Bookish Discussions

New Grub Street: A Book About Books

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“Literature nowadays is a trade. […] 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.”

Rating: 4 stars

Read: 19 January – 31 January, 2019


George Gissing has quickly became a new interest of mine. New Grub Street was something else entirely – so unlike any other Victorian novel I’ve ever read. It was a very entertaining book about writing and getting published in the late Victorian society. As the Penguin Classics edition suggests,

New Grub Street is a 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. Gissing brings to life the bitter battles 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.

I loved the self-awareness of the novel. George Gissing was speaking from his own experience as a writer who actively fought against the rise of mass communication, universal education and popular journalism that emerged during the fin-de-siècle. It was a published novel discussing the anxiety around writers getting their novels published. It had a weird dynamic, but it successfully drew attention to a topic that was evidently a cause for concern in contemporary literary society.

I liked that Gissing wrote about female writers because, if you didn’t know, they were a Real Thing! Gissing actually acknowledged their role in what was traditionally perceived as a male domain! and it seemed that their work was valued higher than their male counterparts! Amazing….

A weird thing about the book is that all the characters were soOoOo unlikeable but that’s what made the novel so enjoyable. I hated all the characters (except one, who I’ll come to in a minute); I often found myself wanting them to fail. They were arrogant and utterly ridiculous. Their lives were governed by literature; it eventually got in the way of relationships (father/daughter and husband/wife). I guess it shows how much Victorian society valued literature and how seriously it was taken by those writing it. Their whole livelihood (I guess?) depended on it.

Marian was the hero of the novel – so underrated and misused. She was just trying to get on with her life, supporting her father and exploring a potential love interest. They both did her dirty and I despise them for it. She deserved everything that is good in the world. A True Underdog of Victorian Literature. I think she is definitely the defining quality of the novel and potentially one of the best Victorian characters I’ve come across.

There was lots tucked into this book. It wasn’t only about writing, but it was also concerned with social class, specifically (the fear of) poverty, in the Victorian period. We all know that this was an issue many faced, but Gissing explores it in a way that I haven’t seen done before. It was a sensitive approach to the topic but it is also quite harsh. It makes you think, especially about how those in/on the cusp of poverty cope. It was emotional and heartbreaking.

I would definitely recommend this! It has quickly become a favourite. I am eager to read some more of Gissing; if they’re anything like New Grub Street then I’m in for a treat! Have you read any George Gissing? Does this sound like something you’d like? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to discuss it with you!

Thanks for reading, Lauren X

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7 thoughts on “New Grub Street: A Book About Books

    1. The Odd Women looks really interesting; I think that might be my next read of his!

      I’m glad that my dislike for 90% of the characters didn’t ruin my experience of reading the book, as it usually does!

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  1. I hadn’t heard of George Gissing before reading this.
    Given what you’ve said about how little you liked the characters I’d perhaps start with another of his books.
    Stories about writers is an interesting one though. I think they’re always going to over-emphasise the value and importance of writing (while I completely believe that literature is valuable and impactful, I don’t hold that everything of value is textual so I think overestimating the value of writing is possible). Writer characters are still fascinating to me though.
    To what extent was Gissing writing biographically when it came to writing about writers, do you think?

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    1. He doesn’t so much write about the value of literature. Instead he talks about how literature has moved on from being art to a business in the late Victorian period because of the rise of mass communication and the demands of a wider audience!

      It’s semi-autobiographical because the novel talks about how hard it is to be a big, published writer. Gissing failed to get attention until this book was published.

      Despite not enjoying the characters, I did really enjoy the book, so I wouldn’t let that stop you! 🙂

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