MosT of George Gissing's social novels bear the mark of an allegiance divided between social reform and art. Each begins by addressing itself to some problem of nineteenth-century civilization, such as poverty, Mammonism, socialism, rack-renting, educational reform, or the position of women, depicting evil conditions with powerful social realism. As the novel proceeds, however, social questions are gradually relegated to the background, and the story becomes a steady and, at best, inevitable unfolding of events whose course is determined in the final analysis by the characters of the people involved in it. There may be frequent reversions to 'problems' and these may have some effect on the action, but a denouement that fails to correspond with the social theme, or even contradicts it, makes it apparent that the novel of plot and character has usurped the place of the novel of protest. This inconsistency may well be one of the reasons why such social novels as Workers in the Dawn (1880), The Unclassed (1884), Demos (1886), Thyrza (1887), and The Nether World (1889) failed to win Gissing any but the smallest public, although they were recognized as faithful and moving portrayals of conditions that demanded reform.1 One reviewer of The Nether
World pointed clearly to the ambiguity characteristic of Gissing's work by saying: 'It is difficult to discover whether he hoped to add to that sort of fiction which has at times been more successful than Blue-books or societies in calling attention to evils crying for remedy or whether ... the author chose his subject in something like an artistic spirit. . . . His work does not show the energy either of an artist or of an enthusiast ... 2
The curious indecision of Gissing's novels has often been ascribed to a low level of vitality or responsiveness in the author.3 However, if the chronicle of Gissing's diary is to be believed, he had to expend tremendous efforts to complete a novel, often beginning a book anew half a dozen times, or discarding unsatisfactory pages which represented weeks of work. He did not lack energy. On the contrary, the impulse to create and the impulse to reform were both vigorously at work in him, but through most of his career they contended with each other, subjecting his novels to a conflict of intentions in which the purposes of each were, to some extent, defeated. Why did Gissing fail to combine the two into some such union of art and ideas as that achieved by George Eliot, whom he admired, or by Ibsen, a contemporary whose work he .found 'extraordinary'? An answer to this question and a cause for the puzzling inconsistencies of the novels are suggested by Gissing's attitude toward his work as it is revealed in the comments on art and fiction found in his books and letters.