The late Victorian novelist George Gissing has shown up a couple of times lately in my Times Literary Supplement.
What a strange subscription. Weeks will go by without the TLS arriving. Then new ones will show up nearly every day, stacking up like undone homework assignments. How can I read the TLS when I need to go watch the Atlanta Hawks?
I digress. I was talking about good old Gissing.
At LSU, when I forced myself into the English honors program despite insufficient ACT scores (the Ole War Skule didn't take account of the SAT), I took a pleasant course in Victorian autobiography.
That included autobiographical novels, such as Dickens' "David Copperfield." And Gissing's "New Grub Street." We also read Thackeray, Samuel Butler, Thomas Carlyle, Anthony Trollope, John Henry Cardinal Newman and possibly others.
Much of it was dreadful stuff, but Dickens' genius dazzled in "David Copperfield," Carlyle's "Sartor Restartus," Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" and Butler's "the Way of All Flesh" were quite good, and Trollope's little red autobiography with its line drawings left me with a picture of the professional writer sitting down each day to his toil. I'm just thankful we didn't have to read any of Trollope's novels. Though difficult to read, Newman's tale of spiritual crisis made me shiver.
We met outside in the fragrant Louisiana spring. The teacher was quite comely. One of those intellectual women who hinted that she could be quite fun once she took her glasses off. We got to choose as a special project a writer and novel to write about. I rashly decided on Gissing and "New Grub Street."
Gissing was quite a character. A classical scholar, he was tossed out of Oxford for stealing money from a classmate to help a prostitute. He struggled horribly for a while, ending up on "New Grub Street," London's center for literary hacks who churned out the cheap novels and journalism for the burgeoning British reading public.
I don't know why I chose Gissing over Dickens or Carlyle. Gissing's harrowing autobiographical story of writers in threadbare clothing, living in dismal apartments with barely enough to eat, wasn't exactly easy reading. I finished the book and wrote my paper, mercifully lost along the way. The nice young professor awarded me with an A.
For years, I kept up my association with Gissing, joining the Gissing Society and receiving its Gissing bulletin. Then I gave up my pretense of having an interest in Gissing.
Still, whenever I encounter Gissing in the TLS or the London Review of Books, I feel a tingle of recognition.
Who knows, perhaps I'll re-read "New Grub Street" one day. Or maybe not. Good old Gissing. You'll always shine in my memory of my youth and the Louisiana spring.