The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 18. The classical world; By the Ionian Sea; Veranilda
Gissing wrote novels of another type in which the purpose is the analysis of states of mind. The two kinds of novel cannot be strictly divided; but there is a recognisable boundary between the sociological studies and such stories as Isabel Clarendon, A Life’s Morning, The Emancipated, Eve’s Ransom, The Whirlpool, The Crown of Life and Our Friend the Charlatan. Here, Meredith was his master, and the direct influence of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel may be traced in A Life’s Morning an idyll shadowed, for a while, by tragedy; to Meredith, also, may be due the more frequent occurrence in these novels of concise satirical strokes such as the characterisation of their resolute artist Mallard in The Emancipated, as a “Janus with anxiety on both faces,” or of Mrs. Bradshaw, who “interested herself greatly in Vesuvius, regarding it as a serio-comic phenomenon which could exist only in a country inhabited by childish triflers.” We miss, however, Meredith’s heroic keynote, poetic conception and penumbra of comedy. Gissing’s analysis probes deeply, especially in his tracing of the disintegration of ill-starred marriage unions which have no sanction in community of standards, tastes or class-clanship; and in the dissection of modern temperamental types, such as Dyce Lashmar, “who excelled in intellectual plausibility,” and Alma Fotheringham, whose artistic enthusiasms spring out of too shallow a soil. In these instances, he exhibits the plenitude of interacting motive with practised skill; but, too often, he lacks the magical spell which combines the scattered traits into a breathing personality. One of his analytic studies begins “Look at this girl and try to know her”; the phrase is indicative of his most serious limitation as a novelist.
Gissing was not without avenues of escape from the dismal world in which for a great part of his career he dwelt and studied; one was his native instinct to idealise womanhood; upon almost all his feminine characters he confers some graceful sensuous charm, and he gives his imagination free rein in bodying forth such visions as Thyrza, Cecily Doran and Sidwell Warricombe. He won a sense of mental liberty, again, in classic poetry and amid the scenes which it calls to mind. The gratification of a long-fostered desire to see Italy gives a momentary richness of colour to the drab expanse of New Grub Street; Magna Graecia is the main scene and inspiration of two later books, By the Ionian Sea and Veranilda. In the former, Gissing proves himself a master of the descriptive essay, as might have been anticipated from many passages in the novels in which the elusive charm of English scenery is sensitively caught and rendered. Impressions of the memorials of antiquity, of the bright or delicate colouring of land- and sea-scape, of languorous perfume, of the discomforts of travel, of the sharp, deleterious climate at certain seasons, of strongly marked Italian rustic types, are blended in the exquisite prose narrative, which reveals surpassing beauty in the chapter “The Mount of Refuge.” A historical novel dealing with the period of Totila—the suggestion dated from his early absorption in Gibbon—had long been a preoccupation with Gissing. He put into Veranilda years of patient labour, and wrote with matured power upon a theme which pleased his imagination. The background is skilfully planned, informed by exact knowledge (in great part drawn from Cassiodorus, of whom Gissing wrote charmingly in By the Ionian Sea) of habit, custom, religion, law and the daily round of sixth century life. The historical novel of the classical world is a recurrent form in English fiction; but the closest parallel is to be found in Salammbô Gissing’s romance, in contrast, fails in intensity of imagination.