The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 15. A comparison with Zola
The titles of some of Gissing’s books give warrant to a suggestion advanced by one critic that Gissing early burdened himself with a grandiose ambition of emulating Balzac’s survey of the whole province of society; but, in method of representation, there is little that is common to the art of the Frenchman, voracious of reality and teeming with products of his creative genius, and to the fastidious, resentful observation and record of the Englishman. There are points of resemblance, rather than of contact, with the circle of Soirées de Médan; Gissing surveyed his world closely, but he is not “documented” like the brothers de Goncourt; he does not attain the controlled objectivity of his contemporary de Maupassant, though it is evident that, by Gissing’s time, the question of the intervention of the artist in his work has become, what it was not to Dickens and Thackeray, an artistic problem. Gissing is like Zola in his portrayal of the submerged part of the population of towns and of the squalidness of poverty; the crowds which gather in districts such as Hoxton, Lambeth and Clerkenwell are more like those of Zola than those of Barnaby Rudge. In Gissing’s reading of men and women, amorousness, sometimes furtive, sometimes brutal, plays a large part. He is one of the earliest in English fiction to probe deeply into the psychology of sex; though a certain reserve withholds him from the description of such fervid eroticism as leads to the study of remorse in Thérèse Raquin. Gissing was preoccupied with the environment of poverty, and has little concern with heredity or with the procrustean bed of theory into which the history of the Rougon-Macquart family is forced. He does not deliberately practise the roman expérimental; nevertheless, his treatment of poverty is not altogether unlike the Zolaesque studies of some aspect of commerce or creed or confirmed social habit. A distinction which Zola drew in the manifesto to Thérèse Raquin is developed in Isabel Clarendon, that between character and temperament. Bernard Kingcote, in that book, is a victim of nervous sensitiveness and exhaustion; there are no such characterisations in Scott or Thackeray or Dickens. Both Zola and Gissing are apt to evade by some romantic device the full implication of the realistic method. A traceable link with all these writers is found in the thought of Schopenhauer, which leavened the whole mass of realistic fiction. Gissing’s sojourn in Germany was given up to the reading of philosophers, chief among them Comte and Schopenhauer. The latter’s influence appears constantly in the novels; Gissing, in his first book, adopted from Schopenhauer his conception of social sympathy, though he quickly rejected it to become a social agnostic; Schopenhauer’s outlook of despair colours some of Gissing’s most powerful writing; it was on this social side that the novelist was influenced most; Schopenhauer’s view of women, applied with ruthless Latin logic by de Maupassant, does not affect Gissing; on the contrary, the delineation of finer feminine characters sets free all the latent idealism of Gissing’s nature.
In truth, the term realist implies a homogeneity in his work which does not exist; his most realistic novel has prefixed to it a sentence from Renan which cuts at the root of realism: La peinture d’un fumier peut être justifiée pourvu qu’il y pousse une belle fleur; sans cela le fumier n’est que repoussant. And, however much he may have derived from the practice of the continent, he is, at the same time, in direct continuance from English traditions. He admired and imitated Hogarth—a moralist; Dickens and Meredith left deep impressions on the two main sections of his work. The London of Dickens cast an enduring spell over his youthful imagination; the milieu which he best describes is that of Dickens, the lower middle and the lowest classes. The differences in attitude between Dickens and his disciple are profound; poverty to Dickens was a soil rich in picturesque or sentimental idiosyncrasy; its vulgarity he transformed to magical humour; its evils, he thought, could be remedied by large-hearted humanity. To Gissing, who was bred in the north of England, poverty was a desolate, mirthless waste on the borders of the evil kingdom of commerce. He does not, as Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Reade do, much concern himself with the workshop or conflicts of capital and labour; but, with a profounder knowledge than Ruskin, Carlyle or Morris had when they revolted against its ugliness, he pictured the world of poverty, its streets and purlieus and dens, the whole atmosphere of it, squalid and without a vestige of beauty. Envy, jealousy and revenge are the reigning motives there; the brutal and cunning, such as Clem Peckover, in The Nether World, trample upon the impotent and degenerate Pennyloaf Candy and Bob Hewitt, and prey upon those whose instincts are humane, such as Jane Snowden and Sidney Kirkwood. The anatomy of poverty is carried out most fully in the novels Demos, Thyrza, The Nether World, New Grub Street, Born in Exile, The Odd Women, In the Year of Jubilee, Eve’s Ransom, and in the short sketches contained in Human Odds and Ends and The House of Cobwebs. In some of these books is described the outcome of attempts at amelioration; Besant’s All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882) treats Gissing’s material in a mood of resolute optimism; Gissing is frankly pessimistic. In Demos, the suggested remedy of socialism leads to a mob-murder; and wealth, which comes unexpectedly to the lower middle class family, the Mutimers, only leads to demoralisation. In Thyrza, along with the presentation of the lovely though idealised figure of Thyrza and her more human sister Lydia, there is a study of the results of bringing education to the artisan; the sole outcome is the bitter tragedy which indirectly befalls the exceptionally endowed workman Gilbert Grail. The finer characters of the lower world are those untouched by education; the wild. frank Totty Nancarrow, and old Mrs. Mutimer, Richard Mutimer’s mother; the dumb, instinctive honesty of her protest against his despicable manoeuvre is one of the most masterly, and one of the few heroic, things in Gissing. In general, his dramatic episodes are not those depicting resistance.