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New Grub Street As A Microcosm Of English Victorian Life

2488 words - 10 pages


   New Grub Street presents the reader with an accurate and comprehensive picture of late Victorian society, despite the fact that it predominantly focuses only on a small group of literary men and women. At first, one may have difficulty locating Gissing's voice within the narrative. The perspective leaps from character to character, without establishing any clear candidates for the reader's sympathies. Jasper Milvain is ambivalently portrayed, despite the fact that his moral and literary values were anathematic to Gissing. This is but one example of ambiguity in a novel that is filled with confusion and inversions of the 'natural order'. The world of New Grub Street is one where the ...view middle of the document...

.. led to a boom in English newspapers"4. Around the time New Grub Street was published, "magazines and periodicals sprouted up as never before ... while by the end of the century the London Directory contained the names of over four hundred separate publishing houses"5. Publications such as Tit-Bits and Whelpdale's Chit-Chat, which featured no article longer than two column inches, were extremely popular to "the majority [who] chose books and papers written expressly for an audience of semi-literates whose requirements were simple but demanding"6. As Milvain reflects, "The quarter-educated constitute a very large class indeed; how large, the huge success of that paper is demonstrating"7.

 

The profound and extensive effects of these compositional changes on the lives of 'Men of Letters' are closely replicated in Gissing's work; 'New Grub Street' itself was the modern product of these changes. In the atmosphere of 'New Grub Street', commercially minded people such as Jasper Milvain prosper. Much to the dismay of Reardon and Yule (and Gissing), scholarly criticism and literature of artistic merit is being gradually displaced by sensationalistic journalism. However, "few of Gissing's literary contemporaries shared his dour misgivings; the majority were content to see the future in terms of expanding markets, fresh opportunities"8.

 

The result of this commercialisation of literature was a trend for authors to become increasingly like tradespeople. In chapter XIV, Milvain speaks at length of his varied literary endeavours for the day, saying, "I've just been trying what I really could do in one day if I worked my hardest"9. His list of tasks - reading books and newspapers, writing various reviews, articles, and papers - corresponds closely to the sort of labour prescribed by one of Gissing's contemporaries, Sir Walter Besant. Besant wrote in The Pen and the Book (1899), "The literary man has his club: he makes an income by his labour which enables him to live in comfort, and to educate his children properly. Now this man a hundred years ago would have been an object of contempt for his poverty and helplessness: the cause of contempt for literature itself".10 Gissing himself thought of Besant as "commonplace to the last degree: a respectable draper", and saw Besant's Society of Authors as "a mere gathering of tradesmen"11.

 

It is precisely this trend that runs contrary to Reardon's literary and artistic values. His position is diametrically opposed to that of Milvain, who when questioned about the literary value of his endeavours, answers that they are, "Equal to that of the contents of a mouldy nut", and later says, "It's rubbish, but rubbish of a very special kind, of fine quality".12 Jasper strives to manufacture commercially viable material without being concerned about its literary value, and this is exactly the example that Amy Reardon exhorts her husband to follow, to little avail. Reardon's unpreparedness to adapt...

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