Writer Becomes a Prisoner of Love

George Gissing pictured around 1890. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
George Gissing pictured around 1890. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

by Ray Setterfield


October 10, 1894 — Novelist George Gissing may have had a way with words but he certainly lacked a way with women. Both his marriages were disastrous and his diary entry on this day shows just how far apart he and his wife Edith had fallen:

**To-day, the little boy [their son Walter] has not been very well, owing to wet weather. At eight o’clock to-night, as E did not come down to supper, I went quietly to the bedroom door, to listen, as I often do, whether the boy was asleep.

To my amazement I heard E call out ‘Stop your noise, you little beast!’ This to the poor little chap because he could not get to sleep.

And why not? Because the flaring light of a lamp was in the room. I have begged – begged – again and again that she will never take a lamp into the bedroom, but she is too lazy to light a candle, and then uses such language as I have written.

But for my poor little boy, I would not, and could not, live with her for another day. I have no words for the misery I daily endure from her selfish and coarse nature.**

George Robert Gissing was born in Wakefield, England, in November, 1857. His father, Thomas, ran a chemist’s shop and George was the eldest of five children.

He was educated at a Quaker boarding school, then at university, where his academic career was brilliant, producing many prizes. In 1874 he took his BA exam at the University of London where he was placed first in England for both English and Latin.

But his academic career came crashing down when he fell in love with Marianne Harrison, a young prostitute known as Nell. Gissing tried to look after her financially though he could not afford to do so and stole money from other students to support her. He was caught, prosecuted, sent to prison with hard labour for one month and, of course, expelled from university.

He tried to start over in America, failed to do it, returned home and married Nell in 1879. They lived in rented lodgings and he earned money tutoring children of wealthy families, while Nell, an alcoholic, was often ill.

Their marriage was plagued with poverty and they were frequently separated while Nell was institutionalised for alcoholism, according to writer Elaine Showalter in her introduction to Gitting’s book, The Odd Women.

By 1883 Nell was back at work as a prostitute. Gissing left her, lived alone, tried and failed to get a divorce, and never saw her again until after she died in a London slum in 1888 at the age of 29.

Two years later he married another uneducated young woman, Edith Alice Underwood, a stonemason's daughter and settled in rural England at Epsom in Surrey. Either through poor judgement of character, or plain bad luck, this marriage also proved to be disastrous.

They had two sons – Walter and Alfred – but husband and wife constantly quarrelled and Edith descended into madness. She suffered uncontrollable and violent rages, Gissing told a friend.

The couple separated in 1897, but it was not a clean break, Gissing spending much time dodging Edith, afraid that she might seek a reconciliation, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In 1902 she was certified insane and confined to an asylum.

Edith died in her forties of "organic brain disease" in 1917, outliving her husband by nearly fifteen years.

George Gissing died in 1903, aged 46. He wrote 21 novels, most notably New Grub Street and The Private Papers O. Henry Ryecroft, and 16 short stories.

His work is noted for its unflinching realism, dwelling on the ugliness and frustration of life for the working class. George Orwell described Gissing as “perhaps the best novelist England has produced”.

Published: September 12, 2020


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