George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) captures the nascent state of much of today’s literary world.
Written by a man so miserable most of his diary entries begin with the words “dull and rainy”, the novel charts the lives of two opposing authors. Jasper Milvain, whose surname gives fair warning, is aiming for a literary editorship through popular periodicals that appeal to that Victorian monster, ‘the masses’. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon writes ‘psychological realism’ for art’s sake, and spends much of the novel starving to death in a garret while pining for the days of Ancient Greece. You could say he is constantly kicked to the ‘rear’ of life’s queue, if you really wanted to.
Spoiler Alert: Reardon dies, succumbing to ‘congestion of the lungs’ in an anonymous bedsit; his last words to Biffen (another impoverished realist), “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”. Poor Reardon: a man who might have thrived as a writer of antiquity or a champion of modernism, he is doomed to natural selection in the days of the Victorian triple-decker novel. As a final kick, Milvain goes on to marry Edwin’s widow.
When discussing New Grub Street, Gissing admitted an affinity to Reardon and Biffen, but with one distinction: he himself had not failed. By the late 1890s Gissing was held to be one of England’s leading novelists. This, however, did not equal money or health. Sadly, even prophetically, Gissing died in 1903 of bronchopneumonia, H. G. Wells his only company. His final words, according to Virginia Woolf, were, “Patience, patience…”.
Although the bleakness of New Grub Street is sometimes like a brick to the head, I like how Gissing sticks to his guns, piling up house fires and park suicides. I suspect my fondness also stems from learning, while teaching this novel to undergraduates, that Gissing was a friend to my great-great uncle, the writer E. W. Hornung. They are buried near each other in Saint–Jean–de–Luz, a place I intend to visit one day. Elegies on country churchyards, and all that.
In the tug-of-war between Jasper and Edwin is the concept of ‘Grub Street’. Doctor Johnson defined Grub Street as “[o]riginally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet”.
I love the idea of a ‘temporary poem’ – do they combust after reading, or only exist in the corner of your eye? Lord Macaulay described the inhabitants of Grub Street as:
Sometimes blazing in gold-laced hats and waistcoats; sometimes lying in bed because their coats had gone to pieces, or wearing paper cravats because their linen was in pawn; sometimes drinking champagne and Tokay with Betty Careless; sometimes standing at the window of an eating-house in Porridge Island, to snuff up the scent of what they could not afford to taste; they knew luxury; they knew beggary; but they never knew comfort.
Those were the days. Grub Street was renamed Milton Street in 1830, the cartographical version of a quick spit and polish. The phrase has stayed with us, similarly losing its pejorative stink. But if Grub Street were still an X on a map, I wonder if it might just be the ever-increasing creative writing course.
In the UK, eighty-three universities offer creative writing at undergraduate level, continuing on to offer over two hundred masters degrees. Fifty provide creative writing PhDs. Universities are now places where writers gain a community. They are the home of the ‘working writer’ – a phrase bizarrely still in use – as Grub Street was, first drawing criticism from Swift and Pope, who decried the professionalisation of their craft.
Such criticism continues, rebutted nicely by Andrew Motion:
There was this sense that creative writing was something that had to take place in a garret. But aspiring dancers go to the Royal Ballet School, and actors go to RADA – why should writing be any different?
I have lived in this New Grub Street for six years, studying at the University of East Anglia for my undergraduate and master’s degrees. I am now in the final year of my PhD in critical and creative writing, and many of the questions faced by Gissing remain relevant, not least our constant rain.
Growing up on Grub Street occasionally feels like choosing between divorced parents – Prestige and Popularity – who refuse to see how easily they could be reconciled. The so-called Genre Debate rumbles on like the ancient animatronic dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum.
Gissing would have recognised too a happier element of this New Grub Street: friends like Biffen. Your fellow workshoppers will be there for the rest of your life, prepared to read the fourth draft of your novel, now entirely rewritten in second-person future tense.
With just ten months left, I am savouring every moment – while avoiding any visits to anonymous bedsits with damp walls.
Kim Sherwood tours with literary salons Elbow Room and The Book Club Boutique, and is an associate tutor and fellowship student on the University of East Anglia’s Critical and Creative Writing PhD. She was recently shortlisted for the Words and Women Fiction Prize, and longlisted for the Mslexia short story prize.