One of my chosen modules for the coming academic year is the English Nineteenth-Century Novel.
I will be honest with you. I chose the module, not because I am striving to challenge myself and further my mental capacities into unknown territory, but because I had read several books on the list and seen versions of many of the others on TV. And they were of the type I enjoyed reading, and watching.
When choosing modules, I was very close to picking the European Novel instead, but, knowing full well I am a slow reader incapable of skimming, I forced myself to set aside any thoughts in that direction. I can read those classics (along with The Illiad, The Odyssey and Paradise Lost which I missed in the Epic module last year) whenever I wish, individual of a University course, without the pressure of my reading being scrutinised. I do not pretend to be smarter than I am, and will not lie about it. My academic writing needs to be fine tuned, and my objective is to receive good results on my degree, not to challenge myself to a level higher than I am capable of excelling in.
The books I had already read were as follows: The Picture of Dorian Grey (Wilde), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Hardy), and The Mill on the Floss (Eliot). I have seen television versions of Bleak House (Dickens), North and South (Gaskell), and two each of Persuasion (Austen) and Tess. Many of the author's works I am already familiar with (Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, C. Brontë, and Wilde).
So far this summer, I have read Persuasion, Shelley's Frankenstein, and Gissing's New Grub Street.
I had never heard of George Gissing before, and was put off by finding images of him on Google with the precise sort of moustache I hate; however, moustaches aside, I found his writing to be brilliant. He speaks with such accuracy of character objectives, that you understand each and every one of them, and see yourself reflected from the page in sentences which mirror (many times shameful) truths at you ... 'Satisfied that he did not value her, to begin with, for her own sake, she was very willing to accept money as her ally in the winning of his love' ... 'But the thing [one most desires] is impossible, and, what's more, we know what ridiculous fallibility people display when they imagine they have found the best substitute for that indiscoverable' ... ‘all this is contemptible, of course; but we live in a contemptible society, and can’t help ourselves.’
I especially found myself identifying with Marian. ‘She could not breathe a word which might be interpreted as fear lest the change of her circumstances should make a change in his feeling. Yet that was in her mind. The existence of such a fear meant, of course, that she did not entirely trust him, and viewed his character as something less than noble ... Passion is comipatible with a great many of these imperfections of intellectual esteem. To see more clearly into Jasper’s personality was, for Marian, to suffer the intolerable dread lest she should lose him.’
I couldn’t resist, halfway through the book, to flip to the last page (as any thirteen year old might do), to read the last couple of sentences. I couldn’t believe what was there. No happy ending, that’s for sure. Gissing’s insightful style, having inspired you with the hope that he – who clearly wanted his characters to have a happy ending – will fulfil all that they desire, defies its own empathetic tendencies. At least, you might think, he could have given all of his characters an equilibrium of misery. However, he allows the characters who live with a conscious desire to retain money and social standing their happy world of dreamy bliss, and allows the characters who have ideals not to do with the gaining of money of social rank to die in lonely squalor. The sorrow of the book’s ending, though it may leave you with the flavour of intense disgust in you mouth, is entirely faithful to the realities of life in the human hive.
So I attempted to face a creative exercise, though it was less of an attempt at creativity, and more of an attempt to verbalise my own experiences of the previous year in the truthful, pitiless style of Gissing. Halfway through it, however, I finished New Grub Street and began Bleak House, and the effect of what your reading has upon what your writing has never struck me so full in the face. What to admire about Dickens is his use of comic irony, lively listful descriptions, and the grotesque; noting this my writing moved away from Gissing’s in a way I did not approve of. So I stopped reading Dickens to finish my own exercise in order to stay truthful to the style I, for that moment, more admired.
For me, Gissing’s writing has been a great eye opener for how close to life writing can be, and how success in this genre (realism) is found in putting that which you truly have felt, or know others have felt around you, into precise wording, regardless of any shame that may be felt by it.