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Christine Huguet (ed.), Writing Otherness. The Pathways of Gissing’s Imagination

Haren: Equilibris Publishing, 2010, 311 p. ISBN 978-9059760127
Fabienne Gaspari
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Christine Huguet (ed.), Writing Otherness. The Pathways of Gissing’s Imagination, Haren: Equilibris Publishing, 2010, 311 p. ISBN 978-9059760127

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1Writing Otherness. The Pathways of Gissing’s Imagination, edited by Christine Huguet, contains papers presented at a conference held in March 2008. These papers focus on identity and alterity, on the dramatization of encounters between the self and others, and they cover the wide spectrum of Gissing’s writing. The book is divided into five well-balanced and finely organised sections which move from Gissing’s experience of cityscapes to the representation of situations of deadlock entailing self-sacrifice and suicide, from atmospheric snapshots of late-Victorian England endowed with documentary value to an exploration of the divided self, through contact with foreign countries and discourses.

2The first section, ‘Perilous Contact Zones’, analyses the writer’s fascination with everyday otherness experienced through a journalistic mapping of the city that also takes on the aspect of a metaphorical topography. In ‘George Gissing and the Other East End’, Richard Dennis shows how Gissing charts a map of fictional London that articulates a vaguely generalised East with a much more specified West: Gissing’s slums were not located in the East End but further West, in the least salubrious parts, and they eventually stood for an ‘other’ that was ‘closer to home’, to where Gissing himself lived. In ‘Alien Territories: Gissing’s Cartography of The Nether World’, Paola D’Ercole works on the geography of Clerkenwell outlined by the characters’ routes in The Nether World. Her essay points out how urban improvement schemes paradoxically defined a ‘geography of poverty’ drawn by Gissing as he carefully describes his characters’ use of and relationships with urban space. These relationships are also partly shaped by railway travel, as Simon J. James demonstrates in ‘Travelling with the Other: George Gissing and the Railway Carriage’: in some of the major novels and short-stories, the public space of the railway carriage and station modifies everyday interactions and favours both encounters with the class other and a process of ‘othering’ of the self which is itself related to modernity. Nicky Losseff’s analysis of the presence of bells (‘“No delicacies of tone!”: Bells and Identity in Gissing’s London’) foregrounds in an original way the relation between acoustic discordance and geographic and religious alienation. The unpleasant pealing or tolling of bells both contributes to a depressing atmosphere and echoes the inner condition of characters, thus stressing discord.

3Moving from London to foreign countries, the second section centres on ‘Gissing’s Discourse of Foreignness’. ‘Gissing and France: A Paragon Put to the Test’ concentrates on a vision of France that first idealised French artists and culture in the mid-1880s before evolving into a much more ambivalent response questioning these romanticised figures of otherness. While insisting on the nostalgia Gissing felt for England when he stayed in the Basque Country, Pierre Coustillas very interestingly mentions that the writer also extended his culture through his own immersion in French texts. Going further South, Maria Teresa Chialant’s ‘“Other Scenes and Other Ages”: Gissing’s Reading of Southern Italy in By the Ionian Sea’ examines how the account of Gissing’s third journey to Italy is also the narrative of an inner journey or rambling into the culture of antiquity. Chialant refers to Victor Segalen’s definition of exoticism as the aesthetics of diversity and asserts that Gissing, who discarded the clichés of picturesque travel literature, enjoyed cultural difference. Barbara Rawlison introduces another facet with her reading of the ‘Correspondence from London’ published in a Russian journal: Gissing, who stresses issues of imperialism and militarism and reflects on the freedom of speech and of the press, appears as a critical and disenchanted commentator of his own country’s characteristics. ‘The Literary Life: New Grub Street and Illusions perdues’ brings this section to a close: showing how Balzac represented ‘a model of ambition and ferocious labour’, M. D. Allens provides a more specific illustration of Gissing’s connection with French literature through a comparative study of two novels which deal with literary competition and garret existence and with the failure to achieve the status of ‘great writer’.

4‘The World of Books’ approaches another dimension of otherness through a study of the complex intertextual connections that shape Gissing’s work and illustrate his resistance to prevailing Victorian narrative practices and his early-modernist interrogations. For Arlene Young (‘Learning Another Language: Gissing and the Discourses of Humour’), in spite of fine comments on Dickens’s humour, the language of derision is unfamiliar to Gissing, more particularly in his depiction of lower middle-class characters. In Will Warburton however, a subtler ironic perspective emerges. Claudia Martin focuses on another type of discourse, ‘the Discourse of Speculation and the Law’. If Gissing’s earlier fiction did not use the legal paradigms functioning as a parallel discourse in Victorian fiction, The Whirlpool reveals a new ‘acceptance of the law as an epistemological framework’ (158) in the service of truth, justice, and reform. Discussing the emergence of modernist experimentalism (‘Writing in the Dawn’), Luisa Villa links the writer’s attraction for the peripheral and divergent in Workers in the Dawn to the destabilisation and questioning of the objective third-person narrative and of the boundaries between author’s and character’s voices. Related to the polemic over mass literacy and modernity, William Greenslade’s ‘Reading Matter and the Matter of Reading’ foregrounds the function of fictional books in the construction of a self-reflexive stance and examines how the characters’ reading practices contribute to characterisation.

5Studying alterity and identity also implies an analysis of the contradictions inherent in the characters’ quests for happiness. ‘Vain Hopes, Untenable Positions’ explores the tension between norms and the attempts to transgress them, starting with José Diaz Lage’s argument about ‘Individuation and Industrialisation in Demos’. Following these two threads, the plot leads to a deadlock, a case of class-dislocation in which the uprooted hero is ‘misplaced’ as otherness is located within himself. Ryan Stepherson relates the ‘crises of masculinity’ in ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Christopherson’ to ‘the negative effects of misdirected literacy’ (202), desultory reading and bibliomania, in the context of the conventional discourse on work and its salutary effects in the construction of masculinity. Religion becomes the focus of Constance Harsh’s study of aspects of Gissing’s use of Christianity. The conviction that Christianity is an untenable creed did not prevent Gissing from presenting his own complex vision of the religious Other, which involved a psychological study and evolved from fierce hostility to a more tolerant perspective.

6The last section, ‘The Lures of Pessimism’, probes deeper into the issue of internalised otherness which is envisaged as a blend of ideological confrontations and inner conflicts defining both artistic venture and character. Gissing builds a problematic selfhood based on self-division. Eleonara Sasso follows ‘the socialist pathways’ (239) of Morris and Gissing by assessing ‘the dialogic tension between two belief systems’ (240) and the central connection between art and politics. She points out that, although they influenced Gissing, Morris’s optimism, reformist action and socialist ideas are eventually altered by the novelist’s pessimism and disillusionment. In ‘Certainties and Contingencies’, Lewis D. Moore shows how the dismantling of the Victorian myth founded on notions of stability and order, along with the artist’s openness to new ideas and forms, leads to inconclusiveness and to a transition from mid-Victorian to early modern literature. Emanuela Ettore broaches Darwinian intertextuality in an investigation of ‘The Pragmatics of Altruism’ in the short stories. Darwin’s hypothesis on altruism in the context of natural selection sheds a new light on Gissing’s exploration of the paradoxical value of suicide: it is redefined as an ambivalent expression of self-denial and self-preservation. Suicide is also the subject of the last essay, ‘A Coroner’s Reports: Gissing as a Registrar Extraordinary of Self-Inflicted Death’, in which Bouwe Postmus relies on figures, ratios and dates to analyse the writer’s treatment of suicide as the conclusion of complex fictional life journeys and the result of intensely painful solitude.

7All the essays underline the dichotomous or dialogic quality of Gissing’s vision and show a varied and complex treatment of identity and alterity, through an extended corpus (novels, short-stories, travelogue and journalistic writing) that testifies to an abundant and multifaceted literary output. Writing Otherness offers a thorough investigation of the pathways of Gissing’s imagination through a rich, original and fertile transdisciplinary approach to the concept of otherness.

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Electronic reference

Fabienne Gaspari, Christine Huguet (ed.), Writing Otherness. The Pathways of Gissing’s ImaginationCahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 80 Automne | 2014, Online since 20 December 2014, connection on 07 March 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Fabienne Gaspari

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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