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The details of Gissing's frequently miserable private life -- miserable largely because of his stunning capacity for self-punishment -- have fascinated generations of readers ever since his friend Morley Roberts published the first biography, thinly disguised under the title The Private Life of Henry Maitland. Roberts' memory failed him over some details and some of his judgements are more than dubious; but fortunately Gissing assiduously chronicled his own life, though the records were damaged before and after his death. Taken together, the new superb edition of his Collected Letters, his Diary and the semi-fictional memoirs The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft give us a unique and touching insight into a very distinctive personality, and the life he struggled through as a moderately successful novelist in late Victorian England. He has also been the subject of two modern biographies, and the definitive biography is currently being written by Pierre Coustillas.
George Gissing was born at Wakefield, Yorkshire on 22 November 1857, the son of a chemist who died young leaving five children in fairly straitened circumstances. He was a brilliant student who at the age of 15 won a scholarship to Owens College, Manchester. This institution prepared students for university and Gissing proved to be a star pupil, winning many prizes and securing entry to London University. Clearly he was destined for an academic career in the classics, the history and literature of the ancient world being his first and last love. On the eve of his success, however, his prospects were ruined when he was caught stealing money from the students' cloakroom. The money was for Nell Harrison, a young prostitute with whom Gissing was infatuated. After a month's imprisonment he was packed off to America, where he passed a year schoolteaching and writing his first short stories for a Chicago newspaper. He was back in London by October 1877, friendless and penniless; Nell joined him and they married. He scratched a living by doing private tutoring while working on his large first novel, Workers in the Dawn, whose publication in 1880 he paid for with a small legacy. The novel, which was a complete failure, is a naturalistic study of the most desperate levels of poverty-stricken London life.
Gissing's marriage was unhappy: his wife was a drunkard and intermittently returned to prostitution; eventually he paid her to live apart from him. The relationship in Workers between the idealistic Arthur Golding and the sluttish and invincibly stupid Carrie Mitchell is clearly autobiographical. The other female character in Workers, Helen Norman, is a first study for a long line of ladylike, virtuous and intellectual woman, distant as stars and just as unattainable for the Gissing hero. 'My one supreme desire is to marry a perfectly refined woman' says one of his many alter egos, Godwin Peak in a later novel, but he never achieved it.
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