The Voice of the Unclassed: Gissing and Twentieth-Century English Fiction
This chapter argues that George Gissing's influence might be found in two kinds of modern fiction, the fiction of the alienated intellectual and that of ordinary 'vulgar' life seen from an alienated standpoint. In twentieth-century English fiction there is a small but continuous tradition of novels of shopkeepers and shop assistants: not enough to justify Napoleon's famous observation, but enough, to suggest Harold Biffen as a possible precursor. Biffen's book represents an alternative kind of serious novel to that produced by Edwin Reardon, the chronicler of alienated intellectuals or 'people who have brains'. Biffen's choice of the 'sphere of the ignobly decent' and his attempt to treat 'ordinary vulgar life with fidelity and seriousness' have, various precedents and parallels in late nineteenth-century fiction; George Moore's Esther Waters is a well-known example in English. Yet many of these novels are melodramatic romances, including Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and Arnold Bennett's Riceyman Steps, both of which inspired by sensational newspaper reports.