Algernon Gissing

(1860—1937) novelist

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(1860–1937) married (1887) Catherine Baseley (1859–1937). Born in Wakefield, west Yorkshire, son of a chemist and botanist, he was the younger brother of George Gissing, and attained only minor success as a regional novelist. He shared their father's interest in botany and natural history. He trained as a solicitor. Perhaps spurred on by his brother's literary success of the 1880s, Algernon published his first novel, Joy Cometh in the Morning: A Country Tale, in 1888, the first of many to dwell upon matters bucolic. It sold less than 400 copies. Several more novels with rural settings, were to follow: Both of This Parish (1889), A Village Hampden (1890), and A Moorland Idyl (1891). George Meredith influenced A Masquerader (1892). The sales of the novel were poor but Gissing continued to produce lacklustre work until 1899, when A Secret of the North Sea, a melodrama set on the Northumberland coast, was favourably received. Thereafter he turned out Hardyesque tragedies, one or two, such as One Ash (1911), set in Wessex, but the majority in Northumberland. Characteristic of this vein are The Keys of the House (1902), about a 16-year-old boy torn between his austere parson father and a mother who left home in search of social success, and returns without having found it; and The Dreams of Simon Usher (1907), about a dogged Yorkshire factory lad who finds refuge among the farmers and traders of a Northumberland fishing village, and is ambiguously befriended by a wealthy older woman, before falling in love with the daughter of the local magnate. Critics tended to complain about the lack of any organic connection between theme and setting. The herdsman in The Herdsman (1910) delivers lectures on archaeology; and, as one reviewer pointed out, ‘Kensington Gardens would have supplied all the necessary sheep.’ Gissing did make some effort to broaden the scope of his fiction. An Angel's Portion (1903), for example, is a fantastically complicated story about the illegitimate daughter of a baronet who inherits his property, much to the indignation of his second wife, and who marries one man, her father's honest factotum, while secretly in love with another, who has married her husband's sister. Second Selves (1908) attempts a Meredithian treatment of weak egotism: the hero takes part in a village fête while his father lies dying in the vicarage, commits forgery to clear himself of undergraduate debts, marries a humble girl under compulsion from her brother, and ends up as a farm labourer. The Unlit Lamp (1909) is a historical romance set in early-nineteenth-century Gloucestershire: at one point the hero decides to pay a visit to William Wordsworth (1770–1850). But none of these initiatives seems to have paid dividends, and Gissing returned in The Top Farm (1912) to bleak landscapes and bleaker marriages. One of his last books was The Letters of George Gissing to Members of his Family (1927), co-edited with their sister Ellen. He has a thick file in the archives of the Royal Literary Fund: ‘Always of a nervous and retiring temperament he has found the stress of modern commercialism more than he could fight against,’ commented one supporter. He died at home at Bloxham, near Banbury.

From The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literature.

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