The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 17. Novels of the middle classes: problems discussed in New Grub Street, Born in Exile and The Odd Women
Certain of the novels, New Grub Street, Born in Exile and The Odd Women, portray a rather higher stratum of society, whose origins are in the suburbs or the provinces; but the malignant effects of poverty or obscure birth invade this region also. The theme is frequently the endeavour of one born in an inferior station of grasp at the advantages of culture or ease for which, by intellect or temperament, he or she is fitted, but excluded by lack of money or by defect of social aptitude; it is the case with Godwin Peak and with Eve Madeley; they both seek their prize by dishonourable means; both, in some shifty way, have to disavow an earlier hampering alliance; these deteriorations are traced back to poverty. The novels last named also work out vigorously, and without dogmatism (which Gissing could not tolerate), problems arising out of distinctly modern conditions. They exhibit a complete change of temper from the attacks made on abuses with reforming intent by Dickens and Reade. In New Grub Street, there is the problem of conscience in the conditions of modern journalism; in Born in Exile, the conflict between religion and science; in The Odd Women, the status of women made conscious of their unpreparedness and superfluousness when the sheltering home collapses. Some of Gissing’s finest work in the more strictly defined business of the novelist is in these books; the characterisation in New Grub Street of Alfred Yule—pedantic, unimaginatively sincere, ageing, beset by minor ailments, the springs of courtesy and kindliness dried up in him by constant disappointment, swept aside by the tide of progress, but holding sardonically to his place—has a grip and tenacity and a freedom from analytical impediment to which Gissing rarely attained; the characters of Reardon, suffering from “the malady that falls upon outwearied imagination,” and Biffen, author of the unsuccessful novel Mr. Bailey, Grocer (an example of the theory of “absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent”) are made the more real by a vein of reminiscence of Gissing’s own apprenticeship to want and defeat; his temperament gave him, moreover, a clue to these types, sensitive, self-centred, conceiving themselves the chosen victims of adversity, and lacking in “social nerve.” In The Odd Women is illustrated another way in which Gissing foresaw new directions of technical method and criticism of life in the novel form; it is found in the relentless study, unmoved by any considerations of sentiment or plot, of the beginning, course and ending of Virginia Madden’s indulgence in secret drinking.