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Christine Huguet (ed.). Spellbound, George Gissing. Volume 1: The Storyteller. Volume 2: A Twenty-first Century Appraisal

Equilibris Publishing, 2008.
Clotilde De Stasio
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Christine Huguet (ed.). Spellbound, George Gissing. Volume 1: The Storyteller. Volume 2: A Twenty-first Century Appraisal. Equilibris Publishing, 2008.

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1Spellbound: George Gissing does not come as a complete surprise. Pierre Coustillas's edition of Gissing's short stories of 1993 and Barbara Rawlinson's study of 2006 have certainly paved the way for this presentation and assessment of Gissing as the author of short stories. What is absolutely new and refreshing, apart from the presence of unpublished stories and some original critical approaches, is the way the material is arranged. The book is divided into two parts: the first part is a very judicious choice of texts covering the span of time between the initial attempts at storytelling in the 1870s and the final more ambitious tales published at the turn of the century. The second part consists of essays by outstanding Gissing critics, each dealing with each of the short stories in succession.

2The stories cover a wide range of themes and narrative approaches. ‘Gretchen’ deals with the relationship between art and reality; ‘An English Coast Picture’ is a travel sketch where the theme of the picturesque, aptly pointed out by Bouwe Postmus, prevails on the rather naïve love story. These are early pieces published in the United States. When we move from them to the later stories published in England, we experience a change of themes and structures and a deeper moral and social engagement similar to what we see in the major novels. ‘Phoebe's Fortune,’ ‘Lou and Liz’ and ‘The Day of Silence’ tell the misfortunes of working-class people, but the brevity of the short story allows for a lighter approach to the pessimistic view of the ‘nether world’. Touches of humour and snatches of songs, what Robert Selig calls ‘the ironic echoes of popular culture,’ balance the grim message of hopelessness that pervades these stories. Also the predicament of middle-class educated people in the world of philistinism and mass culture is presented in a less unpleasant light than in the novels. ‘Spellbound’ (1897), for instance, may appear as an ironical revisiting of New Grub Street: the idea of a print-addiction and the parallel between libraries and pubs are striking instances of a new approach. The aura of enchantment, too, stressed by the insisted reference to sounds and smells, seems a new way of dealing with the theme of dejection and predestination. ‘The Pig and Whistle’ has even a happy ending and, as Christine Huguet points out, shares the light-hearted Dickensian mood of Gissing's later novels, like The Town Traveller. In some cases, it is the connection between texts and illustrations that enlivens the sad moral fable: in ‘Midsummer Madness,’ for instance, the elegant illustrations appear to clash with the disagreeable situation and the melodramatic ending.

3As in the novels, in most of the short stories the setting is London, but readers have no real perception of the metropolis. They find instead claustrophobic spaces—the library, the room, the garden, the slum—where characters move as in a trance: meaningfully ‘Spellbound’ is the story that gives the title to the collection. Some of the later stories seem even to anticipate the theme of paralysis in Joyce's Dubliners. No epiphany, however, brings relief to the protagonists' passive anxiety. Some of them, like the fallen gigolo in ‘By the Kerb,’ are not even aware of their existential dilemma. They live their close hand-to-mouth life without realizing that there is no escape from it. Only some women, like Rosamund in ‘The Foolish Virgin,’ seem to have a glimpse of self-recognition and even try to find a way out.

4One minor objection to this fascinating selection of texts is that it might have included also examples of Gissing's early less felicitous vein, like the melodramatic ‘A Test of Honour’ or ‘One Farthing Damages,’ with its Dickensian blend of humour and pathos. This would have ever more forcibly stressed Gissing's ‘impressive growth in this genre,’ to use Pierre Coustillas's words.

5Both the editor's general introduction and the essays in the second part of the book examine the whole of the short stories not just as a by-product of Gissing's activity as a novelist, but as an important contribution to the genre: John Sloan even speaks of the author as a ‘pioneer of the short story’ and rightly mentions his connection with Dickens. On the other side, as I have already partly pointed out, they highlight specific features of each short story. For instance, Markus Neacey's comment on ‘Phoebe's Fortune’ is a scholarly analysis of the way the text was manipulated and bowdlerized when it was first published. The comparison with its German translation not only helps to reintegrate excluded passages, but also spotlights Gissing's interest in the translation of his works, his knowledge of foreign languages, and therefore his outstanding position as a European writer. A further example is M.D. Allen's criticism of ‘A Daughter of the Lodge,’ which brings out, through a comparison with Bleak House, the theme of the situation of the upstart in a society still strongly based on class division, and the ambiguous role of the new woman at the turn of the century. Some of the contributors rightly refer to Gissing's mixed feelings towards his short stories. All the same, his work in the genre appears now as a self-sufficient corpus, worth comparing with similar achievements by contemporary and subsequent writers, like Hardy or Stevenson, or even Joyce, as I suggested above. This could be food for thought for further analysis, especially after the publication of the complete edition of the short stories.

6Spellbound: George Gissing is intended not only as a tribute to Gissing as a storyteller, but also to Pierre Coustillas and his life-long dedicated activity, side by side with his wife Helen, in the field of Gissing studies. He was the editor of the Gissing Newsletter, and is now the editor of the Gissing Journal. He has been, and still is, editor, co-editor, translator, essayist: 65 is the number of his publications. I would like to mention, a part from the Harvester — Press edition of the novels, the editing of the Critical Heritage and of Gissing's London Diary, and now of the no less ponderous George Gissing: Definitive Bibliography. Gissing scholars owe a lot to him.

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Référence électronique

Clotilde De Stasio, « Christine Huguet (ed.). Spellbound, George Gissing. Volume 1: The Storyteller. Volume 2: A Twenty-first Century Appraisal »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 69 | 2009, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2019, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL :

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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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