George Gissing 1857-1903

Edwin Reardon is a character in George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street,  the subject of an earlier post.  In the book, Reardon, a writer, has been unable to sustain the quality which had established him as a successful new writer.  Experiencing a succession of defeats and setbacks in both his personal and professional life, Reardon finally resolves to give up writing and work as a clerk.

After several months in a menial role he has just secured a much better position just outside London.  Living in a small degree of affluence, and about to become prosperous, Reardon has been eager to offer financial assistance to his friend Henry Biffen who has just lost everything in a house fire; previously it had been Reardon who had been forced to seek assistance from others. In this scene towards the end of the book he talks with Biffen who, despite a last minute crisis, has managed to send his manuscript for publication and about which he is very optimistic.

‘If you had never come to London, what would you have I now been?’ (asked Reardon).

‘Almost certainly a schoolmaster in some small town.  And one might be worse off than that, you know’ (replied Biffen).

‘Yes, one might live peaceably enough in such a position.  And I – I should be in an estate-agent’s office, earning a sufficient salary, and most likely married to some unambitious country girl.  I should have lived an intelligible life instead of only trying to live, aiming at modes of life beyond my reach.  My mistake was that of numberless men nowadays.  Because I was conscious of brains, I thought that the only place for me was London.  It’s easy enough to understand I this common delusion.  We form our ideas of London from old literature; we think of London as if it were still the one centre of intellectual life …  But the truth is that intellectual men in our day do their best to keep away from London – when once they know the place.

‘There are libraries everywhere; papers and magazines reach the north of Scotland as soon as they reach Brompton; it’s only on rare occasions, for special kinds of work, that one is bound to live in London.  And as for recreation, why, now that no English theatre exists, what is there in London that you can’t enjoy in almost any part of England?  At all events, a yearly visit of a week would be quite sufficient for all the special features of the town.  London is only a huge shop, with an hotel on the upper storeys.  To be sure, if you make it your artistic subject, that’s a different thing.  But neither you nor I would do that by deliberate choice.’

‘I think not.’

‘It’s a huge misfortune, this will-o’-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains. They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness. The type of man capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical. If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be lived worthily, and the place where you are most likely to die in squalid wretchedness.  The one happy result of my experiences,’ said Reardon, ‘is that they have cured me of ambition.  What a miserable fellow I should be if I were still possessed with the desire to make a name!  I can’t even recall very clearly that state of mind.  My strongest desire now is for peaceful obscurity, I am tired out; I want to rest for the remainder of my life. ’

‘You won’t have much rest at Croydon.’

‘Oh, it isn’t impossible. My time will be wholly occupied in a round of all but mechanical duties, and I think that it will be the best medicine for my mind.  I shall read very little, and only the classics.  I don’t say that I shall always be content in such a position; in a few years perhaps something pleasanter will offer.  But in the meantime it will do very well.  Then there is our expedition to Greece to look forward to.  I am quite in earnest about that.  The year after next, if we are both alive, assuredly we go. ’

‘The year after next.’  Biffen smiled dubiously.

‘I have demonstrated to you mathematically that it is possible. ’

‘You have; but so are a great many other things that one does not dare to hope for.’

I wonder if poor old Reardon would be so sanguine today.  Regrettably there are no longer ‘libraries everywhere’, and yet English theatre is far from extinct and positively thriving in London.  It is the paucity of funding support for theatres outside London that would make even one week per year barely sufficient to see a fraction of the performances regularly given four or five stars by the broadsheet (Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Independent) theatre critics.

However, if it was only the ‘callous and cynical’ who found success in Reardon’s day, then it might be said that things have changed little.  There is less evidence that London is ‘the last place where life can be lived worthily, and the place where you are most likely to die in squalid wretchedness,’  but a combination of austerity, zero hours contracts, low pay, a dependency on rented accommodation and the volatility of welfare support are contributing to this process.