Magazine article The Spectator

Death of a Hero

Magazine article The Spectator

Death of a Hero

Article excerpt

The Heroic Life of George Gissing, Part III: 1897-1903 by Pierre Coustillas Pickering & Chatto, £60, pp. 373, ISBN 9781848931763 Sitting down to inspect the final volume of Pierre Coustillas's monumental trilogy, I decided to start by counting the number of titles by or about George Gissing (18571903) that gleamed from the bookshelf hard by. There were 45 of them. Next, I decided to count the number of these items with which Professor Coustillas was in some way associated, either as editor, compiler or presiding genius. This realised a tally of 19, including such titanic endeavours as the Collected Letters of George Gissing (nine vols, 1990-1997) or the 600-page and now, alas, superannuated George Gissing: The Definitive Bibliography from 2005.

As these statistics confirm, Coustillas is the staunchest defender, proselytiser and all-round apologist that Gissing ever had:

a long-term conductor of the Gissing Journal, an impresario of every Gissing project worth the name, fit to be ranked, in the reputation-broking stakes, with Ernest Mehew on Stevenson and Gordon N. Ray on Thackeray.

Maintained for upwards of four decades now, this pivotal role in Gissing Studies has not been entirely benign: certainly Paul Delaney, who made the fatal mistake of striking out on a line of his own with George Gissing: A Life in 2008, was subjected to a ten-page review of such startling venom that you wonder he ever dared raise his head above the academic parapet again.

The third part of Coustillas's epic finds our man in his 40th year, his streetwalking first wife dead in conditions of unimaginable squalor, her shrewish replacement beyond living with, but sexual redemption lying on the horizon in the shape of Gabrielle Fleury, Gissing's French translator and the only woman with whom he seems ever to have established a satisfactory relationship.

There were still substantial works waiting to be written, notably The Crown of Life (1899) and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), but Gissing's health was breaking up and the last years of his life were a round of sanatorium visits, the hunt for a temperate climate - he ended up living in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French Atlantic coast - and faint mistrust of the domestic routines enforced by Mlle Fleury and her exigent mamma.

This volume is, consequently, a study in diminuendo, the glory all gone, the shadows looming, the fatalism and quietism that are such an enduring part of Gissing's mental outlook conspicuously to the fore. …

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