George Gissing was thirteen when Charles Dickens died then he died of pneumonia in 1903. I would like to have met Dickens, I think, but I suspect Gissing would have been too intense most of the time to want to take time for me. Maybe that’s not true. The reason I say that is because it’s difficult to know who, of the people who’ve written about him, really got to know him. In fact his friend, Morley Roberts who wrote about Gissing under the title, The Private Life of Henry Maitland said this about people in general:
“We know very little of each other and after all it is perhaps in biography that one is most acutely conscious of the truth in the pragmatic view of truth. Those things are true in Henry Maitland’s life and character which ﬁt in wholly with all my experience of him and make a coherent and likely theory. I used to think I knew him very well, and yet when I remember and reﬂect it seems to me that I know exceedingly little about him. And yet again, I am certain that of the two people in the world that I was best acquainted with he was one. We go through life believing that we know many, but if we sit down and attempt to draw them we ﬁnd here and there unrelated facts and many vague incoherences. We are in a fog about our very dear friend whom but yesterday we were ready to judge and criticize with an air of ﬁnal knowledge. There is something humiliating in this, and yet how should we, who know so little of ourselves, know even those we love?”
On the whole, though I feel a lingering disappointment or perhaps unease, I think Roberts is correct. (I don’t know our daughter or two sons or very dear friends? Hmmm, I don’t like that thought but I’m sure of this—long before I read Roberts’ remark I often wondered how well I knew me.)
Moving on. Gissing wrote plenty about poverty and slums but some still some wonder if he knew by experience the profound poverty of which he wrote, but one thing is sure, Peter Ackroyd, the acclaimed novelist, literary critic and biographer spoke of Gissing as “that epicure of London’s uglier aspects” (meaning the slums). In any case, and because I’m no specialist in Gissing (or anyone else for that matter), and so my opinion might not count for much, I’m nevertheless content to believe that the man knew plenty about hard times, thin soup, stale bread, and a very little of that—the best he could buy with pennies while he lived in a freezing upstairs room and then later in a colder damper basement. (I’ll spare you the details that explain my contentment.) If Yates and Harrison and some others are correct it was later, when his literary work began to generate some money, that Gissing said a definitive goodbye to serious need (well, there were further brief periods of hunger).
As Roberts wrote about Gissing under the name of Maitland Gissing wrote about himself under the name of Ryecroft in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. He presents himself as a man who finally made it through seriously tough times and was enjoying life to the full when telling us of this thing that happened.
“That reminds me of an incident. Near a hamlet, in a lonely spot by a woodside, I came upon a little lad of perhaps ten years old, who, his head hidden in his arms against a tree trunk, was crying bitterly. I asked him what was the matter, and, after a little trouble I learnt that, having been sent with Sixpence to pay a debt, he had lost the money. The poor little fellow was in a state of mind which in a mature man would be called the anguish of despair; he must have been crying for a long time; every muscle in his face quivered as if under torture, his limbs shook; his eyes, his voice, uttered such misery as only the vilest criminal should be made to suffer. And it was because he had lost sixpence! I could have shed tears with him—tears of pity and of rage at all this spectacle implied. On a day of indescribable glory, when earth and heaven shed benedictions upon the soul of man, a child, whose nature would have bidden him rejoice as only childhood may, wept his heart out because his hand had dropped a six-penny piece! The loss was a very serious one and he knew it; he was less afraid to face his parents, than overcome by misery at the thought of the harm he had done them. Sixpence dropped by the wayside and a whole family made wretched! What are the due descriptive terms for a state of civilization in which such a thing as this is possible? I put my hand into my pocket and wrought six pennyworth of miracle.”
I love the story and I’m taking the incident at face value. I want to take it at face value for I vividly remember being such a boy, leaning against a brick wall on the Kashmir Road in Belfast.
It must be all of seventy years ago and my mother had sent me with money (I don’t remember how much but it had to be a lot though it couldn’t have been a lot) to pay a money lender her (weekly?) installment. I wasn’t five minutes from her when I reached in to get the coin ready to hand over that I discovered it was gone. In absolute panic I plundered the same trouser pockets again and again—no money! I backtracked down the sloping Kashmir Road hunting every square inch of it—No! With my back to the wall I stood there sobbing. I had two women to face. I finally got up the courage (but sure I had no alternative so it was hardly courage) went and told the woman with strong crying and tears the gutting experience. I don’t remember what she said. Before God I don’t remember what my wee mother said; I only know it was a sore time and I don’t know how far the ripples went out at that time.
But she didn’t die and I’m here today and the poverty we shared with countless people around us in those days is now nothing much more than a conversation piece in the right company and setting. (And yet, such things shape us, don’t they? For good or ill they become part of what makes us who we are so they remain part of us and not mere conversation pieces.) On that occasion no George Gissing turned up to work “sixpenny worth of miracle.” But since then, I’ve had more than one Gissing who came my way at critical and anguish-filled moments to provide a “miracle”.
Yes, yes, too sweet an ending.
I don’t care!
Praise God for all the “Gissings” who redeem a child or some agony-filled soul with an act of God-imaging kindness.