, for each one. Back in Britain, editors were less enthusiastic about his work in the 1880s, and it was not until Gissing had been become relatively well established as a novelist, and began to be courted for contributions, that he adopted this form again to any significant extent. Even then, Gissing was clear-eyed about the realities of the literary marketplace. Writing to Eduard Bertz in 1894 he concluded that these “minor efforts are doing me good with the public; they make my name better known, & enable me to ask higher prices” (qtd. in Huguet, 19).

In her introduction to the collection, Huguet is eager to rescue Gissing from his own pessimism, lauding the “daily feat” the author accomplished in “writing these perfect gems … in the midst of domestic chaos” (19). (Gissing’s second marriage, to the mentally unstable Edith Underwood, seems to have been just as bad as his first, to Nell Harrison). One of the striking things about this collection is the effort of the editor, and of several contributors, to promote the strictly aesthetic value of Gissing’s works in this manner. Given the rising scholarly interest in periodical publication in the last few years it is interesting to note that only two essays in the collection discuss the original context of publication and potential editorial relationship in any great detail: Bouwe Postmus’s contribution on an early piece Gissing placed with the American publisher Oliver Bell Bunce, and Constance Harsh’s analysis of the publication of “The Foolish Virgin” in the Yellow Book, Although Huguet is to be congratulated for her diligence in sourcing and reproducing the original illustrations that accompanied many of these pieces, a survey of the particular publications and trends that fostered them would have been instructive and put this volume into conversation with current scholarship in periodical studies.

The critical portion of the book opens with a rich essay by Diana Maltz that takes Gissing’s early short story “Gretchen” as the starting point of an investigation of Gissing’s lifelong uneasy relationship to aesthetic bohemia. In this tale of a wealthy dilettante’s search for the real-life model of a painting, Gissing envisaged a world of cosmopolitan causeries in Paris—a place he had not yet visited—while scraping together his own living in Chicago. Maltz opens out from this text to a valuable understanding of Gissing’s immersion in the works of Goethe and the former’s tentative attempts to negotiate the borders between transcendent art and that driven by the marketplace; old worlds and new; idealism and realism. A second story from Gissing’s stay in the United States, “An English Coast Picture,” is the subject of Bouwe Postmus’s essay which places this slight travelogue of Northumbria in the context of the publisher Oliver Bell Bunce’s other commissions for Appleton’s Journal. Postmus, who has done much to perpetuate the continental tradition of Gissing studies, works hard to convince the reader of the value of this apprentice piece. Postmus provides convincing proof that the story is for the most part an assemblage from Murray’s Travel Guide to the area, but then asserts that such reference provides evidence of Gissing’s “fundamental artistic strength [in] … the preservation of verisimilitude” (28).

This volume contains many contrasts between the intellectual approaches of contributors. Markus Neacey, for example, conducts a painstaking comparison of three published versions of Gissing’s short story “Phoebe’s Fortune” (one of which was a translation into German by Eduard Bertz and is reproduced as parallel text in the first volume). The detailed attention given here to minor textual changes is clearly of import to some Gissing scholars, but others might be inclined to second Gissing’s incomprehension of the trouble Bertz took over the original translation: “Alas! Why give yourself so much trouble about ‘Phoebe’?” (45). On the other hand, attentive and illuminating essays by Robert Selig, John Sloan, Constance Harsh, and M.D. Allen are testaments to the value of informed close reading, alert to cultural context. Selig draws out the function of popular song in Gissing’s “Lou and Liz”; Sloan, the deconstruction of Dickensian motifs of death in “The Day of Silence”; and Harsh, the ambivalent reworking of scriptural typology in “The Foolish Virgin.” Allen’s essay is an ambitious balancing act, reading Gissing’s “A Daughter of the Lodge” against Dickens’s Bleak House. The points of comparison between that novel and Gissing’s tale of an advanced scholarship girl returning home to her parents, who still keep the lodge for the imperious, uncultivated aristocrats in the big house, might seem minor at first, but Allen makes it work through a careful recapitulation of the Rouncewell-Dedlock relations in Dickens’s novel. Gissing, Allen concludes, demonstrates the dead letter of noblesse oblige and feudal patronage at the end of the century, whilst also displaying a conservative mistrust of the effects of mass education.

The essays by Christine Devine and Christine Huguet combine such an interest in social and biographical context with hardworking textual analysis. Devine claims “By the Kerb,” one of a series of very brief sketches Gissing completed for Jerome K. Jerome, as “a tiny experimental gem” of Flaubertian style indirect libre which renders the limited life-world of a drifting former salesman. This brief internal monologue of a man selling goods from the pavement—a kind of proto-modernist version of Henry Mayhew’s interviewees—is effective, Devine concludes, slightly underwhelmingly, “because we can see into the protagonist’s psyche [and] feel sorry for him” (99, 101). Huguet’s concluding essay examines the unusually cheerful “Pig and Whistle”—the story of a schoolmaster’s escape into companionate marriage and a future as a pub landlord—with a detailed account of Gissing’s affective deployment of “antithetical litotes” (151). Two short stories much more characteristic of Gissing are the subject of essays by Barbara Rawlinson and David Grylls. “A Midsummer Madness” and “Spellbound” reaffirm Gissing’s place as the pre-eminent British writer of the disease of modernity. The first story is a seemingly slight account of a woman who threatens to jump off a roof over a potential affair, but retreats back into marriage; the second of a lower-middle-class man who becomes addicted to reading in the local public library after losing his job. In both cases the short-story form leaves the reader to infer the pressures of urban life and “progress” that leads a woman to attempt suicide in the midst of a party and a man to forsake all chance of earning a living, drawn by the lure of newsprint in the new public library. The very industry of late nineteenth-century journalism that reinvigorated Gissing’s work in the short-story form becomes, in “Spellbound,” a marker of the distracted, consuming subject of modernity.

This book will no doubt become a point of reference for Gissing specialists, and the wider availability of these short stories will provide a welcome extension to the range of Gissing’s works drawn on by the broad community of literary scholars working on the late nineteenth century. It is thus a fitting tribute to—and reflection of—Pierre Coustillas’s own scholarly achievements in this field over many decades.

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