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Gissing’s New Grub Street and The Origins of Middlebrow Publishing

Clive E. Hill


<1> George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) is a novel set largely in late-Victorian London. As well as telling a story of love, misunderstanding and betrayal, it discusses the connection between literature and commerce in the period that immediately precedes the development of the genre known as ‘middlebrow’, a catch-all term for a cultural form that was neither unapologetically elitist, nor intractably vulgar, and which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century. My approach to the subject is discursive and suggestive, rather than dogmatic and definitive, but in pursuit of purely scholarly accuracy, it is worth noting that the specific form of middlebrow writing that I will be discussing here is the English/British version, given that much recent research has suggested that middlebrow writing often differed according to the national context of its production. Ostensibly similar works written in America (see Rubin and Radway), Australia (see Carter), Canada (see Tector) and New Zealand (see Hilliard) and elsewhere, have all exhibited subtle but important differences in their overarching approaches to both tradition and modernity. Hence, regardless of the various political biases of specific examples of English middlebrow writing, it is worth noting that they generally shared a sympathetic and inclusive view of the older, more ‘literary’, varieties of publishing found in their own national cultural history.

<2> Although Gissing (1857-1903) is often presented as an ‘intellectual’ and ‘highbrow’ author, there are some important thematic parallels between his texts and writings that are more commonly, and less problematically, acknowledged as middlebrow. Just as artistic figures such as the Beggarstaff Brothers (who were active in the 1890s; Holbrook Jackson, 333-4) can be seen as precursors of twentieth-century ‘middlebrow’ poster art, despite their anti-commercial ambitions, Gissing can perhaps be also be understood in a similar manner; as an artist by profession as well as by vocation. He was born a Yorkshireman, but he not only set many of his other stories in London, but also lived in the capital for many years; so he was a true ‘literary Londoner’. However, he was also a cosmopolitan who travelled at length in America and Europe at various points in his life and was inspired by the French sociologist, Auguste Comte, and the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, to periodically meditate on the relative importance of reason and emotion, science and art, in the modern world (see Halperin 40, 46-7).

<3> As the home of the British Museum, where Gissing’s characters often meet, of a fledgling university and of numerous learned societies, Victorian London was an important challenger to Oxford and Cambridge in Britain’s ‘knowledge economy’, as well as being an industrial, commercial, financial and political metropolis. With New York as its only real competitor for the role of the major English language publishing centre of the modern world, London is certainly central to the story of ‘middlebrow’; a tale with many dimensions which has yet to be fully investigated. Although it has been fashionable since the 1920s to disparage ‘middlebrow’ writing, these criticisms were in fact echoes of the deep hostility to popular literature expressed by John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold in the early 1880s (see Ruskin and Arnold). These arguments are perhaps slightly surprising over a century later, given that Ruskin, in particular, is also known as an important social critic, while figures such as Dickens, Trollope and the Brontës offered models of writing that sought to combine both accessibility and quality of expression. Nevertheless, it should always be remembered that the gradual (and very partial) democratisation of social and political life in nineteenth-century Britain was a complicated and deeply contested process. ‘Dumbing-down’ criticisms of popular literature were a symptom of a more general social anxiety, and a further installment of electoral democracy in the inter-war years (the reforming legislation of 1918 and 1928) was a factor that helps to explain why the political strand remained very important to English middlebrow writing, even if this is not always recognised today.

<4> As critical inheritors of legacies from both the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, conservative high Victorians were well aware of the tensions between logic and emotion, as well as those between science, utility and faith. Echoes of these debates continued (post-Darwin) into not only the fin-de-siècle, but also the Edwardian and inter-war periods, and so –- just as in our own times –- the ‘rational’ and the ‘emotional’ were –- in certain important senses –- objective categories in a common human life. However, these terms were (and are) are also useful signifiers for our subjective disagreements about tastes and values, and, as we might expect, traces of this ongoing ‘meta-conflict’ can be found in both New Grub Street and the later debate about middlebrow. Hence, it was by no means impossible for both Victorian and post-Victorian narratives to be both intellectually accessible and intellectually sophisticated, and it is increasingly common for scholars to try and get away from the idea that middlebrow is simply the low-brow grown up, to paraphrase Graves and Hodge (52), and to think about middlebrow as a serious cultural position (see Bracco, Humble and Macdonald). Although spatial limitations will mean that much of what follows is indicative, rather than definitive, I will seek to reflect upon Gissing’s personal view of London as well as the whole tradition in English literature that sees London as both a physical place (or at least a network of places) and a symbol of both cultural authority and cultural corruption; and to link these ideas with the concept of middlebrow. We may also care to note that the idea of place is quite fundamental to the whole notion of ‘middlebrow’; and that there is a whole metaphorical tradition where the middle is a ‘place’ between the high and the low (whether we view it as a repository of mediocrity or positive synthesis), while the brow (or head) is the ‘place’ in the human psyche where thinking, as opposed to feeling, occurs. 

<5> Of course, ‘New Grub Street’ itself was not a physical place, but an allusion to, and an extended metaphor for, an unfulfilling life of literary penury, and a pun upon the original, eighteenth-century street name of ‘Grub Street’, often associated with Samuel Johnson, but once a real street in the Cripplegate, or as we know it today, the Barbican area of London. As we might infer from its title, New Grub Street took a slightly cynical and satirical view of writing and publishing in late-Victorian England/London. It is certainly possible to argue that New Grub Street is a purely ‘literary’ construction, and is therefore of limited value as a historical document, but I will nevertheless present to the reader a short discussion of ‘real-world’ publishing history just before the middlebrow genre developed in Edwardian times, and an analysis of Gissing’s views of literature as a trade and of London as a place where that trade was plied. After a short digression on some similarities and differences between ‘London middlebrow’ and ‘regional middlebrow’, such as the work of Arnold Bennett and J.B. Priestley, I will attempt to consider some linkages between New Grub Street and the ‘English middlebrow’ of the early twentieth century, given that Wakefield’s famous literary son frequently meditated on the antinomy between writing as art and writing as a trade.

<6> The period in London’s literary history that Gissing was describing in his first commercially successful novel was the 1880s and, more specifically, the years 1882 to 1886. The assumption that the life and culture of the 1880s tells us something about its immediate successors, the 1890s, and the more distant 1900s, is not simply a form of hindsight prompted by the quirks of our decennial calendar. It is an insight that can also be found in the work of contemporaries such as Max Beerbohm and George Holbrook Jackson (12), who were both prominent figures within British literary culture and students of its changing character. However, the story of New Grub Street is not merely of sociological and aesthetic interest, but it is also political in the general sense that it is about power and persuasion, as opposed to the more specific sense of politics as law and governance. Given that London was the home of both England’s national Law Courts, and Britain’s national and imperial Parliament, it is perhaps slightly surprising that Gissing’s tribe of writers and publishers have little interaction with the lawyers and politicians of the day, but it seems that Gissing felt he had ‘settled accounts’ with the class politics of an industrial society in his earlier novel, Demos: A Story of English Socialism (1886). (Gissing’s other writings deal with electoral politics of a more ‘mainstream’/establishment character in a fairly spasmodic way; it might well be inferred that he had more sympathy with the artistic ‘heart’ of the city as opposed to its supposedly rational, governing ‘head’.)

<7> Students of metaphor may well ask if London itself is a ‘character’ in the narrative of New Grub Street, and perhaps it is, but only in the loosest sense. To make use of another trope, London, or at least the reader’s own conception of London, is more like a mirror that can be used by readers to help them learn something about the characters and the subjects that interest them. Even in the opening chapters of the novel, set in the imaginary country village of Wattleborough, somewhere along the route of the Great Western Railway, London looms large in the conversations of Gissing’s characters. Moreover, once the prologue is over, and the main story unfolds, much of the action takes place within a stone’s throw of what we might loosely call ‘greater Bloomsbury’ (see Dennis) because, as I noted earlier, the British Museum reading room is a central point for the professional activities of the main protagonists. 

<8> For example, the most clearly auto-biographical figure in Gissing’s novel, Edwin Reardon, originally resides in a garret off Tottenham Court Road following his arrival in the capital from Hereford; then spends the first few chapters living on the south-west corner of Regent’s Park, about a mile away from the Museum, and then subsequently poverty and marital separation eventually force him to move further afield to less affluent, and less central areas, such as Manville Street in Islington. Before the Bloomsbury quarter acquired its overwhelmingly modernist associations, it could be readily understood as the bearer of many other symbolisms, including Reardon’s progressive exclusion from ‘civilisation’, even as his estranged wife, Amy, enjoys an increasingly intimate friendship with his Machiavellian friend, Jasper Milvain. As Richard Dennis has tellingly noted, the narrative of Gissing’s New Grub Street conveys ‘profound’ insights into the ‘rhythm of the Bloomsbury townscape’ and its contrasts between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘solitude’ and ‘traffic’, and ‘moonlight’ and ‘lamplight’ (6). 

<9> While the storyline of New Grub Street is technically fictional, some of the imaginary texts it describes are fairly thinly disguised versions of real publications; so that, for example, the popular magazine Chat, which later becomes Chit-Chat, is clearly based on Tit-Bits, founded in 1881 by George Newnes (subsequently a Liberal MP from 1885 to 1895 and 1900 to 1910). However, while Diaz Lage has persuasively argued that the very title of the imaginary, satirical journal invented by Gissing is indicative of the ‘abstract’ and ‘one-sided’ (78), not to mention sociologically fractured and educationally divided character of the society that Gissing inhabited, it is entirely possible that the famous Yorkshireman did the original Tit Bits something of a disservice. For example, Jackson has shown that while ‘Tit Bits was commercial in origin and format’, it was surprisingly ‘inclusive in style and content’ (206) and that the tension between oligarchic and democratic values was by no means always resolved in favour of the former. Values such as ‘communality’, ‘co-operation’, ‘solidarity’, ‘charity’, ‘philanthropy’ and ‘sociability’ seem to have informed the character of many of its features, as well as the purely ‘entertainment’ and ‘commercial value’ (209, 210, 211, 221) that one might expect in a ‘lowbrow’ publication. The detailed history of the nineteenth-century periodical is a most complicated beast, and it is certainly an over-simplification to assume that there was nothing of value except Dickens’ Household Words on the one hand and the ‘heavyweight reviews’ or the other; the ‘New Journalism’ of Tit BitsAnswers,Pearson’s Weekly and The Clarion certainly brought something new to the table.

<10> In the pages of Gissing, the imaginary Chat eventually falls into the editorial hands of Jasper Milvain’s sycophantic acquaintance, Whelpdale. This slightly comic character, a serially unsuccessful suitor who eventually marries one of Milvain’s sisters, was used by Gissing to indicate some of the dangers of the increasingly commercial character of literature in his own time. Having failed to publish any novels of his own, Whelpdale charges other aspiring writers for his opinion as a ‘literary adviser’; a practice which Milvain defends but is condemned as a swindle by the morally upright character of Reardon:

A man who can’t get anyone to publish his own books makes a living by telling other people how to write! (Gissing, I, 303)

More significantly for the satirical strand in Gissing’s work, these lessons and surgeries eventually become the material for a saleable manual on the subject of novel writing. In other words, a self-help book; part of a genre whose popularity continued to grow out of the Victorian period into the Edwardian and inter-war years. The self-help book (and in particular, the writer’s guide) was often assumed to be of more assistance to the pocket book of the author, than the skill set of the reader, but its ongoing popularity forges another link between the late Victorians and subsequent forms of middlebrow writing. It might plausibly be argued that one reason why Victorian authors busied themselves in ‘supplementary careers’ was in order to contradict the common perception that their lives were ‘passive’ and ‘idle’ (Lund 23), but the more obviously relevant factors were economic security and, in some cases, acquisitiveness and greed. As Peter Keating has shown, ‘literary advice had become a marketable commodity’ during Gissing’s lifetime and took a variety of formats (71-4). Moreover, just as Gissing expressed his anxiety regarding the adulteration of literature by commerce, in the 1930s, a middlebrow author such as J.B. Priestley expressed a similar concern regarding journalism in the novel Wonder Hero (1933).

<11> In contrast to the commercially-minded Whelpdale and Milvain, the character of Alfred Yule values learning for its own sake and symbolises an older, more mid-Victorian style of writing, sometimes referred to as the ‘higher journalism’. As an individual, Alfred is a dictatorial character who treats his poorly educated, working-class wife with little respect or kindness, while, as a type, he is somewhat behind the times. His daughter, Marian Yule, can be understood as being symbolic of a more egalitarian kind of mental independence and is a far more up-to-date and pleasant personality. While acting as her father’s literary assistant, and – by implication – his sometime ghostwriter, Marian Yule researches and writes about subjects such as ‘French Authoresses of the Seventeenth Century’ in the British Museum; a high-brow allusion to both Cartesian feminism and ‘La Querelle des Femmes’ and the kind of ambiguous reference that makes Gissing such a difficult writer to pigeonhole. Because of these ‘highbrow’ activities, Marian might also be said to represent the stereotypical ‘bluestocking’, albeit in quite a sympathetic way, just as other characters in the novel represent various other social types. 

<12> When introducing Marian’s character to the reader in the early stages of the novel, Gissing describes her accent as both ‘pure’ and ‘unpretentious’. By implication, these are qualities of her personality, as well as her speech. The text also explains that ‘she used none of the fashionable turns of speech which would have suggested the habit of intercourse with distinctly metropolitan society’ (Gissing, I, 31), indicating that Marian’s strength of character protects her against the luxury and corruption often associated with urban society, and — in Britain — with London in particular. Although she is normally resident in London, Marian is presented as being genuinely comfortable in the countryside – ‘her walk was gracefully modest, and she seemed to be enjoying the country air’ (Gissing, I, 20) – and she partakes of the countryside as if it is the traditional repository of virtue found in the pastoral tradition (Patterson). Moreover, although Marian is not a ‘New Woman’ in the fully developed sense of the phrase, when maintaining and then breaking her engagement to Milvain, she can be seen as a precursor of various later important middlebrow characters, such as Du Maurier’s ‘Mrs. De Winter’, who have to negotiate with powerful men in dramatic situations.

<13> At the close of the novel, Milvain becomes editor of a fictional magazine called The Current which occupies a slightly higher point in the intellectual pecking order than Chat. Indeed, Aaron Matz has even argued that its ‘plunge-and-riposte’ culture (there is a similar, but rival, journal called The Study) bears a remarkable resemblance to that described in Balzac’s Illusions perdues (1837-43) which satirized Parisian literary culture in the 1820s. This of course suggests that there are more universal (and valid) lessons about ‘journalistic pragmatism’ (Matz, 21, 22) to be found in the pages of New Grub Street than I have previously allowed, but my present concern is to link its themes with an ‘adjacent’ literary subculture, namely middlebrow, as I have previously indicated. Moreover, as New Grub Street is itself a novel, and two of its major characters, Edward Reardon and Harold Biffen, are novelists by vocation/profession, it makes sense to now proceed to considering the role of the novel in the literary ecology of the period.

<14> The traditional argument, that the publishing of Victorian fiction was unnecessarily hamstrung by the predominance of the triple-decker novel has been somewhat undermined in recent years by recent researches into the wide-ranging character of nineteenth-century fiction, such as chapbooks, broadsheets, penny weeklies and other serial formats (Eliot, 42, 44-5) but certainly had currency in Gissing’s own time. In the 1880s and 1890s, relatively few readers could afford to purchase large numbers of novels outright at the traditional price for a novel of £1 11s. 6d. as agreed by a cabal of London publishing houses in the 1820s. From 1852 onwards, retail price maintenance was technically illegal and large numbers of novels were sold at discounted prices to privately owned circulating libraries (such as Mudie’s) but many novelists sold the rights to their work for a fixed sum to their publisher, rather than receiving royalties. This system became increasingly discredited as the century progressed, as it tended to produce a great deal of formulaic writing using stock characters and standard plots; the very same vices that are often associated (somewhat unfairly) with twentieth-century middlebrow. The triple-decker system (for greater detail see Griest, 35-57 and 156-212) was eventually replaced by the Net Book Agreement, which held the ring in the early twentieth century, the period that we normally associate with ‘middlebrow’. 

<15> What precedes is most relevant because one common feature of the various strands in the story of New Grub Street is the way in which the different characters react to subtle changes in the literary marketplace. For example, while Biffen makes no attempt to accommodate his realist style of novel writing to these developments, Reardon is a reluctant convert to a more popular – we might almost say – ‘middlebrow’ – approach. At one point in the story, he submits the manuscript, of a short, one-volume novel to the slightly murky, but significant figure, of Jedwood, a literary entrepreneur, but the manuscript is rejected. Jedwood publishes a series of one-volume novels in Gissing’s imaginary literary London, several years before Hall Caine published The Manxman and hammered the final nails into the coffin of the triple-decker during the 1890s, but his very existence provides an opportunity for Reardon to debate with Milvain the merits of the three volume novel. Reardon’s main argument is that

It is a question of payment. An author of moderate repute may live on a yearly three-volume novel –- I mean the man who is obliged to sell his book out and out, and who gets from one to two hundred pounds for it. But he would have to produce four one-volume novels to obtain the same income; and I doubt whether he could get so many published within the twelve months. And here comes in the benefit of the libraries; from the commercial point of view the libraries are indispensable. Do you suppose the public would support the present number of novelists if each book had to be purchased? A sudden change to that system would throw three-fourths of the novelists out of work. (Gissing, II, 70-71).

Not surprisingly, Milvain disagrees, but in contrast with many interpretations of Victorian print culture, the commercial lending libraries do not figure as major villains in Gissing’s ‘Grub Street’, and Reardon actually defends them. Details such as the fact that Mudie’s and other libraries of the same kind insisted upon a twelve month interval between the publication of a three volume novel (which could be circulated to three customers at once!) and a cheaper, single volume format of the same text are conveniently glossed over by Gissing, and most of the ‘blame’ for the penury of Reardon and Biffen is placed at the door of both their own foibles and the rapaciousness of their publishers. However –- given that the exchange between Reardon and Milvain is incidental to the plot of the novel as a whole –- this lack of interest in commercial libraries is understandable, and a branch of Mudie’s near Oxford Circus, as opposed to the original headquarters in Southampton Row, only figures in the narrative very occasionally (for example at Gissing, III, 48-50). Gissing himself abandoned the three-volume novel four years after New Grub Street, with the single volume publication of Eve’s Ransom in 1895, and seems to have anticipated other aspects of the middlebrow novel, such as simpler plot lines, more optimistic conclusions, and a more allusive approach to political issues (such as imperialism and militarism) in the books, such as The Crown of Life (1899), which he published towards the end of his career.

<16> However, in contrast to the argument that is implicit to much of what precedes –- namely, that middlebrow writing is best understood as the product of changes in publishing formats –- some scholars have become increasingly interested in the view that the middlebrow reader should be at the centre of their investigations (for example, Radway and Travis). Of course, the audience-centred perspective on both popular and more elite-oriented forms of literature was by no means unfamiliar to late-Victorian writers such as Gissing. In some respects, the debate about ‘audience’ in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain can be understood as a product of the anxieties of professional authors regarding the ability of the relatively literate and affluent to appreciate their work, even if they did not share the fictional Whelpdale’s contempt for the ‘quarter-educated’ (Gissing, III, 233). In Gissing’s writings, personal ambition and greed generally trump sympathy and the long-term view, and his personal experience before his books began to sell reasonably well in the 1890s was that poor sales encouraged publishers to exploit their position of economic power, rather than nurturing new authors.

<17> Ironically enough, despite Biffen’s professional ambition to eliminate sentimentality from the narrative tradition, he actually holds an unspoken and unrequited love for Amy Reardon, which the reader is left to suspect is one factor in his eventual suicide (see Gissing, III, 292-4) given that an unexpected inheritance eventually resolves his purely economic difficulties. Earlier in the novel, Biffen had eked out a living as a tutor; in particular, following the increasingly common practice of preparing lower-class men for professional/occupational examinations; examinations which assumed a wider knowledge of English literature than that provided in the publicly-funded elementary (‘Board’) schools of the period. Thus, although he does not engage in directly political action, Biffen’s sympathy for his fellow paupers is not merely abstract; he gives practical assistance to those who aspired to use a very limited disposable income to achieve social promotion, as well as recording the everyday lives of the ‘ignobly decent’ (Gissing, I, 264) . The practice of ‘university-style’ testing to assess the capacity of candidates for middle-ranking forms of clerical/administrative employment became increasingly common as the twentieth century progressed, and the literary anthology played an important role in spreading knowledge of “culture”, the selected fragment of a much greater inheritance of printed texts that the late Victorians and their immediate successors deemed to have social and educational (as well as purely literary) significance (see McPherson). Yet, although the real-life Gissing, who had worked as a tutor in the 1870s and 1880s helping students to prepare for the same matriculation examination as the fictional Biffen, would have enjoyed ready access to such teaching aids, there is no reference to the use of such volumes in the context of Biffen’s teaching. Hence, as we might expect, New Grub Street is by no means encyclopaedic in its discussion of the precursors of middlebrow and needs to be supplemented from many other sources. For example, despite Gissing’s well-known interest in women’s education, there is no reference in New Grub Street to Biffen taking female pupils either, and this is of course primarily because the great feminist victories of the twentieth century in the sphere of employment had certainly not been achieved in the 1880s. So much for what the novel cannot tell us; what might we learn from comparing it with other styles and examples of fiction?

<18> At much the same time as Gissing was living out his own abbreviated literary career, the English ‘pastoral tradition’ was being revived by Thomas Hardy, and given that Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published in the same year as New Grub Street, and that Hardy’s whole poetic period, when he had given up novel writing, overlaps with what is traditionally seen as the heyday of ‘middlebrow’, there is clearly scope for applying the middlebrow ‘lens’ to the Wessexman as well as the son of Wakefield. This is impractical here for reasons of space, but what we might reasonably infer is that the pastoral tradition, ‘provincial middlebrow’ –- not only Arnold Bennett’s ‘Five Towns’ books, but also several of the interwar novels of J.B. Priestley, such as Angel Pavement (1930), Wonder Hero (1933), and They Walk in the City (1936) –- and certain late-Victorian classics such as Gissing’s New Grub Street share a common belief that London is a uniquely corrupt city. The cause of this alleged uniqueness is generally not some additional force that comes into play there, but because the pressures at work in modern society are particularly intense in a big city, and –- as we might expect –- are often used as the implicit (or explicit) context of more plot-driven narratives. 

<19> The urban, the provincial and the pastoral novels of the period I am discussing -– and we should probably include in this third category other, once famous, but now largely forgotten series, such as the Dartmoor novels of Eden Philpotts -– can be seen as repositories of both direct and ‘coded’ commentary on the second wave of modernity associated with the second industrial revolution, the invention of new mass media, the early development of the welfare state and, after 1914, on the First World War and its aftermath. (While anti-militarism does not appear in New Grub Street, it can be found in some of Gissing’s later, more populist novels — such as The Crown of Life.) In such books, instead of direct polemic, the ‘social message’ of moral concern about the corrupting impact of urbanisation and industrialisation is usually conveyed by a mixture of methods; authorial commentary (sometimes directly moralising, but more often using implicitly unflattering allusions to figures or episodes that would be well-known to the writer’s ‘imagined community’ of readers), informed discussions between characters, and the personal unhappiness endured by many of the protagonists, for reasons that are not easily explicable in terms of poetic justice, individual inadequacies or plain bad luck. And if the most obvious counter-argument is put forward, namely that middlebrow literature in its classic phase was generally conservative and apolitical, and did not offer solutions to any of the social problems it outlined, we can also refer to authors such as A.J. Cronin, Winifred Holtby and Howard Spring; writers for whom progressive politics were clearly very important.

<20> Corruption has just been mentioned, but I do not think that this term should be understood as a simple synonym for immorality, either in Gissing’s work or in this period of literary history as a whole. For example, even the roguish Milvain is rarely directly dishonest with the other characters in New Grub Street. His broken engagement with Marian Yule, which is a fairly shabby episode, can nevertheless also be understood as a partial consequence of earlier procrastinations, rather than as an entirely and intentionally selfish manoeuvre. Instead, the kind of corruption that recurs in the text is better understood as a loss of personal integrity and respect for others; treating people as means rather than ends, as a Kantian might put it. The conscious creation of literary fashion –- the manipulation of strangers in order to maximise sales and achieve a financial profit –- certainly chimes in with the idea that urbanisation was accompanied by a general movement towards collective consumption; a subject which deserves further reflection.

<21> In the period I am considering, reading aloud in public and in family situations remained important, but even if silent reading became an increasingly common private pastime, as the literate proportion of the population grew, the public discussion of these common studious experiences was also an important social experience. Moreover, as we might expect, different conversations arise between those who have read many of the same texts according to the dictates of a canon or a fashion, and those who have read more capriciously. Rubin, Radway and Humble have all suggested that ‘book talk’ was particularly important to the interwar middlebrow milieu, and so was reducing the metaphorical distance between ‘the great books’ of today and yesteryear. Just as Gissing promoted Zola and Dickens in the pages of New Grub Street (Gissing, I, 264), J.B. Priestley promoted writers such as Moore and Wells at various points in his oeuvre (Baxendale, p.27). More generally, we might reasonably infer that whenever we discuss what we read with our more distant acquaintances, and even with total strangers, the content of our reading becomes more socially and politically significant. ‘Literary conversations’ between authors who were contemporaries – and intergenerational borrowings where human mortality prevented this – were almost certainly echoed in a few recorded and many unrecorded exchanges between readers at both (relatively) formal reading circles and informal leisure time gatherings of all kinds. In the heyday of interwar middlebrow publishing, reformist, ‘progressive’ authors such as Priestley, Orwell, Holtby, Cronin and Spring (and from Gissing’s own generation, H.G. Wells) were certainly concerned to take advantage of this propensity to debate, just as were more conservative figures such as Warwick Deeping and A.M.S. Hutchinson. The former could take some inspiration from Gissing the social critic; the latter from Gissing the political pessimist.

<22> Moving towards a conclusion, we have already seen that personality and literary ‘ideology’ are deeply intertwined in the pages of New Grub Street. The anti-hero of the novel (Milvain) is not only temperamentally, but also practically, well-suited to the new ‘trade’ in writing and periodically mocks the idea of literature as a vocation. In fact, he can be understood to be proposing a style of writing that has some notable characteristics that subsequently came to be referred to as ‘middlebrow’ when he states –- in the opening chapter -– that ‘I don’t advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar’ (Gissing, I, p.17). Shortly afterwards, he refines his position (so that it might be argued that his position is not really ‘vulgarian’ at all) and explains that he does not have the particular talent for writing in the ‘trashiest’ (or as we might call it, lowbrow) style and contends that he plans to 

write for the upper middle-class of intellect, the people who like to feel that what they are reading has some special cleverness, but who can’t distinguish between stones and paste. (Gissing, I, p.18)

This allusion to the jewelry trade, which Gissing had studied in some detail as background to his working-class novel, The Nether World (1889), certainly chimes in with the traditional view that the middlebrow reader was socio-economically, as well as intellectually, ‘middle class’, because the typical Victorian worker would have hardly ever been able to afford paste, let alone gemstone, jewelry, although there are various references in the novel to younger, Board-school educated workers who had probably become part of the reading public by 1880 and certainly by 1891. Moreover, the craft of the writer by vocation, like the craft of the traditional jeweller, was being increasingly undermined by ‘cheap and nasty’ alternatives, but this does not necessarily mean that we should subscribe to an excessively deterministic view of either social or cultural status in late-nineteenth-century Britain.

<23> As we have seen, a significant part of the novel revolves around Jasper Milvain’s attempts to put his own literary ambitions into practice and transcend his lower-middle class origins. It has even been suggested that Milvain was actually based on the real life character of James Thomas, better known as ‘Frank’, Harris (1856-1931), who certainly edited various London periodicals during the right period of history, but who had a political dimension to his career which Milvain lacks. More generally, Gissing’s fictionalised account of the London literary scene in the 1880s seems to have included many of the most salient points subsequently identified by literary scholars, as we might expect given that the book has since achieved the status of a minor classic. Of course this may have been partially due to the fact that Gissing signposted these very features in a memorable narrative, and that issues that he neglected, such as the sheer variety of available forms of writing and publication that existed in the nineteenth century, have only been foregrounded again in the last couple of decades. Personally, I would be inclined to argue that the 1880s introduced a healthy dose of pluralism into a rather stagnant literary milieu, and that while the straw probably was subsequently bent too far in the direction of commercialism, we should remember that ‘highbrow’ literary journals such as the Athenaeum, did not disappear completely; by the interwar years they were merged into more popular and political journals such as The Nation and The New Statesman, which were certainly in tune with the more ideological and confrontational character of the inter-war period.

<24> Unfortunately for their own welfare, the characters in New Grub Street lack the solidarity or ‘team spirit’ often associated with Victorian sporting life, and their version of competition is more like that of the Marxist class warrior or the Machiavellian elitist; ‘winner takes all’. New Grub Street is particularly famous for its depiction of literary feuds, such as that of Yule versus Fadge, and nearly all of Gissing’s dramatis personae experience some form of anxiety that their readers will be unable to appreciate the ‘true’ message of their work, even without hostile reviewing. Despite the relatively sympathetic ‘homosociality’ which New Grub Street depicts within each of the various literary cliques, the characters lack mechanisms, such as a newsletter, or a formal association, to debate problems such as the difficulty of marketing new literary forms (for example, Biffen’s ‘realist’ novel) and of influencing the literary tastes of a socially conservative readership. In actual fact, these very issues and pressures led to the formation – in London in 1883 – of the Society of Authors led by William Besant, but it took time to become a viable and effective pressure group (Keating 46-71) and Gissing was never a member. 

<25> Although the leading personalities of New Grub Street practice politics in the classically Greek sense that seek power over each other through rhetoric, and they display various degrees of emotional intelligence, they are surprisingly apolitical, in the sense that they make little reference to the ‘great issues’ of the day in their conversations, although Amy Reardon certainly expressed her approval of the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882 in Chapter 26 (Gissing, II, 38). In contrast, Anna Vaninskaya has recently argued most persuasively that at least one strand in twentieth-century middlebrow –- the kind of essay and novel associated with Chesterton, Wells, Orwell and Priestley -– was intrinsically political and especially influential upon society at large. However, these authors were writing after both the First World War and the great extensions of the electoral suffrage in 1918 and 1928; events which created a very different attitude to the social, the political and the economic than had been current in Victorian times. During that earlier sixty-year period, even an educated intellectual, such as Gissing, found it much easier to foresee the dangers, as opposed to the opportunities, associated with political and social democracy. 

<26> As I have attempted to show in this essay, the subject matter, the leading characters, the storylines and the overarching metaphors of New Grub Street can all be fruitfully understood with reference to broader narratives about the commercialisation and democratisation of British culture and society in the nineteenth century. Similar narratives, bringing these stories up to the outbreak of the Second World War, can also help us to understand the emergence of middlebrow publishing after 1900. In addition, the reader may care to investigate certain themes that I have been unable to develop in any detail here (such as parallels between the ‘realist’ urban novels of the 1880s and the equivalent ‘middlebrow’ books of the 1930s) as a means of developing a more sophisticated and multi-faceted understanding of English middlebrow literature.

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To Cite This Article:

Clive E. Hill, ‘Gissing’s New Grub Street and The Origins of Middlebrow Publishing.’ Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 9 Number 1 (March 2011). Online at Accessed on [date of access].