I've acquired a few of George Gissing's more obscure titles recently - this was an Oxfam-shop find - but
I always think of him in terms of gaslit London streets, slicked with rain; damp overcoats that don't keep the chill out ... they're novels of the gloaming, like stepping into a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw. Something like this. Depending on how the city is treating you, you could be hurrying home for a mutton chop and a snifter of something warming or stumbling to a chill garret to nurse the consumptive cough that will see you off by the end of the chapter.
Then last week, when it was too hot and sticky to think, I realised that the gloaming is a perfect antidote to a heatwave ... and I raced through the novel that was top of my saved-for-autumn pile. Beginning in 1887 - the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee - it has all the ingredients: secrets and lies, a father's foolish will, women no better than they oughter be, and every human frailty in a city where modern life is so volatile that fortune can favour the strong - and catastrophe can overtake the weak. It's a city that can't stand still - pulsing with money and vulgarity - and if you're not on the make, then you're on your way down and out.
Gissing's female characters are real people. Shrewish Ada is as far as you can get from the Victorian ideal of the 'angel in the home.' Her vulgar sister Beatrice - I liked Beatrice! - smokes special womens' cigarettes and drinks claret with her virile dinner of rump steak and fried onions; she has an eye for business and a bachelor flat of her own, and her male acquaintances call her 'old chap.' Nancy - who fancies herself 'cultured' - dreams of an independent life and being able to walk the city streets with the freedom of a man ... but she finds happiness in subjugating her desires to those of her husband. That's the trouble with Gissing. He wants women to be rational, educated equals who won't cling to a fellow or make demands. He'd like a wife to be more like a mistress, living uncomplainingly in the suburbs while he keeps up a bachelor life in town and visits her once every couple of weeks when the fancy takes him. (And guess who doesn't get lumbered with the baby!) It's all wishful thinking, born of the mess Gissing made of his own life. He was expelled from college in Manchester, aged only 18, and sentenced to one month's hard labour, for pilfering from other students' coat-pockets in an attempt to support his teenage prostitute mistress. And then he only went and married her. His first wife died in the workhouse after they separated, and he made another catastrophic marriage to a violent alcoholic who died in an asylum. No wonder he's so good on the domestic misery of men who marry beneath them. Oh, you could throttle Mr Gissing when poor Nancy gives voice to his fantasies about peace and contentment - or rather pipe, slippers, passionate kisses and NO NAGGING - while husbands get to do just as they like ...
But it's all such a rollicking good read. I can't think why Gissing isn't better known today. He's a brilliant choice for book groups; and why can't somebody do a TV adaptation? There's a good article about his female characters here.