George Orwell was asked to write a biography of George Gissing, having hailed him as 'perhaps the best novelist England has produced.' He had to refuse, and instead of a book like this one, Orwell wrote a novel, 1984. His closeness to Gissing can help draw the map of English literature from 1880 to 1950. Orwell was born in the year that Gissing died, 1903. Both of them lived 46 years and died of lung disease. It is likely that Orwell borrowed the first name of his pseudonym from Gissing. Orwell, though, chose to live among the poor to begin a lifelong commitment to leftist politics. Gissing became poor by bad luck and bad judgement; he came to believe that political solutions were unlikely to abolish human misery, and declared that the great subject of his novels was the situation of educated people with 'not enough money.' Paul Delany's has read Gissing's 22 novels, and his other works, with a fine biographer's eye. Gissing was a neurotic writer, and everything in his later life was determined by the twin disasters of his imprisonment and his marriage to Nell Harrison. Prison he concealed altogether.
It could be argued that Victorian society rested on hypocrisy, requiring everyone to lie about their desires. But the major figures in Gissing's novels are almost always bad liars. In his own case a mistake in youth created daily misery that he could never shake off. Yet Gissing the novelist gives us better than anyone the flavour of London in the 1880s and 1890s: a compound of wet streets, fog, coal-smoke, narrow horizons, and an imagination equal to it all. In Paul Delany he has found the perfect biographer.
Paul Delany was born in South London. In 2003 he retired as Chair of the Department of English at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He lives in Vancouver.
Bill Brandt (Jonathan Cape, 2004);