It is not so very hard to write with fair satisfaction about an author known to one only by his work. Criticism may be difficult but at least the issues are not confused by the ten thousand mingled and often contradictory memories of intimate friendship. Writers who are keenly conscious of the value of consistency may preserve it in what they do, for their art is not merely selection from life as they view it, but from their many possible interpretations of it. To talk alone with George Meredith, for instance, was not to talk with the author of “The Egoist,” but with some one who could use plain English. When others were present he could seek visibly for phrases. When he wrote he acted and ceased to be himself. So too, Henry James could be as simple in conversation as he was complex in his books. And the better we know any author the better do we know that for all his striving to express himself fully he never does it and never can. It was so with George Gissing, and for that reason I find it almost, if not entirely, impossible to write of him without contradiction. Any who look for a clear exposition of his character must seek it from those who are sure of it. Of these there are many. They, know what they know and end in thinking what they know is all, or all that has any importance. This is the usual way of casual criticism and even of too many biographies. They give us a map and say it is the country. Yes, and so is a guide book London or New York I Is any man less complex in his way than a city? We may get more out of a bundle of sketches in pencil, or ink, or colour, than out of a library. This, or any other screed I have written about George Gissing, is but a casual sketch. With care and labour I could eliminate the contradictions or smoothe them over, but I prefer to leave them as they came. The repetitions in them are many. Is that not because I can see him and hear him talking? Is it not better to show him in that way than to take a dead photograph? I leave the answer not merely to the critics but also to those who like to see the writer in whom they are interested show signs of life, happy or unhappy as may be.
It is true that on the whole Gissing’s life was not a happy one, but when looking lately through a great mass of notices of his work it almost seemed that I must be wrong in thinking he ever smiled, even faintly, and that any memory I have of real merriment in him is the figment of my own imagination. These critics, able or unable, sympathetic or hostile, were wholly without personal knowledge of the man and, being subdued to the prevalent tone of his work, may naturally have thought that really joyous laughter and even Rabelaisian humour were as alien from him as Rabelais was from Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Knox, or Savonarola. For them Gissing was a kind of literary Hogarth whose whole comedy of life was a sordid tragedy. Did he not depict life as on the whole utterly hateful, utterly miserable, utterly hopeless? If so, how could he himself be anything but continually unhappy? But what writer, however skilled, has ever revealed the whole of his nature ? No one shall ever persuade me that Dante himself did not sometimes smile, even on the stairs of Can Grande. The severe Cromwell relieved his revolutionary soul with practical jokes; the mathematical and prophetic Newton played with a dog; the melancholy Burton laughed at the cursing bargees. Cromwell did not exist merely, to cut off the head of a King, Newton to be wise about astronomy and foolish about the Biblical Prophets, Burton to analyze the madness of which he finally perished. So Gissing’s whole nature was given in “Born in Exile,” or in “New Grub Street.” These very books showed how greatly his whole hedonistic nature revolted against the conditions of which he wrote. But was it just the dark and bitter author of such social indictments who wrote to me one Christmas Eve from Naples: “Sunlight and warmth and uproar—Napoli! Thank Heaven I am here again. Naples is in a wonderful state of Christmas activity. The Toledo is lined with stalls and the uproar more terrific than ever.” This was the real man coming out: the man who loved life and who, when life was abundantly and joyously expressed, could not merely endure but sympathize with the cheerful vulgarity of a happy crowd. He wanted little if that little was real living. The simplest enjoyments were as much relished by him as others might relish a choice banquet. He could even do what I always failed to do, for he could chuckle joyfully over some worthless wine which, in some of the little Italian restaurants of Soho, brought back to his vivid imagination the vineyards of his Italy, that Italy which was for him the happy sunlit child of the severe classic Rome he adored. In these things he was as simple as a child and as easily made happy.
I have said elsewhere that my collection of Gissing’s letters is far from complete. Those written to me from 1881 to 1894 disappeared in some inscrutable manner. While I was in Canada and the United States and for a long time afterwards, when my camping grounds in London varied from Chelsea to Dane’s Inn, they were entrusted to my mother, who had a remarkable capacity for putting things away in such security that she could never find them again. To me this was a great loss and I believe it a great loss to the English literary, world. They covered the period in which he was for a time so far under the influence of Frederic Harrison as to call himself a Positivist and to date his letters according to the Positivist hagiology in the Comtist Calendar. I have no copy of this remarkable document but I remember one of his letters was dated Bichat, who, perhaps to the surprise of his ghost, became a kind of saint in it. This queer lapse of Gissing’s into such an apology for religion as Positivism was not enduring. Even the vaguest affirmative “belief” was not suited to his disposition, and his strained departure from indifference was morbid in origin. The vanished letters which prove this odd lapse on the part of Gissing may perhaps be recovered.
The fifty-two letters still in my possession are, however, of great biographical importance. They, run from 1894 to 1903, the year of his death in St. Jean Pied de Port, and cover all the later tragedies of his life. No doubt it was on the whole very tragic, even if at times “happiness kept breaking in.” Some of his loudest complaints I always felt compelled to take with a large grain of salt. He used exaggerations as a literary, or at least as an epistolary, method just as he constantly did in conversation. He howled very loudly. It did him good and did not depress me so much as it might be thought. I had learned to discount it. He was tinged with the Italian magnificence which can make any one “illustrissimo” and the meanest messenger “ambassa-dore.” But the man who could write from Epsom in January, “this morning the blustering wind has a note as of March and the horse-chestnut buds outside my window glisten in the sunshine,” was not forever riding the black horse of tragedy. Was he doing that who could so often quote Coleridge’s lines to his infant son:
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee, Whether the summer clothe the general earth With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch Smokes in the sun-thaw: whether the eve-drops fall Heard only in the trances of the blast, Or if the secret ministry of frost Shall hang them up in silent icicles, Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
He had a very pleasant voice and his sense of poetic rhythm was marked. It was good to hear him recite such words as these or some Greek chorus from the great tragedians of Athens.
Nature touched Gissing even more deeply after he had travelled south and learnt what colour might be. If he could shout joyfully over Chianti or Capri, an English spring day of beauty touched him with a quiet passion of joy, and the glories of Naples or Taormina seen from Reggio made his eyes shine as he spoke of them. Then with a plunge into despair he declaimed his grief that such remembered days would return no more. “It is terrible to think that I shall never again tread the Chiaia, never see the slopes of Vesuvius, or hear the gun from St. Elmo—Basta!”
But was it “basta”? Far from it! Again he wrote to me in Naples: “Do not forget to dine at the Giardino de Torino. You approach it by an archway on the W. side of Toledo, not veiy far up. The food is admirable and there is always music. . . . Go if possible to Camaldoli. The view from the monastery garden is divine—ma, alle signore non e permessa l’entrata.”
But he lived to tread the Chiaia again and to drink in its uproar. He loved that street as he loved the Cannebiere at Marseilles, and for the same reasons: the amazing crowds, the mixed races, the sounds of cheerful southern people who could find joy, as easily as they loved, without thought of the morrow which so perturbed him. Of all men he most should have been able to live in the present. What letters he would have written then! In them his native joy in pure sensation would have come out: his natural hedonism, bon viveur and defrauded gastronome that he was! So when I pore over his script, I think what might have been if fate had set him down at the table of some great college at Cambridge or Oxford, where he could have drunk old ale and fine wines and wallowed in the library. He would have been so cheerful, so immensely popular with everybody who had one spark of the classic enthusiasm that possessed him. But if books have their destiny, so have writers.
Gissing was undoubtedly a good letter writer. He always had something to say, he said it well, and his script was a delight to see, fine as some ancient minuscule, as beautiful and as clear. I was once asked to allow those in my possession to be privately printed. I refused to allow this. I thought and still think private printing is a totally illegitimate way of evading the law on the subject, a law which is in reality, too weak since it permits such an evasion. As it stands, the property in these letters is mine. I can sell them, give them away and leave them by will. I can, also, make reasonable quotations from them, provided I do not quote parts obviously such as might be objected to by those who possess the legal copyright. To print these privately in editions which have no particular limit and hand them round is clearly unfair.
Among them is, however, one letter of a very remarkable character which was some years ago printed in full with the permission of the executors. It had no concern with his private affairs but it threw into the fullest relief the fact that a man may be humorous in talk and have a great sense of fun and yet be totally without a real sense of humour with regard to his own work. Some will ask how can a man be humorous without a sense of humour. It sounds a contradiction and verbally it is one. But that is due to our defective vocabulary. Those who are always serious-minded about themselves may be amusing at the expense of others, but true humour is lacking in them. In a worthless enough book, “Pelham,” written by the youthful Bulwer-Lytton, there is one character who remarks (I quote from memory), “I have lived among all the great wits of my time but it is a remarkable fact that during the whole of my life I have never heard a single witty remark made at my expense.” It seems certain that a man can enjoy a joke and yet fail as a writer to create a single humorous character. On the whole this was Gissing’s case. I heard a few days ago of a living writer who can make speeches bubbling with fun and yet, when told of some one saying that, though Prince Albert had more brains than were generally attributed to him, he had a very poor taste in monuments, remarked in surprise, “But he was deadl”
Now I do not say Gissing was as wonderful as that. But when he learnt that I had been asked to say something about him he was, as I knew, anxious that I should show he was not without humour. For that is what really “bit” him, though this letter, surely destined to be famous, mainly wanted help in proving that his characters were not all so sordid as the critics made out. Honestly, I think that he expected me to prove that he had humour. Can we imagine any real humourist trying to prove that he was one? Great or small, Rabelais or Wodehouse, Mark Twain or Jerome, they would shout with laughter at the very notion. And so would any writer possessing the gift, though the main body of his work were as serious as the works of the prophet Jeremiah. However, when I got this letter and had done chuckling over this one paragraph I sat down, gurgling at intervals, and wrote the following passage in a short article done for Literature. It shows clearly that I had not myself sufficient sense of humour to put my tongue in my cheek and claim for Gissing the great gift of the gods which permits those who have it to laugh, not only at others, but at themselves. My ineradicable and often disastrous desire to be truthful merely permitted me to say, after speaking of his dislike of all modern civilization: “In such a nature, displayed as it must be in all true literature, for men to read who can read, it would be idle to seek for that form of humour which inevitably compels laughter. It has been said untruly enough that Mr. Gissing has no humour. It is quite possible that those who say it are even capable of missing his irony. His humour is of the subtler kind, it delights in the less sudden contrasts. He does not blow the horn of farce. It is utterly alien from his nature.”
How far that satisfied Gissing I cannot say. He was not, I believe, of opinion that it was an enthusiastic effort on my part. But to get anyone to say anything of the sort was at least something gained. Yet what about the letter which gave rise to the article? It was written when Gissing lived, or endured life, at Epsom and wrote to me about servant difficulties and other troubles, in fits of wild despair. Evers-ley, Worple Road, should be haunted by the spirit of an author engaged in tearing his hair. However, this particular letter, dated February 10, 1895, dealt with less serious matters than life, though he ended it with, “I write with a numbed hand. I haven’t been warm for weeks. This weather crushes me.” Soon after Gissing’s death this very curious epistle was printed in the Bookman by the permission of his executors, to whom it was of course submitted. It could therefore be repeated here, as it has no other interest than that of literature pure and simple. I shall however only quote from it. Referring to a criticism in the current Spectator, he sayjs:
“The general effect is false, misleading, even libellous, it is in essence caricature”—”the brutish stupidity of his men and women”—”his realism inheres only in his rendering of detail—” etc. Now I maintain that the writer exhibits a twofold ignorance; first, of the life I depict, and again of the books in which I depict it. He speaks especially of “Jubilee” ; so for the moment we’ll stick to that. I have selected from the great mass of lower middle-class life a group of people who represent certain of its grossnesses, weaknesses, etc., peculiar to our day. Now, in the first place, this group of people, on its worst side, represents a degradation of which the critic has obviously no idea. In the second place, my book, if properly read, contains abundant evidence of good feeling and right thinking in those members of the book who are not hopelessly base. Pass to instances. “The seniors live a dull life unglorified by a single fine emotion or elevating instinct.” Indeed? What about Mr. Lord, who is there precisely to know that there can be, and are, these emotions in individuals? Of the young people (to say not a word of Nancy, at heart an admirable woman), how is it possible to miss the notes of fine character in poor Peachey? Is not the passionate love of one’s child an “elevating instinct,” nor yet a “fine emotion”? Why, even Nancy’s brother shows at the end that favourable circumstances could bring out in him gentleness and goodness. And Samuel Barmby—but this is a crucial case, and of him I must speak at length.
“A dull, sententious fool, who spouts platitudes at suburban debating societies, and interlards his familiar talk with dry chips of trite didacticism or irrelevant general information.” Now if this gives the faintest idea of Samuel, I am strangely misled. To begin with, the man is distinctly amusing, with his comical and characteristic habit of quoting scraps from Tit-Bits. Then again, he is, morally, a very favourable specimen of the men of his class. But read the description lately given in The Sketch. “In his capacity as executor of an estate, he proposes to condone the evasion of the will by immoral relations with a married woman.” Now this, if you like, is libellous. That whole scene of his with Nancy, one of the most important in the book, exhibits with the utmost care Barmby’s essential naivete and incapability of baseness. The whole point, the humour of the situation, lies in the fact that all he wants front Nancy is a recognition of his moral excellence, of his superb generosity. This, for him is sufficient reward for his connivance at her dishonesty—a connivance in itself anything but gravely criminal. No, the man is anything but a “dull, sententious fool.” He is not a bit of a caricature but mere humanity through and through.
Thus much of this particular book. Now I want to say something of my books in general.
My books deal with people of many social strata. There are the vile working class, the aspiring and capable working class, the vile lower-middle, the aspiring and capable lower-middle, and a few representatives of the upper-middle class. My characters range from the vileness of ‘Arry Mutimer, to the genial and cultured respectability of Mr. Warricombe (“Born in Exile”). There are books as disparate as “The Nether World” and “The Emancipated.” But what I desire to insist upon is this: that the most characteristic, the most important part of my work is that which deals with a class of young men distinctive of our time—well educated, fairly bred, but without money. It is this fact (as I gather from reviews and conversation) of the poverty of my people which tells against their recognition as civilized beings. “Oh,” said someone to Bullen, “do ask Mr. Gissing to make his people a little better off!” There you have it.
Now think of some of the young men, Reardon, Biffen, Milvain, Peak, Earwaker, Elgar, Mallard. Do you mean to say that books containing such a number of such men deal, first and foremost, with the commonplace and sordid? Why, these fellows are the very reverse of commonplace: most of them are martyred by the fact of possessing uncommon endowments. Is it not so? This side of my work, to me the most important, I have never yet seen recognized. But you know all this and cannot you write of it rather trenchantly?
I say nothing about my women. That is the moot point. But surely there are some of them who help to give colour to the groups I draw.
Take it as we will, this is a very, melancholy letter coming from a true artist whom few then appreciated at his full value. That his value is recognized even now may be doubted, but that he is still being written about, and that everything said of him invites comment and gets it, does suggest that his final place is assured, humour or none. Samuel Barmby is, it seems, “distinctly amusing, with his comical and characteristic habit of quoting scraps from Tit-Bits.” It may seem to ignore his very sound criticism of his critics to fasten even for the moment on such a few words. Yet in these few Gissing’s lack of true humour comes out clearly. I had had the benefit of long hours year after year with him and often he said in talk what he said in this letter. He resented, as all resent, the imputation that he lacked humour even more than the notion that all he dealt with was sordid, and that he ought to choose his characters from a society in which his comfortable critics would feel at home. James Payn, who was almost crazily addicted to the view that a novel must be a light entertainment with a “plot,” would never have accepted, as reader for Smith, Elder, any of Gissing’s books, if “Demos” had not come to him, in its incomplete form, just when rioting in the London streets had brought labour troubles home to the public. Payn would have thought there was not enough plot or enough humour. How Gissing cursed that “plot” and the concomitant notion that a novel must not have any public end in view. If he had been more humorous he might have laughed, but literature was too sacred a subject to be laughed about. Dostoievski and the Russians had hold of him. He felt that there was a great likeness between himself and those in Russia who went to Siberia. He was in Siberia, though it may have been called Marylebone!
Still, is it not both melancholy and amusing to observe that he sometimes tried painfully to be amusing? How did he think he achieved it? Consider the sentence about Samuel Barmby. “His comical habit of quoting scraps from Tit-Bits!” That is amusing but not in the way Gissing thought. At the back of his mind was pity, scorn, and contempt for poor Samuel. That is obvious. And once when he made what I reckoned a desperate attempt to prove that he could be really amusing, even funny, he did a chapter which made me shiver.
It is very easy for those who never knew Gissing to picture him, from what others as well as myself have written of him, as for ever dark and gloomy. In reality nothing could be falser. If there was ever a natural born hedonist it was Gissing. It is said of the gouty that they largely owe their gout to their joy in the good things of life. Much of Gissing’s gloom came from the fact that he rarely had a chance to satisfy his natural hedonism. And yet the simplest foods, if they were “fat and succulent,” as he used to say, gave him the greatest pleasure. Dr. Johnson’s description of the haggis as “fine confused feeding” was often in his mouth. If he could roar (or so he said) over poor Italian wines the reason really was that such wine was for him a symbol representing a banquet. He knew nothing of really good wine, or so little that it did not count. So much the better. Otherwise he could never have chortled “ha, ha, Chianti!” Imagine him gloating over such poor liquor when the great wines of Burgundy or the Medoc should have leapt from their cellars to teach him what wine could be! What solemnly cheerful discussions we had over food! And can anyone ever forget, if they have read it, my own account of an eagerly anticipated pudding being disastrously flavoured with accidental kerosene? Such a catastrophe could never be paralleled even by some epicure lamenting over a spoilt feast fit for Olympus. But when the wine was actually, not vinegar and something better than Barolo, say, and the food generous, he wriggled with satisfaction and was one continuous smile. So any may guess he loved Rabelais and the meals of Gargantua. “Don’t forget to dine at the Giardino di Torino!” I didn’t forget and wrote to him of it and gave him envious moments while evoking succulent memories of “fritto misto” or some “risotto con fegatini.” Had he been lucky I imagine George Gissing as cheerful a man as ever sat down to a table. That’s the tragedy of it and the tragedy of his letters is that they make up a serial tale of deprivations. If he had but been prosperous and found a wife who knew what cooking meant as well as books, what happier man would ever have put pen to paper, or picked up a menu? “Do the morning goats still tinkle up the Rampa Brancaccio? Does the Piazzetta Mandragone still smell of baked chestnuts? Are the house-fronts still red with pomidoro?” I could answer “yes” to all his questions and knew how he longed to be with me in his uproarious Naples, the Naples he loved for its vivid life and the sound of its perpetual talk that one heard in cupped hands high at San Martino! His love for such measured his misery in the purlieus of Tottenham Court Road or the even duller respectability of 7K Cornwall Mansions. Mansions, ye Gods! I am reminded of Aeschylus and the great invocation of Prometheus. Did not the vulturine critics peck at him as he sat in chains?
“Never mind press notices. As Carlyle said, ‘Sunt, fuerunt!’” Good advice, but yet the wasps stung him sorely, Podsnaps though they were, for he had the tender skin of an artist, poor devils as all artists are and will be till they, depend no more on the pence of the public. That letter of the tenth of February, 1895, shows what he felt. ‘T shall do unexpectedly well if I make 200 in the twelve months.” This came a few days later. “Ws shall meet, I hope, when the great frost is over.” It was never over for Gissing. Then again he wrote of Pliny’s letters, a copy of which I gave him. “Ah, the good old times!” He saw Pliny with many good slaves, and he could not get or keep a capable servant.
In the summer of this same year he spent some days with Edward Clodd, whose pleasant passion was to know and entertain men of letters. Many of us remember the Lotus sailing in the River Aid and getting ashore on mud banks with an ebb tide running. Gissing met Grant Allen there and L. F. Austen. Allen he liked. “Personally he is a good cordial fellow and delightful in talk so long as he can keep off fiction, when he becomes acrid and unjust. An amazing store of knowledge!” But—even in the same letter—”I shall never again speak of my writing. It has become a burden and a toil—nothing else.” In the same letter he remarks, “Domestic life is, of course, the ruin of all satisfactions away from home.” Luckier men know this is not true. A happy home and the outside world lend each other zest rather than force deprivation. However, when a man writes, “You would do me the greatest service if you would ask some lady of your acquaintance how she proceeds to find a servant,” it is clear that “home” presented difficulties beyond the common. “I will pay 100 a year for a good general servant.” “I am overwhelmed still by the servant difficulty.” So what wonder that “it is a bad, bad business, all life at present.” And thereafter he proposed going to bed with a serious illness. Does it not seem that a little grim humour might have been a help? Probably he had no capacity for getting to work on the house himself, though many authors have done this cheerfully enough, if their laughter was at times rather strained. That was not for Gissing. In a later letter he remarks solemnly that he has entered on the last stage of life’s journey. “Water pipes freezing. A five-pound note every winter to the plumber. Of course this is distinctly contrived by the building fraternity.” .
Late in 1897 he threw up the sponge and went abroad. Good friends helped him and he went to Siena. But fate still pursued him. In a long letter dated October 24, 1897, comes: “To show how dismal things pursue me. I have a room here with an Italian family, in a large flat. Well, when I had been here a week I learnt that my landlady’s husband was lying paralyzed—had been so for a year—and near to death. Last Sunday he died, and on Monday we had the funeral. Cheerful circumstances.” But though he loved Siena and Perugia he hungered for the south, for “Magna Grcecia and the old dead world,” for the country of Cassiodorus. “By the Ionian Sea” was published in 1901. But—”as for me my literary career is at an end and the workhouse looms larger every day.” It may be hard to think that he was really, humorous at times. Yet that matter of the workhouse had been a steady sort of joke with us for years. When he lived somewhere at the back of Madame Tussaud’s, the Marylebone workhouse was, as he often remarked, very handy and he thought sometimes of taking a preliminary look at its inside. So he was not always to be taken too seriously even when he seemed most lugubrious. We all have our awful expectations. It greatly tickled me when I discovered in “The Way of All Flesh” that Samuel Butler’s father used to threaten to apprentice him to a greengrocer. For years my own father did the same to me. So most of the time Gissing’s forebodings about the workhouse were just jokes as soon as he got over his very worst poverty and out of a mere cellar.
As I have said, a number of Gissing’s letters deal with private things that cannot yet be spoken of. Nothing that I know of can make some things clear till these can be printed. But money was naturally his ceaseless difficulty. “I shall have to publish furiously, to keep abreast of my expenses.” That came from Paris in 1899. About this time, the time of the Boer War, he developed the notion of a European war, a not unnatural thing to do. “With Europe in a state of war, which may last for a decennium, there will be little chance for story tellers. I wish I had died ten years ago. I should have gone away with some taste for civilization, of which I now have none. One’s choice seems to be between death in the workhouse or by some ruffian’s bullet, As for those who come after one—it’s too black to think about.”
It took another fourteen years for his anticipations to be realized. What he would have felt in August, 1914, is a puzzle hard to solve. He had no real political flair, and was always amazed to think that “in this nineteenth century!” there were such things as soldiers. Was he, would he have been, a pacifist? Heaven alone knows. But I have written elsewhere that when I asked him what he would do, if some ruffian boxed his ears, he said, “I should look at him with loathing and go away I”
In one of his letters (1901) there is a queer phrase which might make some believe he was anti-monarchical. “I am still trying to believe there is a King of England and cannot take to the idea any more than to the moral and material ruin which seems to be coming upon the old country.” Here he means that he cannot reconcile the state of things with a king still existing,’ curiously as it is phrased. For he was deeply and essentially conservative, not because things were good as they were, or are, but because of his inward conviction that any, change would be for the worse. “Isn’t it astounding that we have the courage to write books? Well, well, let us be glad that we again exchange letters, with an address other than that of workhouse or hospital. It is a great attainment; than to keep sane and solvent — I dare hope for nothing more.”
It was not long afterwards that he wrote to me from a sanatorium in Norfolk, whither he had been sent for lung-trouble, though as a matter of fact he had gained weight at Sandgate. It was not a very serious threat of tuberculosis and he was soon back in France. The experience taught him some good lessons on the value of open air, lessened work, and good food. All the same, he never got used to the meagre continental breakfast. He wanted fine fat plenty and apparently did not always get it. Later he went to Arcachon, whence he wrote to me about Hornung, for whom he always had a friendly feeling. Strange that now they should lie close to each other in the little cemetery of St. Jean de Luz. I had some odd requests from Arcachon, and one of them asked me to find out if there was a newspaper devoted to the sugar refining industry.
I saw him at St. Jean de Luz in 1902 and he gave me “Ryecroft” just as I was leaving. I read it going to Bordeaux and wrote about it on reaching home. He replied to one question, “Why, of course the Solitary Friend is you.” Later in this long letter he added, “Why, it is just because the world is inexplicable that I feel my interest in it and its future grow less and less.” He had no sympathy, with those who appear to long ardently for another life, probably more out of fear of death than any enterprise in them. He had no belief in any immortality. No more had Hudson, of whom Gissing wrote in this letter, “very wonderful, dear old Hudson’s ‘El Ombu.’ Talk about atmosphere! I most earnestly hope he has weathered the winter well and that spring finds him among the birds.” Like everyone else, he loved Hudson, But they were strange opposites. By some accident that I cannot account for, I have a letter of Gissing’s written from the Via del Boschetto, Rome, to Hudson. He speaks in his usual strain. “When I return I shall have to find a garret somewhere in pure air—live on 2*/2d a week and try to labour.” In these matters he could not speak without wild exaggeration. However, at the end he cheered up a little. This letter is dated 1898 and is out of order here. One letter that came to me in 1902 spoke of learning Spanish. He was already “reading Don Quixote with a certain ease. An old ambition at length gratified.”
At the end of November, 1902, I was thinking of going to see him at St. Jean de Luz and he wrote at length of the “Sunny South” in terms of scornful depreciation, such as it indeed usually deserves. The notion that warmth in winter can be obtained in Europe is due to the persistent advertisements of the P. L. M. Railway, It exists only in guidebooks and on posters. So he ended, “Oh, if I could be in Devon or Cornwall! The climate is all but the same—and as for comfort of body and soul—1” So in February of 1903 he wrote, “I can’t walk—can hardly stand for sciatica—a cripple for life.” Certainly he found some kind of pleasure in gloom. Perhaps when the worst didn’t happen, that was unexpected bliss. He got well soon afterwards.
In that same year I was asked to look up the subject of Roman wills for him, just as I had been asked to supply him with matter about sugar refining. As I had once known a little Roman law, though indeed it was but little, I set to work and sent him a paper on the subject which seems to have settled his difficulties as they came up in “Veranilda,” a book he thought so much of, which was yet assuredly a failure, and never finished. I find that I also sent him a book on Roman law. He wrote that he was “wallowing” in it.
I prefer to say nothing here of what he wrote to me about books of my own. Elsewhere I have told the story of his coming to me and telling me that I could not write fiction and had better stop trying. It was a hard task for him to say as much, but he found me ready to listen, though not to agree, and years afterwards he admitted he was wrong and made up in a more than generous manner for all he had said long ago. It was only, in the last year of his life that I achieved this success. “I have been turning the pages with great pleasure (to keep my thoughts from the workhouse).” I am prepared to swear that this is one form of Gissing’s humour, gloomy as it seems. And yet his last card to me, dated Ispoure, St. Jean Pied de Port, where he died, had one last sentence. “Illness and struggle still going on here.”
With the exception of the one letter about his work I have made no more than a few brief quotations. But perhaps these show the manner of man he was better than the bulk of them. His life negatived his nature, which only showed in flashes or in intimate conversation. Though I have seen many letters of his to other people I do not know of any collection which illustrates Gissing so well as these. His final biographer should get some help from them. It is not only his work which should endure; his story and true character will for ever make him a figure in English literature, a figure as strange and melancholy as that of young Chat-terton himself. But those who seem to doubt that Gissing ever so much as smiled may learn that the man who could chuckle over a flask of Chianti had in him, or would have had with any luck, infinitely more humour than that with which the kindest have so far credited him. It may show rarely in books or letters. But I who had to mourn the loss of his long companionship can recall hours which even yet sparkle in my memory, hours which showed what a little good fortune might have made of him. That he stood up as he did was a miracle. But he did stand up after all.
These notes on him are, as I see, full of contradictions. Let them be. He was full of them himself. Perhaps they added to him something of the charm often found in women, something at once unexpected, absurd, and delightful.