Places: New Grub Street

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1891

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1880’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedMilvain home

Milvain New Grub Streethome. English provincial home of Jasper Milvain’s mother, where the novel opens in a peaceful English scene. There, the self-centered Jasper dominates conversations with his mother and sisters, expounding his cynical principles and materialistic values. Gissing intends to depict cold, foggy London in all its dirt, noise, and competition for living space, but he employs the venerable artistic device of contrast by devoting several opening chapters to a bucolic setting, which is the diametrical opposite of the narrow, unsanitary streets and grim, overshadowing buildings of the city. Throughout the novel, escape to the English countryside remains an impossible dream to literary toilers like Edwin Reardon, Alfred Yule, and Harold Biffen, who cannot afford vacations and dread losing their precarious footholds in the literary marketplace.

Reardon home

Reardon home. London home of Edwin Reardon and his wife, Amy, located in a respectable neighborhood near St. James Park. Like many characters in New Grub Street, they aspire to middle-class status even though their income level should make them lower class. Their shabby genteel lifestyle requires a minimum of several hundred pounds per year to maintain; however, Edwin can only earn about half that much from his writing. The description of their tiny flat tells a great deal about Amy’s social aspirations and Edwin’s ambitions. It is respectable enough, but they have to climb eight flights of stairs to get to it. Edwin has to use the sitting room as his study, forcing Amy to sit in the kitchen. They share the only bedroom with their infant, whose crying torments Edwin while he tries desperately to write. The rent is more than they can afford, but Amy requires a middle-class standard of living and Edwin feels duty bound to provide it. Though poor, Edwin owns hundreds of tattered books in English, Latin, Greek, and French. While lying sleepless, Edwin can hear the clock of the Marylebone Workhouse chiming the hours, seemingly threatening him with disgrace and disaster if he ceases to write for a single day.

*British Museum reading room

*British Museum reading room. Reading room of London’s great national library, which Gissing uses as a setting for several important scenes, including one in which Marian Yule falls in love with Milvain. This cavernous room with walls covered with books is the very nucleus of the literary world. Writers gather here, not only because it offers the reference materials they need, but because it offers them a haven from their nagging landlords, threatening creditors, squalling babies, and anxious spouses.

The reading room is a meeting place in which writers exchange malicious gossip motivated by the dog-eat-dog competition of their trade. Marian, whose father has been a permanent fixture in the reading room for many years, sees the place from Gissing’s viewpoint. Jasper Milvain, the cynical opportunist, calls the reading room “the valley of the shadow of books,” echoing words from the Bible’s Twenty-third Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Many freelance writers live close to the British Museum because they depend on its reading room. Therefore, the setting provides a center of gravity around which Gissing’s characters orbit.

Yule home

Yule home. Home in which Marian lives with her parents on St. Paul’s Crescent, a street consisting of “small, decent homes.” By working through the day and halfway through the night, Yule manages to achieve a respectable middle-class lifestyle, but his home is a stark, cheerless place in which meals are eaten in silence, and his wife and daughter are afraid to disturb the master of the house when he retires to his study to do more literary hackwork by lamplight. Gissing uses this grim setting to symbolize the life of a certain type of writer who discovers too late that he lacks the talent to realize his youthful dreams. It is worth noting that Gissing, the modern realist, describes this setting objectively and dispassionately, in contrast to the seriocomic manner in which such a place would certainly have been handled by the flamboyant Charles Dickens.

Biffen home

Biffen home. Home of Harold Biffen, located in a respectable London neighborhood on Clipstone Street between Portland Place and Tottenham Court Road. Biffen is an educated man with middle-class aspirations, but his home is a drafty garret in which he lives while writing books that will never get published, while eking out a living by tutoring dullards for sixpence an hour.

Gissing characteristically describes the place in objective terms: “It was a very small room, with a ceiling so low that the tall lodger could only just stand upright with safety; perhaps three inches intervened between his head and the plaster, which was cracked, grimy, cobwebby. A small scrap of weedy carpet lay in front of the fireplace; elsewhere the chinky boards were unconcealed.” It is ironic that Biffen, the most idealistic of the writers portrayed in the novel, should be forced to endure the worst living conditions. There, Gissing uses place to underscore the fact that conscientious, gifted artists freeze, starve, and perish while plagiarists and empty-headed scribblers thrive in this modern literary marketplace he calls New Grub Street.

*Bayswater

*Bayswater. Fashionable district of London, where Jasper Milvain and his wife, Amy–the two most materialistic and selfish characters in the novel–are ensconced at the end of the novel. There, they entertain small and select parties of friends. Their comfortably appointed home is a tangible illustration of Gissing’s cynical thesis that in the real world, as opposed to the world of romantic literature, Philistines prosper while dreamers and idealists get trampled underfoot.

BibliographyCoustillas, Pierre, and Colin Partridge, eds. Gissing: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. Reviews of Gissing’s novels by British and American critics of his own time. Contains a generous selection of reviews of New Grub Street that offer insight into why Gissing did not achieve popular success.Halperin, John. Gissing: A Life in Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A biography with many references to New Grub Street, including a discussion of its reflections of Gissing’s own hardships. Contains a wealth of reference material. Illustrated with rare photographs of Gissing, his relatives, and friends.Michaux, Jean-Pierre, ed. George Gissing: Critical Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981. Fully one-half of the book is devoted to essays about New Grub Street, including selections by such prominent authors as Angus Wilson, John Middleton Murry, and Gissing’s great admirer and champion, George Orwell.Selig, Robert L. George Gissing. Boston: Twayne, 1983. The best short book on Gissing’s life and works. One chapter contains extensive discussion of New Grub Street. Bibliography.Toynton, Evelyn. “The Subversive George Gissing.” American Scholar 59 (Winter, 1990): 126-138. Discusses Gissing’s works, including New Grub Street, in relation to Gissing’s life. States that Gissing, neither a socialist nor an elitist, presents a picture of Victorian life that makes the reader reevaluate more entertaining but less realistic writers such as Charles Dickens.
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