The novelist George Robert Gissing was born on 27 November 1857 at 55 Westgate, Wakefield, West Yorkshire. He was the eldest son of Thomas Waller Gissing (1829-1870), a pharmaceutical chemist, amateur botanist and writer, and his wife, Margaret Bedford (1832-1913). He had four siblings: William (1859-1880), a music teacher who died of consumption; Algernon (1860-1937), a rather prolific, though unsuccessful, novelist; and two spinster sisters, Margaret (1863-1930) and Ellen (1867-1983). His sisters, known as Madge and Nellie, remained in Wakefield for most of their lives, running a school there for a time, before becoming responsible for the raising of Gissing's two children by his second wife, Edith.
As a child Gissing was widely read and in his studies he was very much influenced and encouraged by his father, Thomas Waller Gissing. Elected to Wakefield municipal council in 1867, his father was a prominent figure in local political and social circles. He believed strongly in the power of education and culture, and was himself the author of several books, including: Margaret and Other Poems (1855), The Ferns and Fern Allies of Wakefield and its Neighbourhood (1862) and Materials for a Flora of Wakefield and its Neighbourhood (1867). In his capacity as a chemist he also contributed to journals such as Phytologist and the Pharmaceutical Journal.
Gissing began his formal schooling sometime after 1863. He attended the Unitarian School at Back Lane, Wakefield, first under the tutorship of Mary Susan Milner and subsequently the in Reverend Joseph Harrison's Collegiate School. Gissing thrived at school. He won many prizes and from a young age he became the focus for his family's social aspirations. After the death of his father in 1870, Gissing was sent, along with his brothers, to Lindow Grove, a Quaker boarding school at Alderley Edge, Cheshire. Here Gissing soon established a reputation for hard work and proved himself an apt student. At the 1872 Oxford local examinations, he was passed first in the Manchester district and twelfth in the whole of England. He was awarded free tuition at Owens College, Manchester, for three years. Owens College was established in 1851 in Richard Cobden's house on Quay Street. The College was affiliated to the University of London, and students who successfully completed a two-year course at Manchester had the opportunity to take external London degrees. Owens College moved to its present site on Oxford Road in 1873. In 1880 Owens College became the first constituent of the federal Victoria University, to be joined in 1884 and 1887 by Liverpool and Leeds respectively. In 1903 the federal university was disbanded and Owens College became the Victoria University of Manchester.
During his first few years at Owens, Gissing continued to board at Alderley Edge, acting as a pupil-teacher in the school, and travelling daily into Manchester to attend college. At Owens, Gissing soon developed a reputation as a rather distinguished student, winning many prizes in the humanities. His successes, which are recorded in the calendars of the College, included: winning the English poem prize for his poem Ravenna in 1873, coming first in exhibitions in both English and Latin at the intermediate BA examination of the University of London in 1874 and winning the Shakespeare Scholarship in 1875.
Due to an unfortunate turn of events, however, Gissing's academic success was cut short. In 1875 he moved to Manchester, where he became acquainted with a girl of the streets, Marianne Helen Harrison, also known as Nell (1858-1888). In his attempts to supplement his scholarship to provide financially for them both, he was caught stealing from the cloakroom of Owens College on 31 May 1876. Following a meeting of the College Senate on 7 June, all of Gissing's awards were removed and he was summarily dismissed from the College. He was brought before magistrates, convicted and sentenced to one month's imprisonment with hard labour, which he served at Belle Vue Prison, Manchester.
Gissing's movements following his immediate release from prison are not clear, but by September he had sailed for America, where he took up a temporary teaching position at Waltham High School, Massachusetts. In March 1877 he travelled to Chicago, where he supported himself by writing short stories for local newspapers, and he later moved to New York where he worked for a time as a photographer's assistant. His experiences in America, although largely brief and unsuccessful, are echoed in chapter twenty-eight of his novel New Grub Street (1891), in which he recounts his experience of living destitute for several days on handfuls of peanuts from a street-seller.
In October 1877 Gissing borrowed money from his brother Algernon and returned to England. On his return he took up residence in London with Nell and found work as a clerk at St John's Hospital in Leicester Square. Almost immediately he began to write, producing several works that were to remain unpublished, completing in 1879 what was later to be his first published novel, Workers in the Dawn. On 27 October 1879 he and Nell were married and during this same year Gissing met Eduard Bertz, a German intellectual who was to become a lifelong friend. In 1880, after it was rejected by several publishers, Gissing paid for the publication of Workers in the Dawn from the proceeds of a small family inheritance. This novel, a failure at the time, depicts working-class London life through the eyes of a young idealist who struggles against conflicting social and artistic commitments. At this time Gissing became acquainted with the author and positivist, Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), who introduced Gissing to a number of literary men and engaged him as tutor to his two small sons.
By 1883 Gissing's associations with his wife, whose disturbed, alcoholic existence was to end in her premature death in a Lambeth slum in 1888, had all but ended and he was working on another novel, The Unclassed. This was a stark and realistic portrayal of London slums, published in 1884 by Chapman and Hall. In 1884 Gissing was working on his first novel of the middle classes, Isabel Clarendon (1886), and was living comfortably for the first time in his adult life. Through his widening social circle he had acquired more pupils and had met and stayed with the Gaussen family, of Broughton Hall, Lechlade in Gloucestershire. This family, with whom Gissing was to remain in long-term contact, spent the season in London and were his first direct experience of an upper-class household, upon which he drew for his novels about middle-class life. In 1885 Gissing moved to 7K Cornwall Residences, Marylebone, where he was to spend the next six years of his life. At this time he was working on A Life's Morning (1888) and Demos (1886), the first book to bring him any real success. In 1886 he reached a semblance of stability as an author when Smith, Elder & Co. became his main publishers. The late 1880s saw him make a return to the proletarian novel with Thyrza (1887), his most sympathetic portrayal of the working classes, and The Nether World (1889), the darkest and last of his works on London poverty. In 1888 and 1889 Gissing travelled extensively in France, Italy and Greece. On 25 February 1891 he married Edith Alice Underwood (1867-1917), with whom he went on to have two children, Walter (1891-1916), who was killed on the Somme, and Alfred (1896-1975). This second marriage was no more successful than his first. Edith, whose behaviour was often hysterical and irrational, proved a difficult wife and by 1897 they had separated. By 1902 Edith had been confined to an asylum.
Despite his difficult domestic circumstances, the early 1890s were artistically very productive for Gissing. He published his satire The Emancipated in 1890, and in the following year New Grub Street, his classic novel on the commercialization of literature and the rise of mass education. Of his next three novels, Born in Exile (1892) dealt with the conflict between science and religion that was surfacing at the time, while Denzil Quarrier (1892) and The Odd Women (1893) were concerned with the education and emancipation of women.
It was in 1893 that Gissing met Clara Collet (1860-1948), an educated women and one of the first to have a distinguished career in government. She became his confidante and remained a loyal friend until Gissing's death in 1903. His other novels from this period include In the Year of Jubilee (1894), Eve's Ransom (1895), Sleeping Fires (1895), The Paying Guest (1895), The Whirlpool (1897) and The Town Traveller (1898), the most Dickensian of his novels. During these years, inhibited by domestic circumstances and a need to supplement his income, Gissing also spent much of his time in the production of a series of short stories. These were published collectively in Human Odds and Ends (1898) and several posthumous volumes.
As Gissing's fame grew, so did his association with a number of well-known figures in the journalistic and literary worlds, notably C.K. Shorter, Henry Norman, John Davidson, Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie, Edmund Gosse, and Edward Clodd. During 1897, he travelled to Italy, where he wrote his first critical work Charles Dickens: a Critical Study, a book which was published a year later in 1898 and remains an authoritative and important study of Dickens. Later that year, he travelled south, recording experiences that became his travel book By the Ionian Sea (1901), and collecting material for his long-planned sixth-century historical romance, Veranilda, which was published posthumously in 1904.
In 1898 Gissing met the woman with whom he was to spend his last years. Gabrielle Fleury (1868-1954) was a middle-class Frenchwoman who wrote to him seeking permission to translate New Grub Street. In 1899 they moved to France and after some time settled near the Basque villages of Ciboure, near St Jean-de-Luz and Ispoure, near St Jean-Pied-de-Port. During these years, happy though plagued by illness, Gissing wrote The Crown of Life (1899), Our Friend the Charlatan (1901) and the last of his novels of modern life, Will Warburton, which was published posthumously in 1905.
In 1903 Gissing was working on his long-planned historical romance, Veranilda, but he was never to complete it. George Robert Gissing died of myocarditis on 28 December 1903, aged 46. He was buried at the cemetery at St Jean-de-Luz on 30 December 1903.
Information primarily sourced from: Pierre Coustillas, 'Gissing, George Robert (1857-1903)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press - http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33416.