'For Gissing,' Paul Delany notes, 'writing was a grim and lonely task, made grimmer by one of the most disastrous family lives of any English writer. At times this misery threatened to become contagious.' This confession comes at the end of Delany's engaging new biography of George Gissing, and suggests the special difficulty of spending long periods in the company of the English novelist most known for the relentless pessimism of his novels and the self-destructive tendencies of his life. The dean of Gissing studies, Pierre Coustillas, has for decades provided Gissing materials and support to other scholars, but Delany is the first in more than 25 years to produce a full-scale biography, and the first to engage in an all-out struggle to come to terms with Gissing the man, leaving the novels to play useful supporting roles. If the misery threatens to become contagious, it is not for lack of biographical knowledge, inventiveness or sympathy on Delany's part. The wish that Gissing's life might have developed in a more satisfying way overcomes any student of Gissing as surely as it did the friends who tried to help him through his difficulties.
LRB 9 July 2009 | PDF Download