Sunday, March 15, 2015

Money and sex: New Grub Street

Victorian novels have an entirely undeserved reputation for gentility; really, they are all about money and sex.

Think of Trollope's Palliser novels, in which (to take one of many examples) Phineas Finn must marry a wealthy, socially-connected woman in order to realize his political ambitions. Or Vanity Fair, in which Becky Sharp becomes the mistress of the Marquis of Steyne in exchange for the advancement of her husband's career. Or Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, in which Squire Hamley is staunchly opposed to his son's marrying either of the daughters of his family doctor—an old friend but a social inferior. Daringly for its time, George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), set in the literary world of London, takes the connection between money and sex as its explicit subject.

New Grub Street (1891)

Grubstreet, according to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, was a lane in London "much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems"—literary work produced for hire. So "grubstreet" became a widely used synonym for hackwork. (Johnson, of course, was also recorded by Boswell as saying that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.") And by the late 19th century, a hundred years after Johnson's death, mass literacy had vastly expanded the market for literary labor.

New Grub Street follows the increasingly divergent fates of two characters who are toiling in the mines of literature. Jasper Milvain has an acute sense of what the marketplace values, and he uses that judgment to guide his conduct in every arena. His easy facility with words allows him to produce work that he knows will sell, curry favor in the right quarters, and make his reputation, and he cultivates professional and personal relationships that will be instrumental in helping him advance. The other main character, Edwin Reardon, writes from an inspiration which does not often come, acts on his (often misguidedly generous) impulses, and forms friendships based on intellectual affinity. Poor Edwin.

Both men take up with lovers who are temperamentally and morally unsuited to them. In a rash moment the shallow Milvain commits himself to marry the smart, sincere, and deeply-feeling Marian Yule. Reardon, temporarily riding high on a minor literary success, unwisely marries Marian's beautiful cousin, Amy Yule. Amy is attracted to Edwin because he seems to be a rising new author, but she's bitterly disappointed when he proves incapable of producing the kind of writing that will provide her with social and material success.

Milvain is quite explicit about the conscious alignment of his sexual and monetary interests. As he explains to his friend Whelpdale:
'I haven't much faith in marrying for love, as you know. What's more, I believe it's the very rarest thing for people to be in love with each other….As a rule, marriage is the result of a mild preference, encouraged by circumstances, and deliberately heightened into strong sexual feeling. You, of all men, know well enough that the same kind of feeling could be produced for almost any woman who wasn't repulsive…A preference of this kind can be heightened into emotion, if one chooses…[but] I am far more likely to marry some woman for whom I have no preference, but who can serve me materially.' (Chapter XXII)
While Milvain subordinates his sexual feelings to his calculations of material advantage, Reardon has allowed his sexual desire for Amy to lead him into a marriage whose incompatibility becomes increasingly stark as continued literary success proves ever more elusive. Reardon begins but then abandons several different novels, finally persevering, at Amy's urging and to his growing self-disgust, with a book that he knows is mediocre. Gissing is unsparing about the devastatingly corrosive effect that the lack of money can have on emotional attachment and sexual desire. As Reardon declares to his friend Biffen:
'I am quite free from sexual bias. I can see that Amy was not my fit intellectual companion, and all emotion at the thought of her has gone from me. The word "love" is a weariness to me...The best moments of life are those when we contemplate beauty in the purely artistic spirit...utterly remote from the temptations and harassings of sexual emotion. What we call love is mere turmoil. Who wouldn't release himself from it for ever, if the possibility offered?' (Chapter XVII)
For the character of Reardon, Gissing drew on his own experiences of poverty and literary struggle. Between late 1889 and late 1890 Gissing worked fitfully on at least seven projects, all of which turned out to be abortive. Finally, he had a breakthrough, and over nine weeks during the fall of 1890 wrote New Grub Street, which features agonizingly vivid descriptions of Reardon's inability to write. Ironically, it was by becoming a "chronicler of vulgarity, squalor and failure" (George Orwell's words) that Gissing finally achieved moderate success. He was then in his mid-thirties; he died in 1903, at the age of 46, after having suffered ill-health for most of the final decade of his life.

In its candidness about the connection between money and desire, New Grub Street was daring in its day; it remains compelling in ours.

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